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

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  104 Ratings  ·  22 Reviews
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, most often used to embalm co
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
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 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.
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.
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
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
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
Oct 28, 2018 rated it liked it
This is fascinating account of the manufactured food industry in late 18th and early 19th centuries and how U.S. govt chemist, Dr. Harvey Wiley (truly a hero) fought to educate the public and impose regulations to clean it up. The descriptions of the preservative and adulteration practices of the time will horrify and disgust you. Admittedly the last half of this dragged a bit for me, with a lot of science and details about the politics of enacting "pure food" legislation.
Oct 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating look at the history behind the FDA and the legislation enacted to protect the American food supply. This book was packed with information but Blum kept things fast paced and easy to digest (pun intended). I thoroughly enjoyed "The Poisoner's Handbook," so I expected to like this one, too, and certainly did!
Oct 05, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely fascinating. I guess I should feel glad that the American political system has always been full of craven, venal blowhards. Frankly we’re all lucky to be alive, given this history of the pure food and drug act.
Nov 06, 2018 rated it really liked it
Great! Well-written and packed with interesting stuff about food safety and regulation. Amazingly disgusting info on dairy and meat contamination in early 1900. Dr. Harvey Wiley is my new hero. Lots of great political insight here too, for those who like this kind of stuff.
Oct 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fascinating, but don’t read it anywhere close to mealtime.
Evan Deutsch
Oct 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Wow, what an interesting book.
Leslie Jonsson
Nov 12, 2018 rated it liked it
A look at what food, drugs and drink had in them before the days of FDA regulations. I only wish there had been more personal examples of people being poisoned that had been described.
Jill Heather
Oct 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
I do not think I love the balance in this -- I would have preferred more on the political or more on the science, but this felt unsatisfyingly short on both, somehow. Still a very fascinating book.
Margaret Myers
Jun 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
You know how some things seem like such an entrenched part of our society that we’ve forgotten how they got there? Deborah Blum reveals the story of one those facets of America: food and drug law (did you ever stop to think what “unbleached” flour means, or why labels are so proud of this fact? Mystery solved thanks to this book). Blum details Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley’s decades long quest (1880s-1906) for food and drug regulation, against always-formidable business owner foes and their govern ...more
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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
“In 1847 three English children fell seriously ill after eating birthday cake decorated with arsenic-tinted green leaves.” 0 likes
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