American Experience


The Poison Squad

'The Poison Squad' tells the story of government chemist Dr. Harvey Wiley who, determined to banish these dangerous substances from dinner tables, took on the powerful food manufacturers and their allies.

AIRED: January 28, 2020 | 1:51:03

(utensils scraping)

NARRATOR: "We sit at a table delightfully spread,"

"and teeming with good things to eat.

"And daintily finger the cream-tinted bread,

"just needing to make it complete--

"a film of the butter so yellow and sweet,

"well suited to make every minute a dream of delight.

"And yet while we eat,

"we cannot help asking 'What's in it?'

"The wine which you drink never heard of a grape,

"but of tannin and coal tar is made.

"And you could not be certain, except for their shape,

"that the eggs by a chicken were laid.

"And the salad, which bears such an innocent look

"and whispers of fields that are green,

"is covered with germs, each armed with a hook

"to grapple with liver and spleen.

"The banquet how fine, don't begin it

"till you think of the past and the future and sigh,

"'How I wonder, how I wonder,

what's in it.'"

Harvey Wiley.

In 1901, government chemist Harvey Washington Wiley

set out to prove that Americans were being poisoned

by an ever-increasing number of new chemical preservatives

secretly being added to their food.

Wiley had been on a public crusade for two decades

to force the government to regulate

the powerful new food manufacturing industry,

when he struck upon a novel approach to raise awareness:

human trials.

SARAH LOHMAN: What Wiley wanted to find out is,

"If you eat enough of this, will it kill you?"

It created public awareness for people

to begin to question what was in their food,

and I think, more importantly,

question these large corporations.

America was definitely the Wild West

for putting all kinds of chemicals into food.

It was completely unregulated.

Any producer could get away with whatever they wanted.

LOHMAN: Before Wiley, there was nobody testing

to see whether something was harmful or not.

NARRATOR: Wiley became the face of the pure food movement

that was sweeping the country,

mobilizing legions of activists

allied in a fight for basic human rights

that came to define the Progressive Era.

LOHMAN: This man's course in life was to make food safe.

Making sure that the poorest among us

could go to the store and get food

that wasn't going to kill them.

NARRATOR: Wiley's controversial experiments

captivated and even entertained the country,

and his volunteers earnedthe nickname "the Poison Squad."

Their sacrifice helped lead to the passage

of the first consumer-protection laws in American history.

DEBORAH BLUM: The Poison Squad was one

of the most influential scientific studies

of the 20th century.

BRUCE WATSON: This is the first federal attempt

to regulate the quality and adulteration of food.

In a very real way, he's the father of the FDA.

(liquid bubbling)

NARRATOR: In 1881,

37-year-old chemist Harvey Wiley

was working in relative obscurity

in the lone laboratory onthe campus of Purdue University.

Wiley had become fixated on the analysis of food products,

perfecting techniques for identifying and isolating

their various chemical components.

Earlier that year,

the Indiana State Board of Health had asked Wiley

to examine the purity

of commercially sold honey and maple syrup.

Wiley collected samples from across the state.

Much to his surprise,

his analysis revealed up to 90% of them were fake.

Most of the jars labeled "honey" were just tinted corn syrup

with a scrap of honeycomb thrown in

to complete the deception.

LOHMAN: At the turn of the century,

people would buy honey, and it was usually corn syrup.

People would buy maple syrup, and it was usually corn syrup.

People would buy jam, and it was usually corn syrup.

You had no idea what was in your jar of jam.

You had no way to know that,

because there was no labeling on these foods either.

BLUM:Wiley takes all of these samples

and finds hugely widespread fraud

across the board in all of these products

and basically comes out and says,

"If this is true in Indiana alone,

"we know it's true everywhere,

"So this is a national problem,

and this is not acceptable."

NARRATOR: Wiley's interest in the new field of food chemistry

was happening at a moment of unprecedented change

in the way Americans ate.

By the late 19th century,

the country was in the midst

of a second industrial revolution.

Great advances in technology

allowed for the expansion of all types of industry,

from steel manufacturing and coal mining

to communication and railroads.

Trains now moved people and produce

at a pace and distance never imagined,

radically re-shaping the American landscape.

No facet of life went untouched

by the great economic transformation,

including the American diet.

Cities swelled

as millions of new laborers began working in factories.

The nation's efforts to feed them sparked a boom

in the new field of industrial food manufacturing.

BLUM: Post-Civil War,

you start seeing a migration to the city

and away from people who were living

in the farm-fresh communities.

So there's more and more people,

more and more food has to be manufactured.

The biggest purely economic development

is the rise of big business.

You get Pillsbury, you get Heinz, Campbell's,


All these big food companies emerge at this time.

NARRATOR: With industrialization came consolidation.

Midwestern cities grew into major food-manufacturing hubs,

where everything from wheat, corn,

and livestock could be processed.

By 1890, Chicago's Union Stockyards

were processing over nine million head of cattle a year.

(cattle mooing)

And by the turn of the century,

meatpacking behemoths like Swift and Armour

were providing nearly 90%of the country's processed meat.

Rather than moving food

from the area surrounding the city to the city,

you know, you can grow your beef out in the Midwest.

You can process it in Chicago,

and you can bring it down into New York City,

all through railroads at fairly low cost.

ERIC SCHLOSSER: The slaughterhouses of America

created the notion of an assembly line.

When Henry Ford came up with the assembly line for the Model T,

it was inspired by the slaughterhouses in Chicago,

which were applying all kinds of new notions of efficiency

to food production.

NARRATOR: With mass distribution across the country,

food manufacturers were running into the problem

of how to keep their products fresh for market

and how to do so at the lowest possible cost.

MARK BITTMAN: You didn't even have refrigeration.

It hadn't been really determined how to preserve things

in a way that would keep them marketable

for a long period of time.

There was canning,

but that didn't work for everything.

So what were you supposed to do?

NARRATOR: Increasingly, companies were turning

to the burgeoning chemical industry for answers.

By 1901, companies like Dow and Monsanto had introduced

a host of new chemicals to the food supply.

BLUM: There's preservative discoveries,

formaldehyde, the ability to synthesize formaldehyde.

