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 2.
Hi, Steve Mirsky here. Welcome back for part 2 of my conversation with Deborah Blum, author of The Poison Squad.
So, The Poison Squad refers to this long series of experiments that Wiley undertook, which you probably couldn't even do today.
Deborah Blum: You could not do this today, because he was testing food additives, and he skipped any animal testing. He went right to people. And that was actually the experiment that led me to the book itself, because I was interested in poisons of the early 20th century, and I—
Steve Mirsky: From your last book.
Blum: From my last book, The Poisoners Handbook. And I saw this experiment and I looked at it, and the first thing I thought it, "That is one crazy experiment, right?" I mean, it's completely crazy experiment. And then, I thought, "Well,"—after I looked at it more, I thought, "Well, why would anyone be so crazy and desperate enough to just expose young men in their 20s to all these horrible things? What would drive you to that?"
Which led me back to 19th-century food. So, what happens is that after all of these things that we've been talking about – and Wiley is still trying to get some kind of protective legislation or labeling passed and nothing has happened, he finally says, "Well, okay. Why don't we do something to prove whether these things, at least, are safe or not?" And so, he came up with this experiment, skipping animal testing – which says something about the state of toxicology at the time, too – and he asked for volunteers to – basically, done dangerously. So, the Poison Squad – which was a nickname to this study given by the Washington Post, involved young men in their 20s, which he picked in this very Victorian way, because he thought they were the healthiest specimens, and they would make a deal.
They could get three meals a day, seven days a week for free – and these were wonderful meals cooked by a professional chef with very good ingredients in a kitchen/dining room set up in the basement of the Department of Agriculture. And the only catch is, at any given point – you'd have about 20 young men in the experiment at any given time – half of them would be eating just wonderful food; half of them would be adding capsules of whatever additive they were studying at the time in varying doses. So, they'd start very low and then ratchet it up during these periods, then, they'd switch them back and forth. And so – and they did a lot of – you know, they had to be monitored by doctors and did urinalysis and did blood tests and all kinds of different things to try to figure out what was going on. You wonder why anyone signed up, right?
They had to sign a waiver, even, right, in case they keeled over during the tests. And no one would do the – you couldn't do it today, because an institutional review board would kick you down the stairs. And you couldn't do it today, because no one would sign up. "Hey, come over here and just try these potentially poisonous additives on a daily basis." People wouldn't sign up. But, at that time, people really didn't know how dangerous they were.
And Wiley said later, he didn't either. He did this test because he thought, "Well, at least if we have some evidence, maybe we can get people thinking about what we're doing here." And he started with borax and he had expected that to be benign and people got really sick. So, that leads – and then, he did formaldehyde and copper sulfate and sulfite – he looked at sulfides – and he looked at salicylic acid. In all of them, he sees health effects. There was none of them that he didn't see, in this particular experiment, some kind of injury.
Mirsky: And that's short-term. We didn't even have the ability to look at what the cumulative effect might be over years.
Blum: That's exactly right. And even so – even after you start seeing these experiments – they started these in 1902 and he continued into 1904, really. And he's publishing these reports, and these young men are getting really sick. They had to actually call the formaldehyde experiment early because it looked like they were gonna start killing people, right? They didn't want to do that.
But they would publish these reports – evidence of harm, evidence of harm – still, no regulation, right? But what is happening is that this is a very – it's really a fascinating story. American newspapers really loved this. And American newspapers were the media then, right? This is before any broadcast media.
And so, everyone is reading these stories and they're front-page news and you start getting this public recognition of real danger. You get that from cookbooks. They did exhibits at world fairs, too, right? Amazing exhibits of two acres of bad food products of the 19—
Mirsky: Hundreds of thousands of people would come through those exhibits, so, it really was an effective kind of communication.
Blum: It was hugely smart. And so, you are starting to get this sort of public awareness that we're being screwed by this system.
Mirsky: And then you have The Jungle.
Blum: Yes. That's perfect timing, because that was, in fact, the thing that kind of tipped everything over. So, I love the story of The Jungle, and I love it because it really is a story of journalism as much as it is a story of a novel. So, The Jungle is written by a socialist – a very poor socialist writer – Upton Sinclair –
Mirsky: Good writer. Poor economically.
Blum: Right. Underpaid socialist writer. And so, he's very sympathetic to underpaid other workers, which is why he became a socialist, and he gets very interested in a butcher strike in Chicago in which the meat packing industry just stomps these poor underpaid workers into the ground. And he writes a story about that for a socialist newspaper based in Kansas, which was then a hot bed of socialism.
Mirsky: And he thinks this is a story about the workers.
Blum: Right. And so, he goes back to the socialist newspaper and he says, "I'd like to write a serialized novel about the plight of the workers for your newspaper Appeal to Reason." And they says, "Yes." So, on all of 1905, now, you see things starting fitting better together. He's writing.
