Taking Food Safety Training? Learn How Wiley’s “Poison Squad” Impacted Food Regulations

If you have ever wondered how regulations that keep food safe to consume came about, you may be surprised to learn the answer. In the early 1900s, an American chemist named Dr. Harvey Wiley brought a group of men together to willingly eat harmful substances included in their breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This group would later become known as the “Poison Squad”, and a book about the experiment with the same name was published in 2019. The experiment would ultimately lead to federal regulations being enforced in the United States with regards to food safety, including the forming of the Food and Drug Administration.

Here’s a closer examination of the “Poison Squad”, and the impact that Wiley’s experiment had on food regulations.

Who Were the “Poison Squad”? Here’s What Food Safety Training Students Should Know

Putting foreign substances into food was unfortunately a common practice in the early 1900s, and the United States was no exception. Since there were no legal restrictions in place there to combat the mislabeling of food products, this led to food manufacturers frequently putting additives into these products without the public’s knowledge. For example, food like honey would instead have corn syrup sold in its place while still being labeled as honey, and chalk would be found in milk. Other substances that would commonly be found in food at the time include:

  • Borax (a ground substance used for meat preservation)
  • Copper sulfate
  • Formaldehyde
  • Salicylic acid
  • Saltpeter
  • Sulfuric acid

One of the United States Department of Agriculture’s chemists, Dr. Harvey Wiley, decided to try and reverse this trend. After years’ worth of research on food additives and mislabeled food products, he called upon a group of volunteers to consume poison as part of what he called “hygienic table trials”. This group became known as the “Poison Squad”, as christened by a journalist from the Washington Post. Wiley brought these volunteers (a group of 12 male government employees) together to see how it affected his subjects. 

Dr. Wiley wanted to reverse the trend of dangerous substances added to food without regulation

The Experiment Itself, the Process Behind It, and How It Went

During this experiment, the 12 volunteers ate capsules full of various additives, such as formaldehyde and borax, with their meals. They would spend the first two weeks eating meals without these additives before adding them into their food for another two-week span. They resumed their original diet without additives for two more weeks afterward. Each additive consumed would start with smaller doses before increasing in quantity as the experiment continued. Volunteers would stop participating if they fell ill, before rejoining the experiment upon recovering. Prior to the experiment, they would also undergo regular weight and temperature recordings, as well as physicals. Students taking a food safety course should also know that one particular additive, copper sulfate, is used nowadays as a pesticide. When used in food, it would trigger symptoms such as:

  • Damage to the brain, kidney, and liver
  • Diarrhea
  • Jaundice
  • Nausea and vomiting

The 12 volunteers were asked to put different substances in different types of food.  This would include putting saltpeter in pies, formaldehyde in meat products, and borax in milk. 

The ‘Poison Squad’ put different substances in different foods so the various results could be noted

How the “Poison Squad” Helped Change Food Regulations for the Better

After completing this experiment, greater public attention was brought to the dangers of consuming food products with harmful ingredients. This would later lead to the creation of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, which would bring about the inception of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Such an objective was exactly what Wiley had hoped to achieve, since he had long advocated for increased food additive regulation after he began working for the Department of Agriculture. Additionally, those taking a food safety program might be surprised to learn that Wiley’s study protocols preceded the advent of clinical trials

Despite efforts to suppress his findings, Wiley’s experiment led to the FDA’s creation

However, both food lobbyists and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture actively worked to suppress the reports produced following the trials. Despite their best efforts, the “Poison Squad” would inspire songs, poems, and advertising campaigns, as well as frequent press coverage. In fact, journalists would initially falsify information and print rumours about the trials due to Wiley refusing to let information be leaked to the public.

Both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act would be passed by Congress and the House of Representatives in 1906. Although these were Wiley’s efforts, then-President Theodore Roosevelt took all credit for the bills successfully passing, as he had signed them into law. However, Wiley is known today as the “Father of the FDA”, and set new standards for food purity and its widespread legislation within the United States. In fact, the Pure Food and Drug Act is known nowadays as “The Wiley Act”.

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