A fascinating—and disturbing—history of the late-19th-century crusade for food safety, led by a pioneering scientist who fought hard against “chemically enhanced and deceptive food manufacturing practices,” some of which we still see today.
The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 ended a century of scandal and bitter political maneuvering, with major impetus from Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), a genuinely unknown American hero. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Blum (Director, Knight Science Journalism Program/MIT; The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, 2010, etc.) offers less a biography than a vivid account of Wiley’s achievements. As she writes, 19th-century industrial chemistry “brought a host of new chemical additives and synthetic compounds into the food supply. Still unchecked by government regulation, basic safety testing, or even labeling requirements, food and drink manufacturers embraced the new materials with enthusiasm.” Throughout the book, the author clearly busts the myth of “a romantic glow over the foods of our forefathers.” Adding formaldehyde to milk kept it fresh in a warm room for days. Copper sulfate restored the faded green of canned beans. Yellow lead chromate colored candy. Slaughterhouses put out poisoned bread to discourage rats, and “then the rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together.” Wiley became chief chemist of the Department of Agriculture in 1883. Already alarmed at food adulteration, he delivered speeches and wrote popular articles, working closely with muckraking journalists and the burgeoning pure food movement. Congress routinely quashed reforms before President Theodore Roosevelt supported the 1906 bill, but Blum emphasizes that he showed no interest before winning the 1904 presidential election; afterward, he paid more attention to objections from the food industry. The author maintains that Wiley was the true “Father of the Pure Food and Drug Act.” Never popular with superiors, he clashed with them over the act’s enforcement, resigning in 1912 to take over the labs at the Good Housekeeping Institute, where he continued making waves until his death.
An expert life of an undeservedly obscure American.