He's publishing his novel in Appeal to Reason and a lot of socialists are reading it, but no one else. And he had had a publisher – a big publisher – lined up – Macmillan. In 1905, Macmillan made a really stupid decision in that his editor thought that his story about work in the stockyards was so horrifying, he canceled the book. And the reason it was so horrifying is that Upton Sinclair hung out with investigative reporters of the time. He was in this community that was really centered in New York where he was based, and what Teddy Roosevelt called "muck rackers".
And so, he was friends with Lincoln Steffens, who wrote Shame of the Cities and Ray Stannard Baker, who had investigated the railroads, and so, when he decided to do this novel, he did not just make it up. He went to Chicago, he lived in a settlement house at the edge of the stockyards, and he spent weeks hanging out and kind of infiltrating the whole meat processing business in the Chicago stockyards, where Amour was and Cudahy and Swift and all the big packers. And, because he was so poor, he fit right in. And so, he came back with reams of actual notes. And so, what made his book so horrifying was that it had these very journalistic descriptions of what was going on.
And so, when the book got canceled, he just put it in a – he put his manuscript in a suitcase, and eventually found another publisher in New York – Doubleday Page – and they ended up fact checking the book, too. And they sent investigators to Chicago who came back and said, "Yes, he's absolutely right, only maybe it's a little worse than the book said." And the descriptions in the book were horrible.
Mirsky: About the carcasses exploding in people's faces.
Blum: Yeah. You stick a knife – when you're first doing the butchering and all the rot squirts out in your face and you know, there's rotting meat – meat that has gotten so decomposed, it's molding and you just scrape that off and give it a borax bath. And the dead rats and occasionally – in his book, also, workers end up being decomposed and go into the sausage and the lard. And so, when Doubleday Page decides to publish this book, they won't publish it until they fact checked it. And when they published it, they also published their journalistic expose, and then they send it to Teddy Roosevelt and he doesn't believe it either.
Mirsky: But he had had experience with bad meat during the Spanish American War.
Blum: Yeah. So, just to go back briefly in time, Roosevelt was famously what everyone called a "Rough Rider" – a cavalry man in the Spanish American War in Cuba – and he had volunteered to do that. And –
Mirsky: He had left his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to go back into the military.
Blum: He felt very strongly about the fact that, you know, people in military positions shouldn't just be sitting behind their desks. They should get out there and stand by their men. And so, he did that. And so, one of the things that happened right after the Spanish American War is that there was a scandal that was known nationwide as the Embalmed Beef Scandal. It also involved the same Chicago packers we're talking about now.
And there was a general over Roosevelt who accused the army of harming more men with the food than had actually been injured by the Spanish soldiers in Cuba. And this was such a big deal that it led to two military hearings. Teddy Roosevelt testified. There's this really dramatic moment where he talks about forcing a soldier under his command to eat some canned meat that the young man was refusing to eat, and his soldier starts throwing up. And he takes a look at the can it has this greenish gummy layer on top and gristly pieces sticking out of it.
It's really gross. And he said, "I would rather have eaten my hat than eat that food." So, Upton Sinclair actually references this in The Jungle. He goes back, and he references the embalming of meat and the same processes that harmed all of these soldiers. And Roosevelt recognizes that this is an ongoing problem, and he's been kind of slow and reluctant to the cause of safe food, but mostly because he's trying to win his fights.
And he is taking on railroads and trust busting, but he's aware that the organization of opposition on the food law is deeply entrenched and very powerful. And when people first start talking about it, he goes, "Well, I don't want to get into that fight. I'm gonna lose it." But he finally – shortly before The Jungle comes out, judge says, "Okay. We're gonna have to deal with this."
And so, then, The Jungle comes out and so then he sends his investigators to Chicago and they come back saying, "Okay. It's even worse than the book." And so, he uses their report – which he only made partly public – to blackmail Congress. That was part of it. So, he says to Congress, "I'm gonna release this whole report, and it will bring down the American meat industry if you don't give me a Meat Inspection Act."
And at first, they still refused to do that, and he releases, I think, like, a couple of pages of that report, and everyone in Europe starts canceling their meat contracts once he does that. So, that forces the Meat Inspection Act. And in that kind of ground swell of political spine that goes with the Meat Inspection Act, Wiley and his friends bring forward, again, the Food and Drug Act that they've been trying to get through, and it passes. Both of them pass within the same month in 1906. And that is just an amazing moment in American history, because it is the first moment where the federal government steps up and says, "We are responsible for consumer protection."
And it lays down the foundation of that so that when we get consumer protection laws later, then, as with the EPA – the Environmental Protection Agency – they're all based on that precedent with those two laws – the Meat Inspection Act and the Food and Drug Act. And so, in that sense, this is a paradigm shifting moment. Didn't go the way Wiley thought it was gonna go from that moment, but it really does lay down some very important rules that protect us today.