There's copper sulfate, which is a heavy metal,

is used to turn vegetables greener when they're canned.

Copper sulfate in particular was one

that was used for a very long time.

It went into green peas, and it went into pickles.

Anything that needed to look bright and fresh,

copper sulfate went into it.

BITTMAN: In the 19th century, most food was still real.

and then the 20th century saw the process of food

going from real

to something that no one had ever seen before.

SCHLOSSER: It'd be wonderful to think that there was this Eden

back in American history,

where everything was free range and organic and perfect,

but in the 19th century,

as more and more Americans were leaving the farm,

and now living in cities,

they had lost this direct and intimate connection

with their food.

NARRATOR:Harvey Washington Wiley was born in October of 1844,

knowing full well where his food came from.

He grew up in a log cabin in Kent, Indiana,

about a hundred miles northeast

of where Abraham Lincoln had been raised

just a few decades earlier.

Like Lincoln, Wiley spent his youth

working on his family farm.

By six, he was herding the family cows back to the barn

for their daily milking.

At ten, he was driving the plow.

BLUM: He would talk about the fact that he had grown up

in this vanishing American idyll of a small family farm,

where everything was fresh,

and everything that was made was made naturally.

They did churn their own butter.

They did milk their own cows.

So, he was very grounded in that old-time, agrarian sense

of, "This is what real food is."

And what I do think it led him to do

is this very simple category--

real food, fake food, with nothing in between.

NARRATOR: It was young Harvey's father, Preston Wiley,

who cultivated within him oneof his most enduring attributes:

a fervent belief in social justice.

BLUM: His father was a farmer

but was also an itinerant evangelical preacher,

passionate about social justice.

He was a conductor on the Underground Railroad

in the part of southern Indiana where they were.

SUZANNE JUNOD:His family was very progressive.

Wiley grew up in an atmosphere

in which there were standards

of honesty and integrity,

influenced by religion.

A sense that there is, you know, a right way and a wrong way.

He read a lot.

His father clearly realized that education was important.

He encouraged all of his family to be well-educated.

NARRATOR: Wiley was determined to use his education for good.

He earned a medical degree atIndiana Medical College in 1871

and wasn't shy about expounding on the virtues of science

for achieving a longer life

"full of health, happiness, and hope," he noted.

Then he received a degree in chemistry from Harvard,

and in 1874

accepted the position to be Purdue University's

first chemistry professor.

But Wiley quickly grew restless with life in the classroom,

finding himself more at home running experiments

from within his spartan laboratory.

BLUM: He loves chemistry,

he saw chemistry as a science that could do good,

and that was how he wanted to use it.

(car horn honks)

NARRATOR: In 1878,

Wiley took a sabbatical to Europe,

where he found himself on thecutting edge of food chemistry.

He attended lectures of world-renowned scientists

like August Wilhelm von Hofmann,

the inventor of formaldehyde.

It was there that Wiley became interested

in European advancements in analytic chemistry

and in perfecting techniques

to ferret out chemical additives in food.

While in Europe,

Wiley saw firsthand the power of science

to reform an unregulated food industry run amok.

By 1860 Britain had already passed a major law

to limit chemical adulteration of food

after a series of deaths caused by toxic chemical additives

stirred public outrage.

In one incident, over 20 people from the town of Bradford died

after being poisoned

by arsenic-laced food coloring in candy.

By 1881,

France had banned the use of the chemical salicylic acid

in their wine,

after French chemists sounded alarms about its toxicity.

Germany also banned the chemical from its beer.

BLUM: Some of the laboratories in Europe,

taking advantage of the new analytic techniques,

are starting to try to get ahead of this.

"Can we detect it?"

Europe was ahead of us on that,

and they were particularly interested in food analysis,

which Wiley found fascinating

and which he knew was nonexistent

in the United States at that time.

NARRATOR: In America, powerful food manufacturers,

from J. Ogden Armour,

the leader of the massive Chicago Meatpacking Trust,

to Asa Candler, the head of the industry giant Coca-Cola,

faced no such prohibitions ontheir use of chemical additives,

nor any regulation on divulging ingredients on food labels.

By the end of the 19th century,

the American food supply was rife with chemicals and fakes.

SCHLOSSER: The United States was unique

among industrialized nations

about not having food safety regulations.

So, you know, there were all kinds of restrictions

on American food imports in Europe,

because they didn't trust the cleanliness of our food.

The idea of government regulation,

which was anathema to the oligarchs

and the robber barons who owned this industry.

"Why should government get in my way?

It has no right to interfere in the way I do business."

People lied in advertising just on a routine basis.

And there was no regulation of that,

and people didn't even think it should be discussed.

It was just a capitalist marketplace

where the buyer beware,

and consumers were completely unprotected.

BLUM: And these are industries that give a lot of money

to very specific people in government

to make sure that nothing does happen.

So, that's also a factor,

the ability of business to buy government.

NARRATOR: Upon his return to the U.S.,

Wiley was more determined than ever

to investigate the American food industry

and to raise public awareness

about the prevalence of fake food

and chemical adulterants.

With new state-of-the-art lab equipment

he purchased in Europe,

Wiley began informal investigations

into processed food,

perfecting his analytic skills along the way.

Soon, he was able to detect a host of chemical additives

that manufacturers were routinely using

to preserve their food--

chemicals like formaldehyde, sodium benzoate, and borax.

Wiley wasn't so much bothered

by the chemical preservatives themselves,

but that the American public had no idea what they were eating

and manufacturers had no requirement to tell them.

SCHLOSSER: Wiley believed very strongly that,

"If you wanted to put borax in your processed food,

"go ahead and do it, just have on the label

"that it says borax, so that people can make a choice.

"But if there's no way for youto tell the difference visually,

"no way for you to tell the difference by smell,

"then it's very easy for companies to lie

and cheat and defraud."

NARRATOR: It was this kind of corporate fraud

that offended Wiley's puritanical sense

of right and wrong,

and he was determined to use his science

to raise public awareness.

BLUM: If what you want to do is

have your science make a difference,

then you've got to move it out into the larger community.

He starts doing more and more public outreach.

