Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Deborah Blum talks about her book The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the 20th Century, Part 1.
Welcome to Scientific American’s Science Talk, posted on November 21, 2018. I’m Steve Mirsky. On this episode:
That’s Deborah Blum. At the Sacramento Bee newspaper she won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting. After almost two decades as a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, she became the director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT in 2015. And her latest book is The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the 20th Century. We spoke in October when we were both in Washington, D.C., for a conference. You can listen while you throw out your romaine lettuce or cook your turkey to make sure you kill any salmonella. Here’s part 1.
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Deborah Blum: But I actually was talking to another science historian who said that the 19th century is generally acknowledged as the century of the “Great American Stomachache.”
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Mirsky: That's Deborah Blum at the Sacramento Bee newspaper, she won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting. After almost two decades as a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, she became the director of the night Science Journalism program at MIT in 2015. And her latest book is The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the 20th Century. We spoke in October when we were both in Washington, D.C., for a conference. You can listen while you throw out your romaine lettuce or as you cook your turkey sufficiently, carefully, to make sure you kill any salmonella. Seriously, there's a lot of stuff going on with food right now, but it used to be way, way worse. Here's part one.
I almost recommend that people read the Epilogue first, because the subtext throughout is just how similar this story is to things that we still are living through every day right now. Obviously, in terms of food – adulterated food – things are much better than they used to be. But there are still problems, and the same battles are being fought in other arenas. So, this was something you had to be aware of when you were writing.
Blum: Not when I started it. When I started the book, I was thinking of it as this amazing forgotten slice of science history. And I love those. I love being able to remind people of how we got where we are. And here is this story of food safety at the turn of the 20th century that nobody remembers and this crazy crusading kind of chemist who is mostly forgotten.
And so, when I started the book, that was really what I was thinking – a moment of the past. It was only after I started really doing the research – and I think especially because I spent weeks at the Library of Congress reading internal memos and telegrams and communications from the agriculture department to politicians and to advocates, that there was a kind of head smacking moment for me, sitting there surrounded by hundred-year-old mail, going, "But wait a minute – we really haven't changed as much as we should have."
Mirsky: Even the same kind of strategic lines – where the enemies of more open labeling would talk about this being an attack on our personal freedoms.
Blum: And that's a real, I think, American issue that works against us in some ways. We have this "my personal rights, my individual rights are sacred – and possibly more sacred – than the common good" or the way we function as a society. We value that over the kind of communal nature of protecting each other – sometimes too much. And so, you really see that then, and today, you see the same thing. And you see another thing, then, that I think you see echoed today – well, many things.
One of them is the use of regulation as a pejorative, right? And that is partly, again, 'cause of individual rights. But instead of saying, "I would like some basic consumer protections laid down" – and I think that is the job of our government in our constitution to promote the general welfare – how about actually protecting us in our everyday lives? But, instead, we're like, "Oh, regulations. They're so terrible."
Terrible for who? It's not for me, the consumer who has to fend for herself at the grocery store. It's for business. And so, the other thing that really stood out for me was the establishment of that kind of hand-holding relationship between government and business regarding food safety that I think we still see in problematic ways today.
Mirsky: So, let's get to specifics. Let's talk about – what was the situation at the 1880s, the 1890s, the 1900 in terms of our food supply? Because when you read the book, it's just amazing what was happening to make food not spoil as fast or look better. And it was killing people.
Blum: That's exactly right. There was not good public health tracking. But I actually was talking to another science historian who said that the 19th century is generally acknowledged as the century of the Great American Stomachache – which I kind of love that phrase, so, I've been stealing it ever since. But that so many people suffered from various forms of gastroenteritis and other kinds of issues related to the really horrible quality of the American diet and then, some people died. Children died from all the problems that there were with milk.
People were poisoned by lead solder in cans. And to really get that – and again, this was another head-smacking moment for me – I hadn't really thought about the fact that I was starting in a period where there was no federal consumer food safety regulations, and so, this was what the United States looked at before we had regulation. And so, a lot of the stories that I'm telling about 19th century food are really building a portrait of what the world looked like before we had any even minimal regulation. So, you have a couple of things going on. You have – there's no requirement to safety test – either by the federal government or by industry.
People can put whatever they want to into food. If someone gets sick – well, that's not illegal, right? Because there's no laws saying you couldn't put that in there. If children die from bad milk – again, nobody goes to jail. It's not illegal.
There's no safety standards for your product. And if you are – and this was particularly true in the late 19th where we see the rise of industrialization and industrial chemistry – you want to creatively improve your profits by faking food, by recoloring food gone bad – by using something like formaldehyde – which was a common preservative – to partially restore spoiled milk or rotting meat. That was fine. And people did all of those things. And the amount of – not that we don't have fakery in food today, but the about of fakery is kind of head-spinning in the 19th century.
