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Would You Volunteer to Eat Poison for the Government?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

the poison squad

Story at-a-glance -

  • The Poison Squad was the name given to a group of men recruited by chemist Harvey Washington Wiley, who took part in some of the first experiments to weed out toxins in the food supply
  • The experiments resulted in the creation of the first U.S. law to help protect the food supply, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, otherwise known as the Wiley Act
  • It’s been more than 100 years since the first food safety law was passed in the U.S., but much still remains to be desired about the safety and transparency of the U.S. food supply
  • Foods are still commonly adulterated, packed with questionable additives or contaminated with pathogens
  • In many ways, the U.S. public as a whole is acting as the next poison squad by consuming an unprecedented multitude of food additives, chemicals, GMOs and gene-edited foods, the ultimate health effects of which remain to be seen

If you were around in the early 1900s, you may have looked forward to reading about “The Poison Squad” in your morning paper. Photos of the group, dressed up in their Sunday best and seated for their evening meal, were popular across the U.S., along with articles detailing their latest experiments consuming potentially poisonous food additives — and describing the resulting ill effects.

It was a time when food safety was an oxymoron, and it was commonplace to find not only adulterants in food — rock powder in flour or charcoal in coffee grounds, for instance — but also for foods to be anything but what was promised on the label.1

The Poison Squad was the name given to a group of men recruited by chemist Harvey Washington Wiley, who took part in some of the first experiments to weed out toxins in the food supply, and resulted in the creation of the first U.S. law to help protect the food supply.

Transition From Homegrown, Local Food to Industrial Food Necessitated Food Safety Laws

In the early 1800s, 95 percent of Americans still lived in rural areas, where food came from family gardens or local small farms. By 1900, only 60 percent of Americans still lived in rural locales, with 40 percent living in urban cities instead.2

This industrialization and urbanization that occurred in the 19th century led to major changes in the U.S. food supply, as many Americans, no longer able to grow their own food, looked for other sources — a need happily met by industry. As reported in The Atlantic:3

“In the late 1800s, America was changing rapidly, and so were its food systems. The country was industrializing, and as people moved into cities in search of jobs, they no longer picked their own tomatoes or churned their own butter from the milk of local cows. Food had to travel farther to reach these city dwellers, and, in an era before artificial refrigeration, it spoiled quickly.

But there was a solution, and it came from scientists working in the exciting new field of chemistry: preservatives that promised to keep food fresh for days, even weeks. By the 1880s and ’90s, Americans were consuming preservatives such as formaldehyde, borax and salicylic acid for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Enter Wiley, who landed a job as chief chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1883. He had been petitioning the government for decades to look into the safety of food additives, but it wasn’t until 1902 that he was given $5,000 to conduct such studies, which were formally known as the “hygienic table trials,” but more commonly referred to as the poison squad trials.4

The Poison Squad Was Instrumental in the Creation of First US Food Safety Law

Wiley’s experiments into food safety began in 1881, when the Indiana State Board of Health asked him to look into products being sold as honey and maple syrup.

According to Deborah Blum in her book, “The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” Wiley revealed that 90 percent of supposedly 100 percent maple syrup samples were fake and, as for the honey, “there were ‘beekeepers’ who had not, of late, been bothering to keep bees.”5

He then went on to investigate and publicize adulterated foods, including sawdust in pepper, metals in cocoa powder and whiskey made from ethyl alcohol and prune juice. Next came the now infamous poison squad trials, in which 12 men consumed questionable food ingredients to find out their effects.

While it may seem like finding volunteers to consume what could easily be poison would be difficult, men were reportedly lining up to take part (women were not allowed to participate). In exchange for risking their lives as guinea pigs, they were offered some pay along with free lodging and meals for six months, along with medical care, while they otherwise went on with their normal lives.

“Soon known as the Poison Squad, these idealistic volunteers embraced the motto on a sign in their special dining room: “ONLY THE BRAVE DARE EAT THE FARE,” The New York Times wrote.6

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Fanfare for the Poison Squad Ensued While Industry Tried to Tarnish Wiley’s Reputation

As part of their regular fare, the poison squad consumed such additives as borax, formaldehyde and other preservatives while Americans eagerly awaited the outcomes. Such toxins were not necessarily added deceptively, either.

Some food companies openly advertised products like Freezine, a formaldehyde-containing substance added to rancid milk.7 Upon consuming formaldehyde, some of the volunteers went on strike because their health plummeted so badly and Wiley stopped using it in the experiment to protect them. When consuming borax, meanwhile, the volunteers complained of headaches, depression and more.

The idea that ingredients in their food could be toxic was a new one for many Americans, and one that the industry was not keen on letting out. “The National Food Processors Association and other industry groups were not pleased, to say the least,” according to The New York Times, which added:8

“For his efforts on behalf of food safety and integrity, Wiley was described in one trade journal as ‘the man who is doing all he can to destroy American business.’