And you can actually see at Purdue,

you know, he's talking in churches,

he's talking to different public groups.

"This is not acceptable.

"People are being cheated.

"We need to step in and make this right.

"We need labels.

We need some kind of regulation and standards."

NARRATOR: When it came time to publish his findings

of fraud in the honey and syrup industry,

Wiley learned quickly

how his work had touched a nerve within the industry

and awakened powerful forces allied against him.

BLUM: Well, food manufacturers from the beginning were outraged

by what Wiley was doing, because a lot of this

had been a well-kept secret.

So, the makers of fake syrups,

the makers of fake honey,

all of them are instantly angry about this.

There was actually a pamphlet that circulated at one point

called "Wiley's Honey Lie"

to try to smear his reputationas a scientist and as a person.

You know, all of these attacks turn out to be very personal.

JUNOD: I mean, the beekeepers should have been delighted

that he had exposed

what they were trying to compete with,

but instead all they could see was

the bad publicity it was bringing to honey overall.

And so he made enemies,

but he was also extremely honest and frank.

And he had no subtletyin the arts of, of negotiation.

NARRATOR: The attacks only emboldened Wiley.

"It was my first participation in the fray,"

he would later write, and he liked it.

But for the trustees of Purdue University,

Wiley's outspoken advocacy was unbecoming of its faculty,

and by 1882, it was clear

that he had worn out his welcome on campus.

Wiley, as he would the rest of his career,

found himself a lone voice

pitted against a powerful, entrenched institution.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was created

by President Lincoln in 1862,

when America was still largely an agrarian nation.

Its primary mission was to provide support

for American farmers.

In 1883, Wiley accepted a job as the new chief

of the department's Division of Chemistry--

a tiny office with a lab housed in the basement of the agency.

Prior to Wiley's arrival,

the office had conducted onlysmall food-fraud investigations.

But Wiley had a bold new agenda for the fledgling bureau--

a wide-scale study of the state of American food.

BLUM: By the time he got to Washington, D.C.,

he's already made people angry.

He's ticked off the honey producers,

he's recognized that there are going to be scientists

with hostility to some of his stands,

and he's a little more battle-savvy

than you might have expected when he comes in.

And as it turns out, he's goingto need to be very battle-savvy.

NARRATOR:With more money and wider reach,

the chemist wasted little time enacting his plan

to study American food manufacturing.

His first target would be the dairy industry,

including the quality and healthfulness of milk--

one of the most important foods in the American diet

and one of the most vulnerable to widespread adulteration.

KUMMER: Very few cultures have had the relationship to milk

that the United States has.

Part of it is we were an agrarian economy

that was mostly dairy,

so almost every farm had some dairy.

Fresh milk was what you gave your children.

Milk always had this association with purity and wholesomeness.

MARK KURLANSKY: You know, for a very long time in history,

it was fairly unusual to drink milk

except for giving it to babies.

But in America, adults started drinking milk much more

than in other places.

And they started drinking it a lot.

But there was a problem

that milk, if it wasn't very fresh,

would make you sick.

BLUM: Milk production was becoming increasingly corrupt,

because as you have the rise of industries

which are clustered around big urban areas,

you have people who are living on a very small budget,

and they can't afford the wonderful, farm-fresh milk.

And so the dairy industry begins coming up

with creative ways to make cheap milk.

NARRATOR: By the time Wiley began his study in 1885,

dairy manufacturers had learnedthat there was money to be made

by adulterating their product.

The standard formula was a pint of warm water

for every quart of milk.

To rid the remaining liquid of its bluish tint,

producers would add whitening agents,

such as plaster of Paris or chalk.

For customers expecting a layer of cream on top,

they might add something yellowish,

perhaps a dollop of pureed calf brains.

The dangers of milk, particularly in cities,

were already well-known.

KURLANSKY: In New York City, they had this odd thing

where they had a lot of breweries in the city.

And they would set up dairies next to the brewery,

and you'd take a cow,

and you'd just chain it for life to this spot.

And the leftover from the brewery,

it was called swill.

It would sort of come through on a trough.

And it was a very poor quality of feed,

and there was no hygiene at all in these places.

The cows basically died standing there being milked.

(cow mooing)

BLUM: These cows were so sickly, their teeth rotted out.

Pretty soon they couldn't even eat.

As the cow makes milk,

it has to be eating food with nutrients in it.

And these swill dairies actually

were making milk that didn't have a lot of the nutrients

that you would expect in milk.

NARRATOR: But the problem with dairy products was not simply

a lack of nutrients in swill milk.

Tenement houses packed with millions of laborers

and the lack of proper sewage and sanitation

made cities breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses

that could be transmitted by spoiled milk.

Milk purveyors were often selling a product

laden with deadly bacteria.

Outbreaks of scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and cholera

were common.

KURLANSKY: Unrefrigerated milk sold in the streets

in open buckets.

I mean, just every imaginable opportunity

for all kinds of disease.

You know, it's like walking around with a Petri dish,

and "What can we grow in here?"

NARRATOR:The government's testing of milk revealed problems nationwide.

In one sample, researchers found worms

wriggling in the bottom of the bottles.

To cover up spoiled milk,

the industry routinely turned

to the deadly chemical formaldehyde.

BLUM: In the Civil War,

people realize that formaldehyde is a great preservative.

It was the number-one embalming fluid during the Civil War.

Dairymen start putting formaldehyde into milk.

And as it turns out, it's wonderful for them.

Apparently, it's slightly sweetish in taste.

So, it would sweeten up the taste of souring milk,

and then they would sell this milk.

And so you actually start seeing

in newspapers around the country

embalmed milk scandals,

because the milk starts killing people, mostly children.

And the dairymen are never prosecuted.

LOHMAN: Thousands of kids were dying every single year.

But, again, lacking regulation,there were no laws being broken.

And the laws that were being passed locally,

inspectors were just being paid off by the dairy owners.

SCHLOSSER: The example of milk is especially appalling,

because milk is a food product

that's being heavily marketed for children.

And to see corporate misbehavior in that sphere

really angers Wiley.

NARRATOR: Wiley's findings about other dairy products

turned up widespread fraud and deception.

