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

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  381 ratings  ·  78 reviews
A New York Times Notable Book

From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times-bestselling author Deborah Blum, the dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change

By the end of nineteenth century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. "Milk" might contain formaldehyde, mo
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published September 25th 2018 by Penguin Press
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Brenda Ayala
Sep 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: shelf-awareness

The Industrial Revolution, for all its major leaps toward with invention and innovation, definitely fucked over some people.

Like a lot of people.

The biggest take away from this nonfiction book is that given the opportunity, big business will screw us over tenfold unless someone holds them accountable.

They put copper, lead, formaldehyde and so much more in our food.

Kids died from drinking milk. That’s so mind boggling that I had to reread the paragraphs focused on that. Paragraphs, plural,
During his successful 2016 campaign for the White House, Trump promised to have his cabinet "submit a list of every wasteful and unnecessary regulation which kills jobs, and which does not improve public safety, and eliminate them." His FDA commission, Scott Gottlieb, followed that promise by saying what while he recognizes the importance of food safety legislation he wants to "strike the right balance" in its implementation. Consumer groups now anticipate delayed and reduced protections from ag ...more
Nov 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-cooking
It is heartening to see this excellent new history getting favorable attention on the radio, in newspapers, in online journals, and in both food blogs and science blogs.

In addition, there are already many reviews here on Goodreads that adequately summarize and elaborate on this book's fine qualities, so I thought I would allow myself the freedom to write a few words about what the century-old struggle for safer food in the US has to say about current unpleasantness. There are many similarities.

Dec 26, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018, history, nonfiction
This author's previous book is one of the most popular I've encountered, in that everyone I know who's read it, loved it. It was about the emergence of forensic medicine (and solving poisoning cases) against the backdrop of Prohibition-era New York.

In this work she takes on a scientifically similar topic with a good deal less surrounding jazz and excitement. Early in the twentieth century, the food supply was far from the bucolic ideal we might imagine having existed before the emergence of jun
Leah K
Dec 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: library
A fascinating look at the beginning of the FDA and the man who made it possible. Definitely kept me interested. We've come so far and have so much further to go.
Nov 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating but, at the same time, deeply disturbing, account of the decades-long effort by Dr. Harvey Wiley, a chemist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the beginning of the 20th century, to protect consumers from adulterated food and drugs. A hundred years ago, Dr. Wiley's name was probably familiar to most Americans. My thanks to author Deborah Blum for reminding us of his important contributions, which continue to improve our lives today.
Jillian Doherty
Mar 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Page turning and solicitous! This incredible story widens the view of what we think we know about how our nation’s food. From flood shavings in the chowder, to exactly how much plaster makes sour milk looks just right again – this book is for anyone who loves reading about history that you can’t believe is true.

Where the Food Explorer took us on a wild ride, discovering where our food came from – this wowzers of a history will make you sooooo glad we had Dr. Wiley on our side ensuring we aren’t
Oct 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone
Today, when talking about the safety of our food, we are concerned with MSG; high-fructose corn syrup; trans fats, synthetic sweeteners, artificial colors among others. In the late 1800's into the early years of the twentieth century, you would have been concerned more about arsenic, formaldehyde (yes, embalming fluid); salicylic acid, copper sulfate, and borax being used as preservatives. Coal-tar dyes to make the food appear fresh and bright. Saccharin to replace the more expensive sugar. Acet ...more
What an amazing book. This is both truly well written and a reminder how history repeats. if you hear about how good the food used to be, this book reminds you how good the food really was not. The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century is history at its best. Told with a reporter's eye, but with humanity, Deborah Blum never lets the reader forget what is at stake. She spins a tale that reads like a well written novel, but never str ...more
Nov 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Clearly well-researched, it's a look into the life of Dr. Harvey Wiley and also the precursor department to what we know as the FDA today. It's both fascinating and horrifying, the list of preservatives and agents that industry manufacturers considered common to put in their food for the masses. No one will be surprised that half of one chapter is devoted to Upton Sinclair and "The Jungle" but how many people know that the federal government put Coca-Cola on trial? I'd recommend this book to any ...more
Oct 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is billed as a fascinating story about how food was made safe in America, but I have to disagree with the second part of that statement. It is about how food was made safer. However, it doesn't take much for readers to see how much our capitalistic government bends to serve the whims of corporations. Food adulterations continue to occur. Read this book to understand how much has improved and ponder how far we still have to go.
Beth Menendez
Jan 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Eustacia Tan
Dec 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
After reading about how teas used to be adulterated, the synopsis of The Poison Squad caught my eye. And, I have to admit, the book shocked me – I didn’t think that deception in food could be that bad!

