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.