Much of the butter that scientists found on the market

had nothing to do with dairy products

but was in fact a much cheaper compound,

known as oleomargarine,

made from the unprocessed scraps leftover by meatpackers.

One of the things that the margarine producers

had been doing was to label oleomargarine as butter.

You know, sometimes they'd call it butterine,

but they would label it as butter,

and they would just sell it.

Nothing on the package to say it was anything but butter

except, of course, it would be cheaper.

And so when they went in and looked at this,

they were able to show just how fraudulent that was.

NARRATOR: Wiley published the results of his study

in a government bulletin, which made a persuasive case

for federal regulation of the entire dairy industry.

Congress held hearingsbut chose to focus its attention

only on regulating oleomargarine.

The meatpackers struck back immediately,

claiming the bill was

"a campaign made out of a farmer's panic,"

and accusing Congress of stifling scientific progress

in food manufacturing.

After weeks of hearings, the Butter Act of 1886 passed.

But it was a tepid piece of legislation,

imposing only a small tax on oleomargarine

and doing nothing to address the dangerous state

of milk production across the country.

It was hardly the rebuke that Wiley was looking for--

and proof that the food industryhad a stranglehold on Congress.

(instruments clinking)

Wiley doubled down on his efforts

to raise awareness about impurities and fakery,

launching studies into everything,

from baking powder, spices, coffee, and canned vegetables.

The results were startling.

His coffee study revealed large-scale fakery--

a product made mostly of chicory, sawdust, and ash.

One study on pepper

revealed fillers of charcoal and coconut shells.

Canned beans were loaded with copper sulfate.

He published his reports

in a series of scientific digests and federal papers,

which came to be known as Bulletin 13.

BLUM: So, the bulletins went to Congress,

farmers would request them,

food advocates would request them.

But it's all within this fairly small community

of people who are kind of in the know.

So, Wiley actually starts realizing

that this is a problem.

Consumers are completely in the dark about their food.

NARRATOR: The chief chemist was not content

with informing onlyother scientists and lawmakers.

He understood that to get Congress to act on anything,

he'd need to rouse the American public.

LOHMAN: He believed

that scientists shouldn't justbe talking to other scientists.

He actually hired a science writer, um,

someone who is not a chemist himself,

but who was very, very skilled

at taking highly technical, scientific jargon-y reports

and writing them in a format

that a very wide array of people could understand.

NARRATOR: Alexander Wedderburn was a writer and advocate

for the burgeoning food safety movement

whom Wiley hoped could translate his scientific findings

for the general public.

Far from the usual dry government reports,

Wedderburn's write-up of Wiley's results

was a take-no-prisoners account of the food industry,

editorializing on what he called

the "reckless disregard" for health

and outright "evil practices" of many manufacturers.

BLUM:I mean the thing is so hot that Wiley is even saying to him,

"You know, I think you went over the top here

"in-in the way that you're kind of, you know,

calling the food industry villains,"

and everything that he does in this report.

While the report was published widely

and intended to stir outrage,

Wiley's public advocacy for food regulation

did not sit well with his bosses

at the Department of Agriculture.

When it came time to publish thenext installment of Bulletin 13,

the agency secretary, Julius Morton,

threatened to suspend the whole study,

and he fired Wedderburn.

In addition to making powerful enemies in the food industry,

Wiley was now facing resistance from within his own ranks.

JUNOD: Morton in particular

became suspicious of Wiley.

Wiley was getting to a place

where he was getting frustrated, his budget was getting cut.

His requests for supplies, for goodness sake,

were being either delayed or denied.

That shows that your superiors

are not valuing the work you're doing.

They're undermining it in themost humiliating ways possible,

I would say.

And I think he was reaching a point in his life

that he was questioning the effectiveness

of what he was doing.

(pen scratching)

NARRATOR: In 1893, Wiley confided in his journal

that he was feeling depressed.

His work had been the central focus of his life.

But as his bosses stymied his research,

his career seemed to be foundering.

That same year he lost his mother Lucinda,

and shortly after, his father Preston,

leaving him feeling adrift and alone.

"I was plunged at once out of my long boyhood,"

he noted gloomily.

Wiley was middle-aged at the turn of the 20th century,

and he was single.

When he moved to D.C., he had moved in

with a family that was renting out a room,

and he was still there.

And then one day he walks into the library at U.S.D.A.,

and there's this beautiful young librarian

named Anna Kelton,

and he just goes head over heels as soon as he sees her.

She is 30 years younger than him.

He starts courting her.

Eventually he asks her to marry him,

and she says no.

And, in a very sweet way,

keeps her picture in his watch, even so,

but, you know, sort of mourns a lost chance

and goes back to his bachelor life.

(cannons boom)

NARRATOR: Wiley's professional life and his pursuit of food regulation

would get an unexpected boost in 1898,

after American troops were sent into Cuba

during the Spanish-American war.

The war was a test

for the big meatpackingcompanies like Armour and Swift,

who'd won lucrative governmentcontracts to feed the military.

The companies were paid to ship fresh cuts of beef

and canned meat to the soldiers on the front lines.

It wasn't long before rumors

about rancid beef

and canned meat reeking of toxic chemicals

began cropping up in newspapers.

WATSON: When it gets down there, one Army medic

opens one of the cans and says, "It smells like a human body

"that's rotted and putrefied

but had been preserved with formaldehyde."

There's this reek of formaldehyde

and industrial chemicals

coming out of the beef,

and eventually, the Army does a very reluctant investigation

and concludes that everything's fine.

And this blows up in their face.

NARRATOR: The public was outraged.

And as news of the tainted rations spread,

the military cover-up earned the nickname

"the Embalmed Beef scandal."

KUMMER: If you damage young men, the flower of America,

you get into trouble.

It's young men who are in the employ of the U.S. government,

and here it's being defrauded by industry.

It's easy to marshal the populace's outrage.

NARRATOR: After the war, Congress held hearings

on the tainted meat.

The star witness was New York governor Theodore Roosevelt,

who had been on the frontlines in Cuba

when he saw for himself theshoddy state of the Army rations

that even the flinty outdoorsman couldn't stomach.

