You may think this headline is clickbait, but I assure you it’s not. It sounds crazy today, but back in 1902, Harvey Washington Wiley had some serious concerns about the lack of transparency in the food industry. As the head of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry in Washington, D.C., he figured it was up to him to do something about it.
What did he do, you ask? Well, for one, he revolutionized food safety in the United States.
But he didn’t do it alone. He recruited 12 young, healthy men and got them to agree to eat food containing different kinds of poisons so he could write a report with verifiable results. Also, they weren’t allowed to sue him or the government if something bad happened.
Luckily, Wiley was a scientist, and had failsafes put into place designed to keep the worst from happening. To begin with, the volunteers would receive the best medical care, including weekly physicals and daily logs of their weight, temperature, pulse rate, etc. Next, they would eat all of their meals in the test kitchen – they could consume only water offsite. Also, they regularly collected urine and feces for lab analysis.
In addition, if any man showed side effects that were deemed disabling, he would be immediately excused from the program.
So just what was the program?
Well, at the turn of the century, food manufacturers and distributers enjoyed a life pretty much free from government oversight. With no labeling or ingredient listing requirements to speak of, there was also no way to hold anyone accountable if they did tamper with or add things to consumer goods.
Wiley had been trying for almost 20 years to secure funding for his research, which was particularly concerned with the use of preservatives, but the industry lobbyists consistently blocked his requests. That is, until 1902, when Congress presumably got sick of listening to him and allowed him $5,000 to conduct his experiments.
And that’s how a bunch of healthy young men agreed to ingest small amounts of borax, formaldehyde, salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, and sodium benzoate with their three meals a day. Those meals, incidentally, along with a healthy stipend, were an excellent motivator for participation.
They began with borax, included in the butter, but even though the men didn’t know where the additives would show up, they began to avoid the butter because of the strange taste. The same thing happened when they slipped it into the milk, so eventually, the men simply took it in capsule form.
At first, the effects weren’t easy to see, but after a few months the participants were reporting headaches, stomach aches, and depression. Six months in, they stopped the experiment altogether after the men threatened to strike otherwise.
Most of the other experiments were uneventful, though they did have to cut the formaldehyde short due to the pervasive, excruciating symptoms. No one died (though one family did blame a man’s later death from tuberculosis on his participation), and all of us are better off for the risks they were willing to take.
After 5 years and rotating members, the “Poison Squad” experiment culminated in a 477 page report on the ill-effects of borax that swayed members of Congress. Even so, the findings on other compounds – like benzoic acid – were suppressed for a time by the efforts of food lobbyists. In fact, it wasn’t until after a staffer working at the Department of Agriculture misunderstood instructions and leaked the report that things started to happen.
In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, both of which restricted the preservatives and additives available to food companies. They were the first federal laws to regulate food, and they were passed thanks to Mr. Wiley.
Wiley retired from government work in 1912 and took a position at Good Housekeeping as a consumer advocate that lasted for 19 years. That the public had grown used to looking to him for reliable information made the transition a seamless one.
Fun Fact: Even though the Surgeon General didn’t issue a formal warning against the use of tobacco until 1964, Wiley began to sound the alarm about its toxicity as early as 1927.
I’m thinking that today’s government could use a few more Harvey Washington Wileys among their ranks – people who are determined to do the right thing no matter how hard they have to fight, and no matter how long it takes.
We tip our hats to you, sir.
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