The More Things Change

The French have a saying: Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose (The more things change, the more they stay the same). This is well illustrated by study of the decades long battle to enact legislation to regulate the food and pharmaceutical industries in the late 19th and early 20th century. Accounts of the determined opposition to passage of a law to accomplish this is eerily similar to what goes on in Washington these days.

The 19th Century saw the introduction of food and drugs on an industrial scale, largely replacing the small mom-and pop operations which had supplied foods to the populace. This had become necessary as a much larger proportion of workers made their livings unconnected to farming, while the proportion of people living in cities increased drastically. Although numerous nations in Europe had passed laws to regulate food standards and safety, lobbyists prevented anything like this from happening in the USA.

An excellent, highly readable and entertaining account of this is found in “The Poison Squad” by Deborah Blum, one of the best science writers around, for my money, anyway. The book is about Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, one of the true heros of the U.S. civil service. Dr. Wiley was appointed Chief Chemist of the Department of Agriculture in 1883. He had been a professor of chemistry at Purdue University. The title of Blum’s book is taken from a tactic Dr. Wiley employed to dramatize the hazards of food additives commonly used at the time.

As we well know, food spoils on storage. This problem was especially difficult in an era when there was no electric service to homes. You can’t preserve stuff without refrigeration. At best, people used ice boxes, with commercially available blocks of ice (“ice box” was an old name for fridges, back in the day). Preservatives are used to this day, but we have a much better handle on safety.

Some of the chemicals used included formaldehyde, borax (yes, 20 mule team) and salicylic acid. Formaldehyde was often used to extend shelf life of milk. Although pasteurization was a proven technology, American dairy producers were slow to adopt it because it cost too much (sound familiar?). The title of Blum’s book describes an experiment to test toxicity of some of these compounds. Dr. Wiley solicited volunteers among governmment employees to consume foods containing them. You had to be young, healthy and male. Low salaries, coupled with the high cost of living in Washington (hasn’t changed much, has it?) induced many to enjoy (albeit tainted) chow at government expense. The volunteers ate three meals per day, for a specified period; they were rotated in groups which consumed preserved food, then rotated to a similar selection without preservatives. The term “Poison Squad was coined by a Washington Post reporter, much to the chagrin of Ag Department higher-ups. Following each rotation, the men were given thorough physicals. As it happened, some of these food additives did sicken some of the volunteers. (Milk, by the way, preserved with formaldehyde was nicknamed “embalmed milk”, since the substance was widely used in funeral homes).

Indiscriminate use of preservatives was by no means the only problem with food adulteration at that time. Strawberry jam, for example, often consisted of mashed apple peelings, grass seed and red dye, and (maybe) a strawberry or two (or, maybe not).

Finally, in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. Although far from perfect, the new law began a process to prevent some of these abuses. In 1938, it was replaced with the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, which is basically the law in use today. As so often happens, the passage of the legislation resulted from a tragedy which killed 107 people who had ingested a drug, sulfanilamide, which was dissolved into diethylene glycol (still in use today as antifreeze). Plus ca change……..

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