LOHMAN: He said that he saw one of his men throwing away his rations,

a can of meat,

and Roosevelt asked him why he wasn't eating it.

The man said he cannot.

And Roosevelt picks up the can of food

and tries to eat it himself and finds that he cannot.

BLUM: He looks at the can, it's full of green slime

and other... I mean, it was really a disgusting thing,

and he ends up saying, you know,

he would rather have eaten his hat

than eaten these military supplies.

NARRATOR: Congress asked Wiley to investigate.

He and his team of chemistsgathered samples of canned beef

from military rations

and store shelves across the country.

Every can they opened

contained a watery mix of the cheapest cuts of meat.

Meat scraps were encased in a thick layer fat,

and Wiley's analysis revealed

that much of his sample was already decomposed.

But to his surprise,

the research turned up no traces

of the suspected chemical additive formaldehyde.

LOHMAN: He finds nothing other than salt.

He did say that the meat was not of great quality.

It was tough, it was stringy, it was fatty,

it was gristly, it was disgusting.

"So, is this what we should be feeding our troops,

who are fighting American battles?"

NARRATOR: Wiley testified that

the meatpackers used thecheapest and oldest cuts of meat

as a way to save money.

The men who were sickened by the food

were suffering from bacterial infections

transmitted by rancid beef made worse by the Cuban heat.

Wiley's findings about canned meat

only added fuel to his crusade to hold industry accountable.

MARION NESTLE: The question is what advantage was it to industry

to produce unsafe food,and this was in the early 1900s.

The food industry is not a social service

or a public health agency.

It's a business.

NARRATOR: Perhaps Wiley's most shocking discovery

was that the canned meat that had sickened soldiers in Cuba

was almost exactly what U.S. consumers were finding

on their grocery shelves every day.

BLUM: The 19th century is known

as the century of the great American stomachache.

The diet is so bad thateveryone is sick at some level.

This is actually the state of the American food supply,

and the American beef industry really doesn't care.

And, in fact, nothing happens.

Even though this is this huge scandal,

it has no actual effect on meat processing.

It does raise awareness.

A lot more American consumers realize

that their canned meat is really horrible.

NARRATOR: By 1900,

Wiley had become the country's foremost food chemist,

perfecting techniques to identify a long list

of chemical additives

that the typical American household

was only just becoming aware it was ingesting.

Preservatives like formaldehyde in their pork,

salicylic acid in canned fruit,

borax in their country hams,

and a host of other toxic chemicals could be found

in almost every plate of food

on dinner tables across the country.

But after more than a decade

of raising alarm bells about the need for food regulations,

56-year-old Harvey Wiley had grown restless

with a Congress seemingly unwilling

to do anything about it.

BLUM: The first proposed legislation to regulate food

starts popping up in Congress in the early 1890s,

and it all fails.

It's stymied largely by senators and congressmen

who are taking a lot of money

from the food and chemical industry

to make sure it's stymied.

There's no pressure on Congress

because the public doesn't know,

and if the public doesn't know, the public doesn't care.

NARRATOR: The committee rooms of Congress, Wiley wrote,

"were jammed with attorneys for the industries--

"a formidable lobby of influential men

who would stop at nothing to kill legislation."

Wiley realized that in order to rouse the public into action,

he first needed to demonstrate the health dangers

of unregulated food production and adulteration

with his own scientific data.

The only way to achieve this, Wiley believed,

was to test these chemicals on human beings

and document their effects.

JUNOD: Wiley was a chemist.

He thought that chemistry could solve everything.

He needed physiological data to show that there was an effect,

and as a trained physician,

he was looking for the physical effects on people's health,

on their bodies, on their systems.

His plan was simple--

assemble a group of volunteers,

feed them three square meals a day

with food that he selectively poisoned

with commonly used preservatives,

and then observe.

Wiley went to Congress to make a personal appeal

for experiments that he was now calling

hygienic table trials.

I love that name.

It's so Victorian, right?

And I don't think that Congress actually knew what it was.

It was hygienic table trials.

What could sound more benign than that?

NARRATOR: In 1902, much to his surprise,

Congress agreed to fund Wiley's human experiments,

granting him $5,000 to get started.

Now all the chemist had to dowas find willing test subjects.

JUNOD: Getting volunteers

was sort of a crapshoot early on,

because they didn't know what they were going to find.

Wiley, I think he had a generalidea of what he was going to do,

but the logistics, and there were a lot of details

that were yet to be worked out.

NARRATOR: Wiley began recruiting participants

through ads in government newsletters.

His ideal recruits were robust young men

with a sense of adventure and strong stomachs.

As compensation for participating in the study,

Wiley promised subjects free food

and five dollars a month.

To his delight,

the response was overwhelming,

as young civil servants eagerly answered

the call to act as his guinea pigs.

He was getting letters from all over the country.

There was one, "I have a stomach that can take anything.

Bring it on," basically.

So, he was not really having too much trouble with recruits.

He was surprised to have people willing to travel,

you know, to take part in the trials.

WATSON: I mean, think young bachelors on a government salary.

The idea of not having to pay for any of your food

does sound a little bit attractive.

So you got them from a, youknow, saving-money perspective.

You've got them from afive-bucks-a-month perspective,

which is not inconsiderable at the time.

And then plus they're young men in their 20s,

so the idea of doing stupid stuff

because it's important and cool

actually has a certain ring to it.

NARRATOR:Wiley settled on 12 volunteers.

In exchange for the food and pay,

the men had to agree

to eat only what was being served by Dr. Wiley,

submit to a battery of physical examinations after each meal,

and promise not to sue the federal government

if they were injured in the process.

BLUM: I mean there's all these catches.

They have to agree to be weighed and blood tested

and urine tested and stool tested,

and, um, you now, fill out all these reports

and be checked by doctors and poked and prodded

and they can't have snacks, and they can't go to a bar,

and they can only eat

what the Agriculture Department gives them.

NARRATOR: To stage his study,

Wiley built an experimentalrestaurant in his basement lab,

complete with a kitchen, dining room,

and a designated cook, Chef Perry.

