To fix food safety, bring back Wiley's poison squads.

Health and medicine explained.
March 2 2011 6:50 AM

Bring Back the Poison Squad

A hundred years ago, our food-safety regulators were willing to eat formaldehyde on our behalf. What are they doing now?

Dr. Harvey W. Wiley. Click image to expand.
Harvey Washington Wiley

This year's first major food poisoning outbreak—more than 140 people in 26 states sickened by infected sprouts —hardly made headlines. Of course, it was nothing special given our recent history of dangerous dining. Remember last year's recall of almost half-a-billion eggs due to bacterial contamination fears? The tainted peanut butter fiasco of 2009, which killed nine people and sickened more than 700? Or the 2008 food poisoning outbreak, linked to spicy peppers, which caused more than 1,300 illnesses?

It's as if we've become accustomed—or maybe a better word would be resigned—to living in a country where people shouldn't really trust their food. None of these were isolated incidents, after all. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that food poisoning outbreaks can be blamed for 76 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths annually.

We can be proud that our government responded to this alarming pattern by passing a new law this year seeking to better protect the nation's food safety. The act gives the Food and Drug Administration unprecedented enforcement powers, such as the right to remove dangerous foodstuffs from the market rather than negotiating for voluntary recalls. We can also be proud of the spirit in which legislation came into being—passed by the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 73 to 25 and the House by 215 to 144 before being signed into law by President Obama in early January.

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But it would be a mistake to see the Food Safety Modernization Act as anything more than a tentative step in the right direction. Although it does further empower the FDA, it fails to strengthen the authority of the Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for safety of the meat supply. In fact, the latest White House budget request, while asking for increased funding for the FDA, would reduce money for USDA inspections.

And the White House request itself is facing serious opposition from a Congress that is obsessed with spending cuts. Observers now consider funding of the food safety act to be in such peril that the New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial last week warning its physician readers not to expect real progress anytime soon.

Or to quote precisely: "Recent reports in the media calling this act 'historic legislation' must be tempered by the reality that without the necessary resources, requiring the FDA to carry out the law's required activities will be like trying to get blood out of a rock."

But here's hoping we won't be driven to that blood-from-stone position, that our government representatives will continue to work together to keep us on the path toward safer food. Or failing that, that our food protection advocates will roll up their sleeves for an all-out push to keep the poisons out of our daily bread.

There's excellent precedent for such actions. If we look back to a similar crisis of food safety in the last century, we see that federal regulators were willing to risk their lives to protect the rest of us. I'm talking, of course, about USDA scientist Harvey Washington Wiley, who helped pioneer food safety legislation by creating volunteer "poison squads" to taste-test the nation's groceries.

At the time when Wiley began his work with the poison squad, the powerful food industry had managed to derail every attempt to regulate its products. No labeling requirements existed, no safety tests, no monitoring of additives, no good information on the risks. Determined to change this, Wiley persuaded Congress in 1902 to fund what he called "hygienic table trials" of commercial food products.

His plan was simple from the beginning. He'd build a test kitchen and dining room in the basement of the Agriculture Department building on Independence Avenue. Then he'd serve poisoned food to a group of young volunteers. Wiley chose men in their 20s because he thought they were sturdy enough to withstand the diet he had in mind.

The first 12 members of the squad were all department employees who had agreed to eat their meals in Wiley's kitchen over a span of six months. The menus were set so that each day's food would include exactly one suspect ingredient. Squad members never knew what possible poison they were eating. Still, they all signed waivers absolving the government of liability for possible health impacts.

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