It was in the late 19th and early 20th century when mass food production started and shipped to long distances. Instead of growing locally and selling it fresh, it was like a Wild West regarding the production of food, and we see that there were no official regulations on what you could add to a diet. If you even had some labeled chicken then, it had to chicken at all or not. There were no rules about reporting any ingredients, so businesses did pretty much whatever pleased them.
To give you a central idea, the drug and food industries crammed into things by secretly adding morphine to children’s cough syrup. Borax, formaldehyde, sulfuric acid, and copper sulfate were used as preservatives back then. The lead was also used commonly to candy or grind up various scraps and organs from animals and sell it as chicken meat. They used charcoal, sawdust, and ground-up charred animal bones to fill out coffee grounds.
This is an example of how popular selling products as one thing when it was something else, was found by the hero of the hour, Dr. Harvey Wiley. In an experiment by him and his team found out that 9 out of 10 maple syrup brands sold in Indiana were adulterated and supposedly did not include any maple syrup while claiming to be a pure maple syrup product.
It was by the turn of the century when the state of the food industry became a significant cause for concern in terms of public health. But it was found that nobody was bothered, which is when Dr. Wiley and his Hygienic Table Trails entered. These experiments carried a motive to test the safety of various preservatives that are commonly used by the food industry at that time.
Dr. Wiley and his work
Dr. Wiley began working in 1902, and he petitioned the government to get him permission to get conduct such experiments. After much of requests, he was finally given about $5000 (about $143,000 today) and a license to run tests and do whatever was necessary. He also got a lot of letters from males wanting to join in the experiments.
In a letter, a man also mentioned that “I have a stomach that can stand anything. I am afflicted with 7 diseases. Doctors told me at the age of 15 that I could not live for 8 months.”
Owing to the nature of the experiment, volunteers were expected to be in perfect health and were given the best medical care and money. In return, it was expected from the volunteers to do what Wiley used to put in front of them, and they had to agree that they will sue neither him nor the government in case the experiment gets them into serious health troubles.
The group that the media would come to cover, The Poison Squad, seemed too much likely to enjoy conducting the experiments. There were also some things tested that didn’t have much of any apparent adverse effects on the volunteers. To add a touch of class, they also used to make volunteers dress formally for evening meals and made excellent publicity shots that appeared in the news across the country.
But it soon happened that Dr. Willey and his Poison Squad got themselves into serious trouble. It happened when the reports regarding his experiments got leaked. Though the tests consisted of Wiley’s theory of how harmful preservatives were, and they tried to suppress by using political sway and collective might, but it was all fruitless. So they found the chance to point Wiley and his credibility instead, claiming he was a “man doing all he can to destroy American business.”
After much of controversies and hustle-bustle Poison Squad in the year 1907, they formally ended the experiments. Wiley, although it has been eventually credited as being instrumental in the first significant step towards making sure that the food consumed in the United States is safe. But sadly, the contributions of the Poison Squad have been mainly overlooked. The primary reason why this happened is said that the identity of volunteers was kept anonymous, even though their name “The Poison Squad” certainly endured.