He planned to introduce one chemical additive

in varying amounts to each meal,

as he studied its physical effects on the volunteers

over several weeks.

But Wiley quickly ran into a snag.

How would he procure food

that wasn't already laced with chemicals?

WATSON: So, the first thing they have to do

is that they have to get food that isn't adulterated.

He goes to, for example, bean manufacturers

and talks to them about how they do the canning

and heavily watches it to make sure there's no adulteration

so everybody's getting exactly the same beans.

He talks to the actual milk producers,

cheese producers, butter producers.

So all of these ingredients are coming in

and they're super pure,

so that to the extent possible

he can absolutely controlfor just the thing he's testing.

Wiley's dining room officially opened in November 1902.

With a nod to his own darkly comic nature,

Wiley propped a sign next to the entrance that read,

"None but the brave can eat the fare."

First on Wiley's list of chemicals to test was borax,

a popular industrial food preservative

that was more commonly used as a cleaning product.

With a table set with a variety of dishes

typical of many American households,

Wiley decided to disguise the borax

by lacing the food withvarying amounts of the additive.

LOHMAN: Probably one of the most unwholesome ways to preserve

was the use of borax.

It was discovered that when borax was applied

to meat and also to vegetables,

it reacts with the proteins in a way that firms them up,

so meat that has become sort of loose and rotten,

or leafy vegetables that have become sort of wilted

tighten and crisp and become firm again.

They maintain this appearance of being fresh.

NARRATOR: Throughout the study,

Wiley needed to find new ways to hide the additive,

as the men began to notice ametallic flavor to their meals.

Sometimes he hid the borax in the milk,

and at others, in the butter.

Twice a week, the men were examined by a doctor,

and required to collect their own feces,

which were analyzed.

Their perspiration was tested for traces of borax.

To test whether borax affected respiration,

the men would breathe through a lime-water solution

for three hours at a time.

LOHMAN: Wiley didn't necessarily know

what would be important information

and what wouldn't be, so he collected all the data.

He knew it wasn't a perfect study,

but this is the beginning of these sort of clinical trials,

and they're still figuring it out.

Some of them get borax, some of them don't,

and then they see what happens.

JUNOD: We can't control for how much a given chemical,

much less the mix of chemicals

that someone can consume in aday, a week, a month, or a year.

So, what Wiley was trying to do was narrow this down

and methodically measure what'sgoing in and what's coming out.

NARRATOR:Not long after the study began,

newspaper reporters caught wind of Wiley's exploits

in the basement of the Department of Agriculture.

JUNOD:A lot of people have asked about

who the people participating in the trials are.

Wiley took great pains to keep them quiet.

They themselves were told

that they were not supposed to self-identify

as part of the trials.

But it did become... I mean, the curiosity on the part

of the public and the reporters and everything else,

you know, sort of dogged these men to know more about them.

NARRATOR: The most persistent reporter

was the "Washington Post's" George Rothwell Brown,

who had befriended Chef Perry

and plied him for information.

Soon, colorful accounts about a quirky scientist

and his band of intrepid gastronomic volunteers

began cropping up in the "Post."

WATSON: George Rothwell Brown gets interested in this

because you have 12 young men, brave and true,

eating poison for the people of the United States.

Wiley doesn't want this to get out too much.

I mean, he wants attention to it,

but he wants the right kind of attention.

He wants this to be dealt with seriously.

So he starts trying to shut down Brown.

Brown starts creating stories just to fill in the blanks.

My favorite was one, I think it was the borax one,

in which he was saying that, uh,

they had discovered that all of the test subjects,

their skin became much more beautiful, rosy, flushed

thanks to the borax, which was completely not true.

And then the Agriculture Department was inundated

from letters from people whowanted to know the right formula

to improve the beautiful look of their skin.

NARRATOR: Brown's stories went national

and sparked the public's imagination

by bestowing the entire group

with their everlasting nickname--

the Poison Squad.

Though he worried the tabloid stories

would undermine his scientific pursuit,

Wiley conceded that, for the first time,

the nation was talking about food safety.

WATSON: I mean, they refer to him as Old Borax.

He's the one whose sitting there

and, you know, running these guys into the ground,

and "Ah, go back and pick up your hair,"

and, you know, "You didn't give your urine samples,"

and so forth and so on.

Later on, when he starts realizing

the value of publicity, he actually starts getting

more directly involved in it and giving interviews.

And I think part of Wiley, this public part was like,

"Oh well, no, this is serious work we're doing,"

but the other part of him was like,

"Yes, Poison Squad, get that name out there,

"everyone's going to be familiar with it,

it's got a good ring to it," because, again,

he knew that the changes weren't going to happen

inside the government without the public pressure.

NARRATOR: Increasingly, Wiley and his Poison Squad

were becoming the public faceof a new movement for pure food

that had been brewing within progressive organizations

across the country.

KUMMER: He was very shrewd in his choice of sample

in order to demonstrate these scandals.

You know, there's something Barnum, P.T. Barnum-esque,

except he was fighting the good fight.

SCHLOSSER: The Poison Squad

and all the elaborate rituals around it,

from the menu to the slogan on the wall,

it was great public relations; it was flamboyant.

NARRATOR: Before Wiley published a single result of his study,

the Poison Squad had become a cultural phenomenon,

and their exploits-- real or imagined-- legendary.

They inspired cartoons, poems, limericks,

and even a minstrel song.

LOHMAN: People loved the concept

of the Poison Squad and, I mean, who wouldn't?

It's, like, all these young men

performing experiments on themselves,

poisoning themselves.

The whole thing is fascinating.

There were like joke menus in the newspaper,

where every other course was borax,

and Vaudevillian songs about them.

One of them was "The Ballad of the Poison Squad."

"We break our fast on match-head consommé,

"and we eat our Prussic acid stew,

"and we eat the deadliest of deadlies,

and we survive, because we're the Poison Squad."

NARRATOR: Despite the media circus that was swirling the study,

Wiley's human trials on borax

were turning up troubling results.

As Wiley increased the dosage of borax over time,

the men began to show signs of serious intestinal illness,

including vomiting.

The cumulative health effects of the preservative

were definitive in Wiley's mind,

and he shared his findings in an official report.