Mirsky: Yeah. We see fakery today. We can do DNA tests that show that the fish that you think you're buying is actually some cheaper fish. Or –
Blum: The olive oil that you thought was olive oil is really cottonseed oil dyed a slightly green color or right – I mean, we get some of those kind of fakes. It wasn't like, "Oh, by the way, your flour is partly ground gypsum, or your ground coffee is partly charred bone and charred rope and your cinnamon is –"
Mirsky: Charred rope?
Mirsky: This is unbelievable.
Blum: I know. Just anything. And ground coconut shells. There were literally spice manufacturers that imported those by the ton and then they ground them up, the formed the bases for countless spices. They were fake mustard seeds of just – this is not dangerous, but one of my favorite examples of how fake things were is strawberry jam or jelly, right? It's crazy.
Mirsky: There was no strawberry.
Blum: There was no strawberry. So, they would take corn syrup, add a little – it would be a sort of gelatin to thicken it up, dye it red, and it was usually red lead, which was an approved dye at the time.
Mirsky: Red lead.
Blum: Red lead was one of the more popularly food – I can't say that – more popular food colorings. And then, to simulate strawberry seeds, they would sprinkle in grass seed. Right. And then, of course, you have bargain strawberry jam.
Mirsky: And one of the manufacturers said, "Well, if I put real strawberries in it, I'll go broke."
Mirsky: That's right. And, "I won't be able to compete, because everyone else is doing this, too." So, in this unregulated period, there's this acceptance that this is the way you actually do business.
Blum: Right. The free market is working to lower every standard because, in this case, the so-called free market is rewarding people for faking things because it's cheaper, and so, that's driving the honest manufacturers into having to compete with them, and they wind up faking their stuff, too.
Blum: That's exactly right. And it's interesting, because in the story I tell, one of the more honest food manufacturers was Henry J. Heinz of Heinz Condiments. And I was looking at some of his back and forth where he would have – he would send his people to meet with the president – Teddy Roosevelt – and he'd say, "People are starting to do their home canning again" because – here was the other part of it – as people started to realize what was going on, there started to be an economic shift the other way. The market was not working in your favor, but that was largely because a lot of this was secret. Once the information got out, the pressure started shifting the other way.
But, in the 19th century, the other part of our wonderful pre-regulatory era, is that there's no requirement to label. So, if I had to label my strawberry jam as corn syrup, grass seed, red lead, and a little gelatin, would be people really buy it? Well, that's not my problem, 'cause I don't have to tell people anything about what I'm putting in the food.
Mirsky: Exactly. And Heinz was making tomato ketchup with actual tomatoes in it. It was just revolutionary.
Blum: It was really interesting, because he was such an unexpected leader, and he ticked off so many of his peers who were big food manufacturers. I always think of him, because he lived in this super rich neighborhood in Pittsburgh with – in the same neighborhood with Carnegie and Westinghouse, and really ruthless people, and there he is saying, "You know, we're just gonna invest in making better quality food." And so, he actually invented modern ketchup. Ketchup, in the 19th century, was largely vegetable waste – a lot of pumpkin, a lot of scraps from apples that had been peeled for applesauce, a lot of tomato that had rotted, re-dyed, and then, restored with preservatives. And he really took the lead in saying, "I actually believe people will buy something that is real food."
But to do that, he had to reinvent ketchup and make it thicker and use more tomatoes. So, the ketchup we have today – which I found really fascinating – comes out of that fight over do we have a responsibility to actually give people safe food.
I have to bring up, 'cause I found it so fascinating – coffee – there was coffee without any coffee in it. It was easy to fake ground coffee. But they were even faking coffee beans. If you thought you could go buy a bag of coffee beans and grind them yourself, even that was fake. They had molds where they would press stuff that wasn't coffee to make it look like coffee beans.
Blum: That's exactly right. I mean, it's such a testament to both the permissiveness of this time, but the real ingenuity of cheating that was going on. And these molds – they would make coffee bean fakes out of sometimes wax and dirt, or sometimes, just out of clay, right – dark brown clay dyed a little darker maybe. And I actually was reading recently a statement from a doctor right about the turn of the 20th, who said that he had come to believe that the origin of that phrase, "A muddy cup of coffee" was because there was actually so much mud in coffee from grinding these fake beans into your coffee.
And the other thing that's really interesting about that is that because, again, this is so acceptable, it's standard practice – everyone does it; it doesn't break any rules – you actually can get these – it's like, advertising fliers that are sent to grocers and coffee makers and bakers saying, "I can triple your profits. Mix my – " these are all extenders, right?
"Mix my fake coffee beans into your coffee and you'll be 10 times richer. Mix my amazing ground gypsum into your flour and I can triple your profits."
Mirsky: Right. These are ads that the consumer would never see that were going to the wholesalers, the retailers, how to fake your product better.
