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Pioneers for food safety

Tests by Harvey Wiley and his 'poison squad'prompted 1906 Pure Food and Drug act passage

Monday, December 30, 2002

By Lance Gay, Scripps Howard News Service

A century ago, the federal government launched one of its most unusual and controversial investigations, bringing in teams of volunteers -- dubbed the "poison squad" by the press -- to dine on food laced with poisons.

In the let-the-buyer-beware days before food companies were required to inform customers what's in the food they are selling, it was common to add embalming fluid to milk to stop curdling, cure hams with borax and heap teaspoons of aspirin in canned soup.

It should be no surprise that some people got very sick, and President William McKinley's secretary of war, Russell Alger, was forced to resign in the midst of a raging food scandal after "embalmed beef" fed to U.S. troops during the Spanish-American War made men so sick they couldn't fight. Butchers often employed "preservatine" -- a recipe of boric acid, salt and the red juice of the cochineal beetle -- so they could peddle rotten meat as fresh.

Harvey Wiley, who headed the Agriculture Department's bureau of chemistry, was convinced that dumping all these chemicals in food wasn't safe, and in 1902 Congress agreed for the first time to give him $5,000 to fund "hygienic table trials" that would judge the effects of food additives on humans.

The "poison squad" was launched. Teams of able-bodied young men were brought to the basement of the bureau of chemistry's Washington offices and fed meals laced with borax, salicylic acid, copper salts, benzoid of soda, saccharine and formaldehyde to see what happened. No one died, but the experiments spread over the next five years led Congress to adopt the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the federal government's first effort to regulate additives in food.

Borax used in clothes softeners, salicylic acid (aspirin), formaldehyde (embalming fluid) and copper salts are no longer used as food additives, and the government long ago stopped using humans and started using rats to find out if additives are dangerous.

Suzanne Junod, a historian at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who wrote her Emory University dissertation on Wiley and his poison squad experiments, said Wiley's experiments created a sensation at the time. They were subject to no little ridicule by Lew Dockstader's Minstrels show, which included the song:

"O, they may get over it but they'll never look the same/ That kind of bill of fare would drive most men insane./Next week he'll give them mothballs a la Newburgh, or else plain./O, they may get over it but they'll never look the same."

The scientific value of Wiley's study remains controversial and contested. Wiley stated his intention with the poison squad was to "substantiate the deleterious effects of food preservatives" and didn't disguise his hope of getting the government to ban chemicals from food. Those participating in the trials also were aware of whether the foods contained chemicals or not because of the change in taste.

Some historians claim Wiley was a fraud who manipulated the results, a contention Junod rejects. She said that while the poison squad experiments wouldn't meet modern standards for scientific tests, "he certainly was not a crook. He was a good chemist, and this was the heyday of chemistry."

Wiley did concede eventually that the use of some chemicals in food might be harmless, and the use of some preservatives might be beneficial by controlling the even more serious health effects from food spoilage. But the main legacy of the unusual poison squad experiments was to force Congress to pay attention to what was going into food, and establish the nation's first legal food standards.

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