"The Poison Squad," Deborah Blum, Penguin Press, 330 pages, $28.
Historians have long credited the unlikely alliance of Theodore Roosevelt and Upton Sinclair for passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
In “The Poison Squad,” Deborah Blum makes a convincing case that a now-forgotten chemist at the Department of Agriculture, Harvey Washington Wiley, played a more important role — not only in ensuring the passage of those bills but also in changing popular attitudes toward government intervention on behalf of consumers.
The origins of today’s food and drug safety laws can be found in the arguments of the Progressive movement at the turn of the last century. After being named the USDA’s chief chemist in 1882, Wiley spent the next 30 years at the department campaigning for safe food and proper labeling. He supervised a series of investigative reports on food ingredients. To test the health impact of various additives, he recruited young men to serve as guinea pigs in “hygienic table trials,” serving them questionable ingredients — and then observing what happened. They were soon known as the Poison Squad.
By 1902, Wiley had become a national celebrity. The National Food Processors Association and other industry groups were not pleased, to say the least. Wiley was described in one trade journal as “the man who is doing all he can to destroy American business.”
“The Poison Squad” offers a powerful reminder that truth can defeat lies, that government can protect consumers and that an honest public servant can overcome the greed of private interests.
NEW YORK TIMES