Blum: That's exactly right. And it was just, "Yeah. Well, that's the way we do business today."
Mirsky: So, getting back to the free market just for a second – I mean, that's why you can only have a theoretically real free market when you have transparency, and that's what Heinz tried to help do – is make it transparent, what's in our stuff. And then, the consumer has a legitimate choice. But until then, it's the old smoke and mirrors.
Blum: That's exactly right. And so, the chemist at the heart of my book – Harvey Washington Wiley – he started out in the 1880s. He was a chemist at the USDA working for this tiny bureau of chemistry. And, at that point – because we had no consumer protection regulation, we had no food safety, drink safety, drug safety – none of it exists – so, there's no consumer protection agencies or institutions. So, in the 19th century, the only agency in the US government that had any responsibility for food quality or safety was the Department of Agriculture, and the only laboratory in the federal government that was looking at these issues was Wiley's lab.
And they actually didn't really do that. They were much more agro-business focused until he got there. And this was just one of his missionary causes. He really believed in honest food.
Mirsky: He grew up with a very specific kind of philosophy. His father helped run the underground railroad in that part of the country.
Blum: That's right. And his father was both a farmer and an Evangelical preacher, and the kids were really raised to the standard of "Go out and do something, but make sure it makes the world better" right?
Mirsky: He had sisters who all went to college. This was a very progressive family.
Blum: Yeah. One of his sisters actually got an MD also, right? So, this family – they didn't say, "Oh, well, you're not up to it because you're just a girl." He did some study in Europe and he did it with his sister, the MD, right? It was really impressive.
So, he came from that very progressive kind of "change the world" background. Came to USDA, and when he started, he was just, "Well, let's investigate, right? Let's just actually look at what food looks like. There's all these rumors about it." So, a lot of the things I've been talking about with fake food came out of a series of investigations that they did at the Bureau of Chemistry in which they just methodically marched through the American Food Supply.
It's called Bulletin 13, and they do dairy products and they do coffee and they do spices and they do tea and cocoa, and they do wine and beer and canned meats and canned vegetables, and you really see them peeling away the layers. And as they're doing this, they start realizing that there's this insane amount of both fakery and additives that are turning up in their chemical tests.
Mirsky: And fakery is bad if you're just being ripped off, but it becomes deadly if there are poisons there. Let's just spend a couple of minutes, real quick, talking about borax and salicylic acid.
Blum: Yeah. So, isn't that crazy? So, you can still, in the grocery store today, go and find a box of a cleaning product called 20 Mule Team Borax, and that was exactly what was going into food. The company – actually, the man who started that company out in California realized that it had – it does have some bacteria killing agency, and it's actually, apparently, fairly tasteless, so, you can put it into all kinds of food products as a preservative, and so, they just did. And so, they had borax in butter and they had it in meats and they had it in some other dairy products, and they put it into different canned goods and foods.
And then, salicylic acid – which is, you know, related to aspirin – it's a fever reducer. It's a medicinal compound. It's wonderful for reducing fever. It also causes the lining of your gastrointestinal tract to bleed. And so, that's why, a lot of times today, people who take a daily aspirin – it'll be buffered.
And that's specifically to protect you from a tiny bit of internal bleeding. That turned out – also has some, you know, micro-organism killing kind of properties. So, they started dumping that into all kinds of different food products, and it was particularly popular in wine and beer, and some of the spirits, and it was to keep them from fermenting in the bottle. So, one of the things that's so nice about these preservatives is if you were dumping in preservatives, your factory doesn't have to be particularly clean and you don't have to be very meticulous and you don't have to use really hygienic standards, because, yeah, a lot of bacteria and crap is gonna go into your product, but you're gonna kill it all with salicylic acid or borax or formaldehyde or some of the other preservatives of the time. So, that, also, really comes to rise in the late 19th century, and that's the period where you see companies we know today – like Dow or Monsanto – starting to really invest in these food additives.
And that brings me, very briefly, back to the labeling problem, because again – you could put all of these things into your product, but you didn't have to tell the consumer you were doing it. So, when Wiley did his reports, he started out just arguing for labels. And in these reports, you'll see him saying, "We don't know how many doses anyone is getting in a given day, right? They could be getting a really toxic dose of borax because they're eating it at breakfast and lunch and dinner, and then, they have an after-dinner cocktail, and pretty soon, they're just awash in these compounds. And consumers need to know – at least if you're not gonna regulate – tell them what has borax, say, in it, so that they're not having 15 doses a day."
Which sounds really logical, right? And which went nowhere.
Mirsky: They fought it tooth and nail.
Blum: Tooth and nail. And they did their very best to destroy his reputation both publicly and inside the department – and by "they" I mean, business. The food manufacturers were really out for blood once they realized that he was doing game-changing work.
