Plano Reads: The Poison Squad

Join us for a virtual discussion at noon on Thursday, April 22 with the Brown Bag Book Club.

Milk laced with formaldehyde; beef tallow colored with coal tar dye masquerading as butter; untrustworthy food labels. The American food supply was dangerous. Adulteration of food has been a problem for millenniums. Modern mass food processing opened up new avenues for fraud while advances in chemistry opened the way for finding the culprits.

Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum takes us back to the beginning of the fight for laws to protect American consumers from contaminated and adulterated food. Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle along with Theodore Roosevelt are given credit for the Pure Food and Drug Act. Blum believes that credit should also be given to Department of Agriculture chemist, Harvey Washington Wiley. 

Wiley, born in a log cabin, to a farm family became the first chemistry professor at Perdue University. Wiley pioneered methods to detect the authenticity of food. In Indiana Wiley discovered that 90% of maple syrup sold in the state was fake. The findings appeared in Popular Science magazine and Wiley was launched as a crusader for clean food. Wiley spent thirty years as the chief chemist at the Department of Agriculture. His scientific knowledge and adeptly formed alliances helped him withstand the assaults of business adversaries. Wiley’s testing for unhealthy additives on volunteer human subjects created a sensation vividly bringing the issue to the attention of the public. After retiring from the Department of Agriculture Wiley carried on his clean food crusade as a columnist for Good Housekeeping magazine. Today there are still few restrictions on the sale of meat and other fresh foodstuffs. Numerous additives in our food have never been properly tested. Wiley’s fight for pure food goes on.

Please join us for a virtual discussion at noon on Thursday, April 22 with the Brown Bag Book Club. You may register here.

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