The country was transfixed by descriptions

of once healthy young men laid waste by borax poisoning.

Only half of the participants, Wiley pointed out,

had managed to last through the final round of testing,

with the rest dropping out due to illness.

KUMMER: There were all sorts of bad effects,

and by being able to add the poison himself,

he could show the public,

"Look what happens in these strapping, healthy young men

who lose muscle mass,

who can't gain weight, who can't concentrate."

LOHMAN: They would get nauseous, they would vomit.

They would lose weight.

They were absolutely miserable.

They had headaches, they had some uncontrolled trembling.

It wasn't killing them, no one was dropping dead,

but the, but the exposure tothe borax was making them sick.

(utensils clinking)

NARRATOR: Wiley speculated that the dosages over time

had affected the volunteers' kidneys and other organs,

leading to what he called

"disturbances of appetite, of digestion, and of health."

More research, it seemed, would be needed.

But for now, the data was having Wiley's intended effect--

the public was taking notice.

I think one of the reasons thatthis issue resonated so strongly

is that everybody was eating this food,

and there was no way to differentiate

something that was wholesome

from something that was adulterated.

Particularly when you're talking about milk, butter, jam,

things that seem so ordinary,

to find out that they aren'twhat they're advertised as being

is shocking.

LOHMAN:It led, then, the general public

to begin to question what was in their food,

and I think more importantly,

question these large corporations--

if they were deserving of trust,

if they really were doing the right thing,

if they really did care

whether or not they were hurting the general public.

NARRATOR: The results also had a great effect on Wiley himself.

Long an advocate for accurate labeling,

the data he was collecting were beginning to convince him

that no level of chemical adulteration was safe.

"The chemical and physiological data were vast," Wiley wrote.

"But the lesson they taught was unmistakable:

preservatives used in food are harmful to health."

JUNOD: Wiley started out

cautiously optimistic

that he would find some levels of safety.

One of the problems that he discovered,

there were concerns about the cumulative effect.

You can't label that

if you eat this particularproduct every day for six weeks,

you could have these symptoms.

So, Wiley's approach to labeling had to be abandoned.

He said, "I was converted by my own research," you know?

It made him realize that it wasn't just enough

to say, "We should label,"

that there were some things that really should be

taken out of the food supply.

(people chattering)

NARRATOR: By late 1902, Wiley's efforts

to force Congress to act on food regulation

seemed to be paying off.

A new food safety bill was up for debate,

and hearings were scheduled in the Senate and the House,

with Wiley to testify as the lead witness in both.

The chemist came out swinging hard at the food industry,

calling for greater regulation of chemicals in food,

for the protection of the American public.

"The consumer is entitled to know the nature

of the substances he purchases," Wiley proclaimed,

"and to be assured that their food is pure and wholesome."

It didn't take long for the food manufacturers to strike back,

and the attacks would be personal,

portraying Wiley as a press-hungry radical

opposed to business.

Anyone who took on these companies

were subject to extraordinary attacks.

You know, Wiley was described as anti-business

simply because he objected

to dangerous adulterants in food.

JUNOD: So, what we're seeing is

industry taking a backdoor approach

to trying to cut Wiley off at the knees.

This sort of shadow industry had

a whole campaign and a whole plan

on how to begin to undermine Wiley's ability

to regulate these chemical preservatives.

NARRATOR: In the halls of Congress and in the press,

almost every facet of the food industry

readily shared their outrage with Wiley's crusade.

The manufacturers association

was joined by the dairy industry,

which depended on formaldehyde to salvage sour milk;

the baking industry, which relied on aluminum

in baking powder;

the bleached flour industry;

and the increasingly powerfulchemical products manufacturers.

"Dr. Wiley seems to thirst deeply for notoriety,"

declaimed one industry insider.

"He is happiest when looking complacently

into the horror-stricken eyes

of women he has just scared half to death."

An editorial in the"California Fruit Grower" asked,

"Let somebody muzzle the yellow chemist

who would destroy our appetites."


Wiley expected the backlash from industry,

but he was disappointed to discover

that even the new president,

the progressive lion and thetrust-buster Theodore Roosevelt,

was resigned to the failure of Congress

to pass any food legislation.

"It will take more than my recommendation

to get the law passed," Roosevelt explained.

"I understand there issome very stubborn opposition."

BLUM: Wiley really hoped that Roosevelt

was going to be the president of his dreams.

He had never been able

to get a president interested in his food stuff--

you know, no matter how high profile it was,

presidents ignored it,

and Roosevelt was known as a progressive.

DALTON: But he was leading a Republican Party

with very entrenched opposition

to any kind of food regulation,

and his best friend was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge,

who was in the manufacturers' back pocket.

BLUM: It's obvious, one,

that Roosevelt was making a lot of political calculations,

and, two, that he is

very close to some of these wealthy food manufacturers

and really doesn't want to be disruptive to their business.

And he makes a lot of choices to support the industry

over Wiley's more purist position.

NARRATOR: Without Roosevelt's backing,

the Food Bill of 1902 fizzled out in Congress

and was never even brought up for a vote.

The big food manufacturers had won.

The government was being very conservative,

because they were continuing to be in the pockets

of these corporations and these trusts.

There were lobbyists a hundred years ago,

just like there are today.

BLUM: Wiley, he's a very stubborn person,

and he has this one goal,

and he just is not going to give up on it.

What he eventually does is he drops back

and decides that he needs to get better allies.

He needs to use more effective ways

of getting this message out.

(carriage clattering)

NARRATOR: By 1904, Wiley was rethinking

his approach to pure food regulation,

after his defeat at the hands of big industry,

and he realized that a meaningful food bill

would not come by the shocking Poison Squad results alone.

Fortunately, a sense of outrage

was building amongst American progressives,

and Wiley soon learned he had powerful new allies

within the burgeoning women's rights movement.

DALTON: If you think of women as the angels of the house,

which Victorians did, I think it's legitimate

that women got into the political sphere

as advocates of their... protecting their children,

protecting their home.

They're the ones buying the food.

They're the ones charged with taking care of their families.

So this is information that is relevant to them.

