Monday, February 5, 2024

On the Coffee Table: Deborah Blum

Title: The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Author: Deborah Blum

via Amazon

The Poison Squad tells the tale of Dr. Harvey Wiley, chemist and crusader.  Wiley worked for decades, through his position as Chief Chemist at the US Department of Agriculture, to fight food adulteration.  In the late 19th century, industrial food products often contained substitutes, fillers, dyes, preservatives and other ingredients that added no nutritional value.  That was the best case scenario.  In many instances, the additives were poisonous.  Unfortunately, government regulation was non-existent and private industry fought it at every turn.  

Wiley via Wikipedia

Deborah Blum's book would make a fitting sequel to Bee Wilson's Swindled.  While Wilson devoted her material to the struggles in detecting adulteration, Blum focuses on the battle for regulation.  The story of Wiley is a lesson in persistence.  Despite his successes in proving the harmfulness of various additives, getting effective laws passed and enforced was a road of seemingly endless setbacks.  It's a distressing read.  You would think doing something with such obvious public benefit would be easy but that's not the way the world works.  Wasn't then.  Isn't now.  The financial interests of the few seemingly always win.

On the bright side, the public loved Wiley and over time - over a long time - he gradually got his way.  Predictably, the most progress was made after his death in 1930.  But frankly, food regulation in the United States is still far from what it could be.  Private interests still trump public ones.  Do you ever wonder why our choices in a general election are typically between a far right Republican and a centrist Democrat?  This is why.

It's a good book - good but not great, a bit too technical at times to make for light reading.  Swindled is better.


  1. He'd still be fighting today with all the crap in the foods. More fat kids than ever before, we ate getting shorter and this is mainly due to diet

    1. Absolutely true. Interestingly, Blum shies away from making those particular points. Wilson is better about reminding the reader of how vulnerable the food supply still is.

  2. I haven't read this book, but I think I saw a show about Dr. Wiley on PBS-- perhaps on The American Experience.


    1. indeed, the episode is based on Blum's book. I have not watched it yet. Did you enjoy it?

  3. Exchange links