Initial Thoughts: “Deborah Blum’s novel about the fight to develop food safety regulations and the beginnings of the Food and Drug Administration is fascinating if gruesome. To all the people concerned about genetically modified foods, I say that after reading this book, GMOs do not concern me anymore because our food could be SO much worse.”
Now: There are two things I take away from The Poison Squad. The first thing is that there has always been a political party that concerns itself more with corporations and corporate profit than with the health and welfare of the citizens of the United States. At the turn of the twentieth century, this party happened to be the Democratic Party. Today, it is the Republican Party. Same issues when it comes to voting on legislation that will help consumers versus help maintain the profits of corporations – and those kickbacks corporations provide members of Congress and senators. The second thing is that corporations never have and will never care for anything other than making the most money as possible, even if it means their products kill people. Working in business as I do, I understand this idea at a fundamental level, but this idea of profit over life struck home after reading all of the ways food manufacturers justified using lethal chemicals or other ingredients in their foodstuffs to make them cheaper to produce but keep consumer prices the same. Formaldehyde. Stone. Chalk. Coal tar. Salicylic acid. Lead. Borax. And these are the items they purposely used. Let’s not even talk about the cleanliness of their manufacturing processes! The whole thing is sickening. And depressing. The optimistic part of me would like to think that we, as a country, are better than we were in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Instead, I read about the decade-long fight Harvey Wiley had to make changes in food production, and I look at the ongoing war regarding healthcare, immigration, women’s rights, transgender rights, etc., and I know that we are no better than we were. Not by a long shot.
The Poison Squad may show how little changes there are on a political front, but it also shows just how many changes there are when it comes to foodstuffs. To my mind, worrying about hormones or food origins pales in comparison to wondering if your food is going to kill you. We joke about first world problems when we complain that something is not farm-fresh or organic, but seriously, milk used to contain formaldehyde. Embalming fluid. It makes all arguments in favor of organic ingredients feel like a joke.
Plus, men voluntarily ingested these toxic ingredients in human experiments because no one knew just how toxic they were to a human. This is not a case of watch factory workers using radium paint and developing cancer later in life. These were men who participated in experiments knowing they would be ingesting an ingredient that may be toxic. I cannot even fathom holding such human trials today, let alone finding volunteers to participate.
The political aspect of the fight for food safety may hit a little too close to home given today’s political vituperativeness, but the down and dirty details about the reasons for the need for food safety are fascinating. The Poison Squad does drag at times, but then you read about the fact that Upton Sinclair toned down those sections of his story regarding the slaughterhouse (and made them more palatable), and you are right back into the horror story that was food manufacturing in the Victorian era. Crazy stuff. It only makes you wonder how or why we as a species have lasted as long as we have.