The 'Poison Squad' That Shook America’s Faith in Preservatives

In the U.S., chemicals like borax were common in foods from bacon to margarine, until a shocking series of experiments revealed their toxic effects.

A black-and-white photo of Harvey Wiley and members of the "Poison Squad" eating a meal
Harvey Wiley and members of the "Poison Squad," circa 1905 (U.S. National Library of Medicine)

More than a century ago, enterprising manufacturers added brand-new chemical preservatives into food to keep it fresh as it traveled from the farm into rapidly growing American cities. Milk no longer went rancid! Meat no longer spoiled! But some scientists wondered: Could all these preservatives be doing more harm than good? It took a crusading chemist named Harvey Washington Wiley to take this fight all the way to Washington, D.C., where he recruited a “poison squad” to test their health effects—and, in the process, created the nation’s first law to protect against poisons in our food supply. But did he succeed? Are the preservatives we eat today safe? Listen to this episode to hear Wiley’s story—and learn why some of the chemicals he tested are still in our food today.

In the late 1800s, America was changing rapidly, and so were its food systems. The country was industrializing, and as people moved into cities in search of jobs, they no longer picked their own tomatoes or churned their own butter from the milk of local cows. Food had to travel farther to reach these city dwellers, and, in an era before artificial refrigeration, it spoiled quickly. But there was a solution, and it came from scientists working in the exciting new field of chemistry: preservatives that promised to keep food fresh for days, even weeks. By the 1880s and ’90s, Americans were consuming preservatives such as formaldehyde, borax, and salicylic acid for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Nobody knew how many of these additives people were eating, let alone what this daily cocktail of chemicals might be doing to them. But Wiley, a do-gooder farm boy who trained as a chemist, worried that preservatives might be harming the public. As Deborah Blum describes in her upcoming book, The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Wiley took a job at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where he launched a revolutionary experiment: the “hygienic table trials,” quickly renamed the “poison-squad trials” by journalists. Wiley’s “poison squad” was made up of young, healthy, male government workers who consumed capsules of borax, formaldehyde, and other preservatives alongside their daily meals. The trials’ shocking results led to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and eventually to the creation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), transforming what the nation eats in the process.

In theory, Wiley’s success should ensure that all preservatives added to our food today are safe. But in reality, a legislative update in 1958 created a loophole that means that, today, we have no idea exactly how many additives are in our food or how safe they are. With Laura MacCleery, the policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, we bring Wiley’s legacy up to date. Why are some of the chemicals that sickened his poison squad more than a hundred years ago still in our food—and what can modern science tell us about their risks? How safe is today’s food, and what needs to change to make it safer? Listen in for more!

This post appears courtesy of Gastropod.