The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Deborah Blum

The Poison Squad tells the story of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, head chemist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 30 years beginning in the late 1880s, who was instrumental in the passing of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Not only an account of Wiley’s career, this book also describes in detail the horrifying food industry practices that led to the need for national regulations. For example, manufacturers regularly added chalk to milk to make it whiter (and hide the fact that it had been watered down). Pantry staples like flour, sugar, and spices were often mixed with cheaper substances like sawdust, dirt, rock, or ground-up insects. Even worse, some manufacturers added poisons like lead, arsenic, or formaldehyde to food in order to dye it bright colors or make it last longer.

This fascinating and disturbing book is a mix of science, history, biography, business, and politics. It provides a look into a rarely discussed aspect of history, showing how far our consumer protection laws have come over the last 150 years and why we still need them.

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