The Poison Squad is the story of Harvey Wiley, the father of the Pure Food and Drug Act. The early 1900s was a bad time for food – as the book puts it, ” ‘Honey’ often proved to be thickened, colored corn syrup, and ‘vanilla’ extract a mixture of alcohol and brown food coloring. ‘Strawberry’ jam co
This book describes the work of Department of Agriculture chemist Harvey Wiley in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Wiley worked tirelessly to get the U.S. government to regulate food producers and marketers, who were producing foods in highly unsanitary conditions and adulterating foods with substances that mimicked actual foods (pumpkin rinds, coconut shells), were intended to restore rotten foods (formaldehyde), were intended to preserve foods longer in that era of uncertain ...more
Jan 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: medlit
“The Shutdown is Bad For Anyone Who Eats Food”, says Stephen Colbert on Friday, January 11. “Don't Panic: The Government Shutdown Isn't Making Food Unsafe”, counters NPR’s Dan Charles on Weekend Update the following morning.

It’s 2019, but you’d be forgiven for thinking of pre-1906 America after reading this wonderful account of the U.S. “pure food movement” and its most steadfast defender and all-around gadfly, chemist Harvey W. Wiley, a man I’d heard nothing about before. As in all of her previ
Jan 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
Listened to audiobook.

I may be more interested in this book than your average American because I do work with agriculture regulations, but I loved this snapshot of the Dr. Wiley and the eventual creation of the FDA.

It is both comforting and frustrating to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I believe there will always be an inherent friction between the public's and the government's tolerance for risk. With anything, there is no way to promise that risk and harm can b
Chain Reading
Dec 08, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: paper
This narrative non-fiction tells the story of the struggle for the legislation that grew into the Pure Food and Drug Act, and Harvey Wiley, the passionate, blunt and relentless scientist that made it happen despite intense political opposition and pressure from industry. I enjoyed this book but I am not sure that a wider audience would like it as much. Part of what I like about it is that because I have my own involvement with government policy, it soothes me to realize that its normal for there ...more
May 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
An intense historical narrative about the fight to regulate food in the US. Deborah Blum's book will shock and intrigue you as she goes through the life of Harvey Washington Wiley's whose research and strength pushed legislation to protect the current and next generation of Americans from terrible ingredients food companies added to make their food last longer or produce faster.
You mouth will drop at her descriptions of formaldehyde being used in milk, green slime getting scrapped off canned me
Oct 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade For Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, by Deborah Blum, is as close to a perfect work of nonfiction as I can imagine. If I didn’t know better, I would have said that it was custom written for me. This book follows the career of Dr. Harvey Wiley, a tireless proponent of legislation to keep food safe for consumers. His chemical work and political advocacy helped bring about the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and government regula ...more
Collin Lysford
Everything old is new again, and this history of chemist Harvey Wiley fighting against food regulation echoes a lot into the present day. This book does a great job of covering the backroom wheeling and dealing that rises up to weaken what should be useful regulation. It's actually one of the rare histories that I think could have done with more author editorializing, not less. Poison Squad is at it's best when it's drawing out the obvious parallels with corporate opposition then and now, and at ...more
Dec 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A really, really good book that follows the career of Harvey Wiley and his crusade for food safety. It is astounding, if you weren't already aware, of exactly what was put into foods and drugs when no regulation existed. It is astounding, if not surprising, what manufacturers would do to protect their business over the health of the consumer. And it is astounding, if unfortunate, how much work had to be done to put consumer safety into law - and keep it there, a war started by Wiley and one that ...more
Chelsea Shipp
Dec 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
America's problems seems be on repeat, reformer working towards progress vs big business working towards self interest. Shouldn't we know some of the original stories of resistance? Here's a great one that is new to me. This is the frustrating and inspiring tale of Dr. Harvey Wiley, the chief chemist of the agricultural department of the federal government. He pushed relentlessly for regulation for food safety and honest labeling. His motivator was the protection of the American public and being ...more
Jan 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
An in-depth look at all the horrible shit food manufacturers used to put into the food, the government being on the take to let them, and the one government employee who made it his life's mission to end it. This book has the typical hallmarks of showing us, that like the 2008 financial crisis and recession (or was that a depression), the business community can't and won't police themselves, since they could give a shit about public health so long as they profit. There is a frightening epilogue ...more
Jan 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, history
I loved this book. Since I have been working in food safety for a while now, this book spoke to me on a lot of levels. The book is also very accessible and an easy read. First of all, some of the descriptions of contamination are truly horrifying. But in that way that makes you want to know more. It was interesting to me how some of the controversies and behaviors are come up over and over again. Some ingredients, such as saccharin, still debated about today.