Misleading articles by nonexistent journalists were circulated to harm his reputation. The newly formed Monsanto Chemical Company became one of his most persistent foes, after USDA chemists questioned the safety of saccharine and caffeine, two additives that it manufactured.”

The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, or the ‘Wiley Act’

Wiley was able to gain allies via women’s clubs, consumer advocates and even the celebrity chef Fannie Farmer, who helped with the eventual passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, otherwise known as the Wiley Act.

“While Wiley was stumping for a law, muckraking journalists such as Samuel Hopkins Adams exposed in vivid detail the hazards of the marketplace,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported. It helped that, around the same time, Upton Sinclair’s novel, “The Jungle,” revealed the horrible conditions of the meat-packing industry.

“In fact, the nauseating condition of the meat-packing industry that Upton Sinclair captured in ‘The Jungle’ was the final precipitating force behind both a meat inspection law and a comprehensive food and drug law,” according to the FDA.9

The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act prohibited the interstate transport of unlawful food and drugs and prohibited the addition of “any ingredients that would substitute for the food, conceal damage, pose a health hazard, or constitute a filthy or decomposed substance.”

The Act also prohibited false or misleading food and drug labels, and 11 dangerous ingredients, such as alcohol, heroin and cocaine, had to be listed on the labels.

More Than a Century Later, You Still Don’t Know What’s in Your Food

It’s been more than 100 years since the first food safety law was passed in the U.S., but much still remains to be desired about the safety and transparency of the U.S. food supply. Foods are still commonly adulterated, for instance.

When it comes to olive oil, tests reveal anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of the olive oils sold in American grocery stores and restaurants contain cheap, oxidized, omega-6 vegetable oils, such as sunflower oil or peanut oil, or nonhuman grade olive oils.10

Further, according to a report by oceans advocacy nonprofit organization Oceana, 1 in 3 seafood samples tested in the U.S. were mislabeled.11 There are also a multitude of chemicals used in food that do not have to be in any way disclosed, as they're considered "processing aids." So, besides preservatives, emulsifiers, colors and flavors, which are generally listed, there are any number of others that are not.

Even the artificial food coloring and other food additives, such as preservatives, allowed in foods can be problematic. They’re associated with increased hyperactivity in children, for instance.12 Emulsifiers, including carboxymethylcellulose (CMC) and polysorbate 80 (P80), are another problem, with research suggesting they could be leading to inflammation, anxiety and depression in those who consume them.13

Aside from the chemicals intentionally added to your food, pathogens are also still problematic in the food supply. Raw chicken, to give one example, is a notorious carrier of salmonella, campylobacter, clostridium perfringens and listeria bacteria.14 And antibiotics are still allowed in the food supply despite the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease, which is expected to affect more people than cancer by 2050.15

GMOs and Gene Editing: Is the US Public Acting as the Next Poison Squad?

Wiley’s work set the stage to remove obvious poisons like lead and formaldehyde from the food supply, but he probably couldn’t have foreseen the current affront to food safety, which comes in the form of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and, possibly, gene-editing technologies like CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat.

In the U.S., the FDA considers most genetically engineered (GE) foods to be “substantially equivalent” to non-GE foods and, as such, categorizes them as “generally recognized as safe,” with no need for premarket approval.16 Yet, there is much we don’t know about the fate of GE foods, and GE food-derived DNA, once they enter our bodies.

Research published in Food and Chemical Toxicology revealed that DNA from food not only can survive harsh processing and digestive conditions, but “DNA fragments up to a few hundred base pairs can survive and reach blood and tissues of human and animal consumers.”17

“There is limited evidence of food-born DNA integrating into the genome of the consumer and of horizontal transfer of GM crop DNA into gut-bacteria,” the researchers added.

The first gene-edited foods are also expected to begin selling in the U.S. in 2019.18 Among the possibilities are “heart healthy” soybean oils, fiber-rich or low-gluten wheat or nonbrowning mushrooms. As for gene-edited animals, the FDA proposed to classify animals with edited or engineered DNA as drugs, prompting backlash from the biotech industry,19 which doesn’t even want such foods labeled.

As for whether or not these foods are safe to eat, no one knows, but what is known is that gene editing produces off-target edits or, in other words, unintended changes to DNA.20 Whether the government decides to classify gene-edited foods similarly to GMOs or conventional foods remains to be seen, but without labels you’ll have no way of knowing whether the food you eat has been genetically edited or not.

In many ways, the U.S. public as a whole is acting as the next poison squad by consuming an unprecedented multitude of food additives, chemicals, GMOs and gene-edited foods — not to mention chemical residues like glyphosate — in their meals on a daily basis — the ultimate health effects of which remain to be seen.