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.

It helped that the meals served from that tidy kitchen were guaranteed excellent—a typical meal might be roast chicken, braised beef, buttered asparagus, hot rolls, and fresh fruit pies with coffee and cream. The only catch was that one of those dishes—and the squad members never knew which—would be laced with a test substance. These added ingredients were chosen by Wiley from a list of highly suspect preservatives and coloring agents used in food.

The first compound mixed into the meals was borax, a commonly used preservative loaded with the silvery, metallic element boron. Borax and the related compound, boric acid, were high on Wiley's list because butchers commonly mixed them with salt and red dye to disguise old, or even rotting, meat.

Wiley started out by mixing borax powder into butter but rapidly discovered that the diners were responding to its metallic tang. They quit buttering their bread. He then mixed it into milk and coffee, but the men then began avoiding those beverages. Finally, Wiley gave up on deception altogether. He simply placed capsules of the poison into a serving bowl, and put it out for each meal.

The most remarkable part of the story is that the men doggedly swallowed those borax-filled capsules. They did so even though they developed persistent low-grade headaches, nausea, and rumbling abdominal pain as a result. Borax, as we now know, is not acutely poisonous, but it's definitely irritating to tissues and over the long term can cause weight loss and reproductive system damage. "Today the men are thinner than usual and all show the effects of the strain," the New York Times reported in 1904, in an article on some recent graduates from the poison squad.

Later volunteers swallowed capsules filled with other toxic food additives, including copper sulfate and formaldehyde. Copper sulfate, today primarily used as a pesticide, was at the time added to fancy grades of peas to make them look greener than ordinary ones. Formaldehyde, used as a meat preservative, is widely known today as a corrosive poison and suspected carcinogen. Wiley had to end those tests early when the men became so sick that they could not rise from their beds. "The addition of formaldehyde to food tends to derange metabolism," Wiley explained.

In retrospect, historians have suggested that the poison squad trials were as much showmanship as meticulous science. The cozy-kitchen style of doing research and the very public nature of the studies made the work seem less than clinical. The squads were so widely known that songs were written about their heroic work, a form of tribute that doesn't usually follow the traditional research approach published in medical journals.

But there's no doubt that Wiley and his determined volunteers raised public awareness of a risky food supply. That awareness, that growing realization of danger, put intense pressure on the government to fix the problem of contaminated food. Four years after the squads were established, the nation's first law regulating food and pharmaceutical manufacturing went into effect. It was officially known as the Pure Food and Drug Act. Of course, everyone called it the Wiley Act instead.

Is there a case to be made for bringing back Wiley-style crusading to keep our new food safety law on course? Maybe not the poison squads specifically. Decades of research later, we know too much about toxic chemicals to ask regulators to engage in such risky behavior. And the challenges of keeping the food supply safe today are very different. Thanks to Wiley—and other 20th-century safety advocates—our biggest risks are no longer food additives. When we say food poisoning, we mean bacterial contamination, such as the salmonella implicated in last year's egg recall, rather than preservatives like borax.

But there is a case, a good one, for bringing back some of that protect-the-public-at-all-costs fervor. There are still unmet research needs—our need to better understand the ways that bacteria infiltrate our food, to find safer production and farming methods, to better control potentially deadly pathogens. And a recent CDC study points out that in the case of an outbreak, rapid, intensive investigations would help us to identify the cause so much faster that we would save both lives and money.

To move us in that direction, we may need some of that Harvey Washington Wiley crusading spirit. A man who would create poison squads, and some federal employees who would volunteer to serve on them—these are the sort of people who would fight hard and with public fury to make sure that decent safety legislation had a chance to succeed. Those early 20th-century scientists, advocates, and citizens would not be resigned to this epidemic of food poisoning. A hundred years later we should not be either.

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Deborah Blum is a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin and author of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.

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