An excellent portrayal of man who wa
Emily Sessa
Dec 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I may never eat canned or processed food again. I would like to think that most of the horrifying practices described in this book are now impossible thanks to government regulation... but having read the book, I know that would be beyond naive to assume. Blum chronicles the earliest stages of food regulation and policy in the United States by following the chemist who was the fiercest champion and advocate for "pure food" in America. The most shocking and distressing aspect of this story was th ...more
Angela Longstreet
Jan 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Be prepared to never want to eat anything that you haven't grown yourself ever again. You will most likely be appalled, flabbergasted and dismayed at the ridiculousness of utter disregard for human life all for the $. The amount of years that it took to get any wiggle room into keeping the general public safe in their eating and purchasing habits is beyond crazy. All I can do is keep thanking a great chemist with a go-get-em attitude and a willingness to endure years upon years of backbiting, pu ...more
Mary Van Opstal
Nov 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is a fantastic and engaging book even for its grotesque description of adulterated and poisoned food in late 19th and early 20th century. I love all of this because it’s chemistry, and the main character food chemist Harvey Wiley is fascinating and a crusader for pure food. It’s scary to think there were no labels on food or ingredients listed. All that we take for granted. Until the first pure food and drug law in 1906, lots of food was not what you think it was. This is an important book ...more
Dec 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
4.5*. Easy to read, lively, informative: all the things I want from casual history books. Despite the title, little page time is spent on the actual "Poison Squad" trials, alas, but there are enough gross details about the state of the food industry to feed my morbid curiosity. The creation of the FDA was a long and torturous road of failed legislation—Wiley didn't live to see the creation of the agency in its present form—and Blum meticulously lays it all out to get to an underlying point, whic ...more
Dennis Hogan
Jan 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Just finished The Poison Squad: One Chemists’s Single Minded Crusade at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Deborah Blum a scary book that recounts the sad state of US food safety in the early twentieth century: formaldehyde to extend shelf life in milk, chemical agents to bleach flour, spoiled meat packed in cans, food dyes made from harsh chemicals and the list goes on and on. The focus in the book is on Harvey Washington Wiley, a noted American chemist best known for his leadership in the pa ...more
Sweemeng Ng
Jan 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a book about the history of food safety in US. It is not just story of food safety, it is a story of a movement to have safe food. It involve people in the government, among activist and corporations.

The battle for food safety is a long one, corporations fight against it. But the people wants it, government in the middle. Occasionally on the side of corporation, but with some inside for the people. There is a hero in the story. In a way, it is not too different from struggle to a cause
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Obsessed with Tru...: The Poison Squad 1 11 Nov 19, 2018 07:16PM  
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author.

As a science writer for the Sacramento Bee, Blum (rhymes with gum) wrote a series of articles examining the professional, ethical, and emotional conflicts between scientists who use animals in their research and animal rights activists who oppose that research. Titled "The Monkey Wars", the series won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Beat R
“were spoiling” 0 likes
“In 1847 three English children fell seriously ill after eating birthday cake decorated with arsenic-tinted green leaves.” 0 likes
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