Mirsky: Rather than solving the whole problem, it really elevates the baseline to another level of decency.
Blum: That's right. And it really says firmly and nationally, "Yes, the U.S. government has the constitutional right when it is to protect American citizens, not only by deploying the military or other protective armed forces, but by overseeing the need to make you safe in your daily life, even when there's not a military threat." And that's really the beginning of the government's decision that that is part of its job.
Mirsky: I just want to also, in the interest of full disclosure, talk about the article that Scientific American published in – I don't have the year here. It must've been around the same time.
Blum: And it's cited in my book.
Mirsky: Yes. It looks like it's right after the act passes and Scientific American published – a guy that we call Langdon -
Blum: Oh, yes.
Mirsky: Actually, that's a pseudonym. He's a publicist for the borax industry and we published an article by him talking about Wiley being an untrustworthy scientist of "radical views". So, even we were taken in by – where have I heard this recently about a guy who poses as – well, this is – I'm thinking of a guy who poses as his own publicist; this is a publicist posing as a –
Blum: Scientific expert.
Blum: And he was – I mean, yes, I drew that same connection, too. But this was one of the things that the food industry did, right, was they planted fake news stories, drummed up fake scandals. And Langdon worked for the borax industry. And his real – and I'm trying to remember – and he published under a different name. He published under a pseudonym, and what he would do is he would create stories that suggested, for instance, that either Wiley's work was shoddy or that people had suddenly started dying because of a lack of preservatives in their food.
And then, later, it was discovered that he cases that he had cited – which were not fact checked by any of the places they were published – were often just things like suicides, right? He just used death and embroidered them. That was discovered by the American Medical Associations, which had a very strong investigative unit at that time. And they actually went out and researched his articles and wrote stories in JAMA about these fake stories and ended his pseudo career as a scientific expert.
Blum: It's fascinating stuff. Yeah.
Mirsky: So, then, you get to the Epilogue where you talk about this ongoing – and just last week, the FDA announced that – we still unlabel – we now have labels, but even within the labels, we have things like artificial –
Mirsky: – flavors, artificial colors, and that group together – a whole bunch of stuff. And they just said, "You're gonna have to delineate and get rid of some of it."
Blum: That's right. And so, that tells you that we are in a better place than we were, right, because you have a government agency actually looking at these ingredients. Now, this was actually an issue that was forced by, again, consumer advocates, and so, it's really important to recognize that we're not done. And if we don't have consumer advocates that, in the same way, if we hadn't had them back at the turn of the 20th, then these changes are not going to be made. So, here's what I think is really important when you look at especially labels today. We have them. Right?
They give us a lot more information than no labels. They're completely not as transparent as we think, and that's because there's a lot of – as there were after the Food and Drug Act passed, we continue to have a kind of behind the scenes, hand-holding between industry and government over issues like labeling. So, "artificial flavors" – what does that mean, right? Or "natural flavors" – what does that mean? And there was recently a lawsuit filed against La Croix over what the chemicals were that they were not mentioning that they were on the label as natural flavors.
Or, I have gotten off on this big thing about the fact that a label will say "cellulose" without telling you that that's wood pulp or even what tree that you're eating at that moment in your food, right? So, we have labels. They're not good enough, right? They're not transparent enough. And I think the way that we do labels is, at least, marginally deceptive.
People – there's a huge list of things; people don't know what they are. And they scare people sometimes for no reason at all and mystify them, but we don't fix this, because the government – the industry does not want you to know that there's wood pulp in your food, and it does not want you to know that artificial ingredients might actually mean something that poses a risk and it does not want you to know these things. And the government accepts that. So, I have turned into – and I would never have thought I would – a real label crusader. I'm a neurotic label reader, which makes grocery store a marathon, kind of. Nobody hates to go to the grocery store more than me.
I never get out of there. I'm that crazy lady standing in the canned foods aisle reading every single thing on the label. But I think it's unfair for people to say, "Well, you know, this is just a time where you have to be an informed consumer" when you're not being given the information. So, I think our government should like, plant its feet. I don't expect this, but I think it should plant its feet and say, "We are gonna give consumers every piece of information about what is in this given product again so that they can make an actual intelligent decision about whether they want to eat that." And in that, I'm basically channeling Harvey Wiley from 120 years ago.
Mirsky: Hey, let's hear it for crazy ladies. I mean, Jane Adams, Jane Jacobs, you, my mother – all the crazy ladies out there who really help to change things.
Blum: I like that. That's a great list.
That’s it for this episode. Get your science news at our Web site, www.scientificamerican.com. And don’t forget to also visit our friends at the Nature Web site, www.nature.com, where you can check out the Nature podcast—the latest one features a nearby exoplanet and a discussion of how social media may be messing up clinical trials. Because people are able to find others in the trial and figure out if they got the drug or the placebo. Maybe we need a placebo Facebook.
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