Throwback Thursday: The Poison Squad

Plate_DANGER_blog2Knowingly dining on meals laced with chemicals like formaldehyde and questionable preservatives such as borax—now commonly used as a detergent—was just another typical day on the job for a group of 12 men referred to as the Poison Squad.

It was the late 1800s and while food in the U.S. was full of imitation and problematic preservatives, legislation to regulate the industry was routinely squashed thanks in part to high-paid lobbyists from the packing and canning industries that shut down several proposed bills.

Frustrated and fed up, chemist Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley took matters into his own hands and recruited a group of men tasked with consuming some of the most commonly used food additives in order to determine their effects. During each of the Poison Squad’s trials, the members would eat steadily increasing amounts of each additive, carefully tracking the impact that it had on their bodies.

According to a recent article, these men took oaths pledging one year of service, promising to only eat food that was prepared in the  Squad’s kitchen, and waiving their right to sue the government for damages that might result from their participation in the program. Before each meal, they had to weigh themselves, take their temperature and check their pulse rates. Their stools, urine, hair and sweat were also collected, and they had to submit to weekly physicals.

Officially, Wiley told Congress, who was funding this project, the goal was to “investigate the character of food preservatives, coloring matters, and other substances added to foods, to determine their relation to digestion and to health, and to establish the principles which should guide their use.” Unofficially, Wiley used these trials as a springboard to enact widespread food regulation.

As stated in the article, Wiley’s first target was borax. One of the most commonly used food preservatives in 1902, it tightened up animal proteins, giving the impression of freshness. Consequently, meat packers often used it in decomposing meat. From October 1902 to July 1903, Wiley’s squad ate borax-laced food for every meal, which led to headaches and severe digestive pains and other problems.

Once the members of the squad became sick, they recorded the results and moved on to the next additive including sulfuric acid, saltpeter and formaldehyde. Another one of their targets, copper sulfate, was especially disturbing as it was used by food producers to turn canned peas a bright shade of green. The acid also caused a host of health issues, including nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, liver damage, kidney damage, brain damage, and jaundice. Today, it’s commonly used as a pesticide.

Even after Wiley’s squad managed to demonstrate the negative effects of several additives, they still had to fight against the powerful food lobby. However, while they could suppress Wiley’s findings, they could not control the newspapers, which reported on the group’s menus and members, its poisons and their effects.

Wiley’s efforts eventually paid off and in 1906, Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act — the first federal laws aimed at food regulation. This paved the way for several other standards and regulations to be developed in the coming years, all thanks to Wiley and his team. The Poison Squad disbanded in 1907, leaving its mark in the history of the food industry forever.

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