Mirsky: Right. And their colleagues in the government at the time – certain members of Congress who were being supported by the business interests.
Blum: And this will remind you of modern times, too, because you have an enormous amount of business money going into the government, going into political campaigns, going to support and pay off different legislators for taking certain standards. And they did do that. And so, the Wiley and friendly progressive legislators and food advocates and Henry Heinz even, you have this huge number of people who were saying, "We have to change this." And bills come up in Congress really starting in the 1890s, and they are – most of them never even make it out of committee because the committee chairmen are so aligned with industry and they're just not gonna let that happen.
Mirsky: Now, Wiley is very popular. I mean, he's a well-known figure nationally, because he's always writing articles in the popular media, he's making a lot of speeches, and he made me think of Ralph Nader before Ralph Nader was a politician. He was well-known for consumer protection.
Blum: That's exactly right. And one of the things he realized early – which is, again, a point that matters today – is that if he was going to do good science and he wanted it to make a difference, the public had to know what he was doing and what he was finding. And so – and he came to that realization fairly early, partly because he had friendly congressmen saying to him, "Well, you think bad food's a problem, but the public doesn't know anything about it. How could they? They're not getting any information."
And so, he started working to change that, too, and he actually hired a science writer, in the 1890s, to take some of these bulletins – which were very technical reports for other scientists and _____ and turn them into popular science articles. And then, when he was forced to let that science writer go by the Department of Agriculture head, he started doing some of this himself. And he started aligning himself with a lot of people from progressive states that had really smart food chemists themselves, and women groups, because, as we were saying earlier, he had a huge amount of respect for the power of smart women to do good, and he deliberately went out and courted women's associations to help him.
And then, they also started all getting on the same page of, "Unless this becomes an issue that the public says, 'We're not putting up with this' it's just never gonna change. It's not enough for us to know it and carefully watch our own diets. We have to get to the point that everyone knows it before we're gonna see things change." So, they did do that.
Mirsky: They were actually publishing instructions for housewives to do their own chemical analysis – crude, not quantitative, but qualitative analysis to see is this what it says it is.
Blum: They published a whole sort of pamphlet on home detection of food. The federal government did it. I love that pamphlet, partly because you know, when you start reading the test – I mean, some of them are very simple and some of them are like, "Okay. So, you're gonna be handling sulfuric acid, and that could possibly burn through your clothes" and you're kind of like, "Man, this is one crazy time." But you also saw cookbook writers like Fanny Farmer who started saying – and I'm thinking, particularly, of a cookbook Fanny Farmer wrote in 1904, which was about cooking for the sick, in which she felt really obligated to say, "Okay. So, let me just also add that when you're making a lovely milk toast or whatever – milk is really dangerous, and it's dangerous because of the preservatives and it's dangerous for all these things. So, here's what you need to do to protect yourself and your patient." It's incredible to see that in cookbooks, actually.
Mirsky: And just to point out how dangerous milk could be, you have a figure in the book – in 1904, New York City – 20,000 kids two and under are dying from what they believe to be milk related illnesses.
Blum: That's exactly right. And that's a whole combination of factors with milk at that time. One is – we're pre-pasteurization. The American dairy industry fought pasteurization tooth and nail. They didn't want to go to that expense.
They didn't want to clean up their act. And so, milk is not pasteurized. One of the progressive leaders who pushed for pasteurization, actually, is Nathan Strauss, one of the founders of Macy's, and he set up pasteurized milk stands for poor kids across New York. It's another amazing story that's actually not in my book.
Mirsky: Yeah. Remember it.
Blum: Yeah. But it's a really cool story. But milk is not pasteurized, so, it's full of all kinds of really dangerous bacteria.
Mirsky: And then, you throw the formaldehyde –
Blum: And then you say, "Okay. Well, I'll just kill those germs by adding formaldehyde." But then, the other part of it is that you saw dairy men doing other things to save money in this unregulated period. So, they're like, "Well, okay, they're throwing formaldehyde, but if I just skim off the milk fat, then, I can make more money from this one gallon of milk over here and so, I'm gonna water down the milk. I'm gonna skim out – I'm gonna water down the milk; one gallon becomes five.
And then it looks kind of grayish white, so, I'm gonna put in plaster dust or I'm gonna put in chalk. And then, man, it's just super thin. I'll put a little gelatin again, pureed calf brains to simulate the cream." And they weren't even careful about the water. I think I told one story in the book where the guy had just scooped up pond water and mixed it with the milk and the family brought their bottle of milk down to the public health officer because it was wriggling in the bottom.
I mean, it makes me laugh, but this was part of what was going on. So, yeah, kids died. Doctors in New York often just called milk "milk poison" because it was so dangerous.
Deborah Blum’s book is called The Poison Squad. Tune back in for part 2 to hear about…the Poison Squad. We haven't even gotten to that yet.