And women at the turn of the century are also organizing

in many ways big and small.

DALTON: Women really were a formidable force.

Women's reform network comes on the scene

at the time that Harvey Wiley is thinking,

"I need more change in public opinion,

"I need more press,

"I need more politicians on my side,"

and so they're natural allies for him.

KUMMER: Wiley is very shrewd in understanding

that these women want confidence in industry.

They want to be able to buy foods

that aren't going to contaminate their family,

and they want power.

It's a time of progressive movements.

NARRATOR: Wiley hit the road,

speaking to women's groups across the country,

rallying them to join his crusade for food safety

and to lift their voices and be heard.

JUNOD: The networking among women was very important influence.

He also discovered he kind of has a knack for speaking,

that preacher influence comes out a little bit.

And remember, he's speaking truth,

truth sometimes to power, but also truth to women.

His secretary at one point said

that when he came in in the mornings

dressed in a top hat and coattails,

she was pretty sure he was going to talk to women's groups

about the need for a law.

NARRATOR: While speaking in Cranston, New Jersey,

Wiley met a fiery suffragist named Alice Lakey,

who introduced him to whole new network

of women's organizations concerned about food safety.

Together Lakey and Wiley

ignited a nationwide letter-writing campaign

in favor of food regulation,

with a message aimed squarely

at members of Congress and the president.

She opened doors for him

with some of the national figures.

And this is in this period

where he realizes he really does need an army.

Wiley wrote about the fact that, you know,

women couldn't vote but they were still able,

through organization and industry,

to have important political power.

He thought that they could accomplish

whatever they wanted to in the end.

He was a huge admirer of the sort of effective,

powerful, undaunted quality of these women's groups.

NARRATOR: In no time, influential reform groups

like the National Consumers League

and the General Federation of Women's Clubs

lent their voices to Wiley's crusade for pure food,

recognizing food safety

as part of their larger progressive agenda.

DALTON: You'd have reformers saying,

"We need pure milk," or "We need to stop the bosses

"from corrupting the process, from stealing votes.

"We need to defend the public good

and have municipal ownership of water, sewer, and subways."

KUMMER: It's the rise of trade unions.

It's the rise of saying,

"We now have an enormous class difference."

Economic inequality starts

in the first Gilded Age in the 1890s,

when all these progressive movements are taking root,

because the consolidation of money and power

in the hands of men is something

that women and trade unions start to fight.

So Wiley understood that here was a pocket of protest

that he could ally himself with profitably.

SCHLOSSER: Wiley, one of the most important people

in the pure food movement,

he was a part of a bigger movement at that period,

looking for hygiene and cleanliness and wholesomeness

in all kinds of aspects of American life.

NARRATOR: The pure food movement received a boost

when Fannie Farmer, one of

the most prominent progressive voices empowering women

and a leader in the emerging movement

known as domestic science, joined the cause.

Farmer was the country's most prominent cookbook author

and when she turned her attention to pure food,

her devoted audience--largely mothers and homemakers--

listened carefully.

She alerted her readers to the dangers

of "borax, salicylic acid, potassium chromate,

and carbonate of soda,"

precisely the substances that also concerned Wiley.

Fannie Farmer really promoted the domestic science movement.

She included nutritional information in her book.

So even if you couldn't go to her cooking school

or go to college and get a degree in domestic science,

if you read "The Boston Cooking School Cook Book,"

you were gleaning some of that information.

BLUM: Boston School of Cooking, Fanny Farmer book,

it's like an education in chemistry.

It walks you through the chemical elements in food.

JUNOD: They were putting out kitchen chemistry sets,

literally telling women to go buy prussic acid

to test the products

that they were bringing into their home.

They were simple tests, sort of,

but the chemistry behind them was pretty sophisticated.

NARRATOR: It wasn't long before Wiley's proselytizing for pure food

attracted the attention ofenterprising industry marketers,

who, rather than fight against the movement,

saw an opportunity to capitalize on its message.

Henry J. Heinz, an industry titan,

saw early the power of pure food branding.

BLUM: Henry J. Heinz,

he also thought the tide was turning on this.

He felt that there was new interest in safer food,

and that his company could and should take advantage of this.

So it wasn't as if he was just like, you know,

"Let me do my good deed for the day."

He saw a real reason for it.

The thing that crystallized it for him was ketchup.

LOHMAN: They came up with a formula

that was much more acidicand included much more vinegar,

and that made the ketchup shelf stable.

Their formula was also more delicious

as well as not containing any adulterants,

and that's how they advertised it.

They used the word "pure" again and again.

Pure, pure, pure, pure.

The people packing their ketchup, they describe them

as "manicured maidens clad in white."

The public, because of their awareness

of the horrors of adulterated food,

now they wanted food that was labeled pure

and sanitary, food made in the cleanest of factories.

SCHLOSSER: The more forward-looking companies

realized in so many ways

how government regulation would benefit them.

You know, you could make an argument

that far from being a radical,

what Wiley was doing was rationalizing business

and bringing it into the 20th century

and away from this sort of rogue, 19th-century,

anything-goes,corrupt model of doing business.

NARRATOR: By now, Wiley himself

was in the midst of a personal transformation

from enterprising government chemist

to pure food evangelist.

BLUM:He becomes such a visible figure in this fight

that he's both a lightning rod

for everyone that hates the fight,

and he's beloved by American newspapers

and the American public.

And so he gets a kind of political armor.

He was so politically formidable

that they did not want to mess with him,

so he starts becoming that.

He really starts this transition

from being a chemist who is arguing a point

to a political figure.

And that, again, is goingto work for him and against him.

NARRATOR: While Wiley's popularity may have insulated him

from political and industry attacks,

he knew that the greatest weapon in his fight for pure food

was his scientific data.

By the spring of 1905,

he and his team were preparing to publish the results

of another Poison Squad experiment.

This one centered on another common preservative,

salicylic acid.

KUMMER: Salicylic acid is an acid,

and so it has antioxidant effects for food,

it keeps oxygen out of food,

it keeps bacteria out of food,

because it kills them, because it's an acid.

So that's one way of retarding spoilage.

(utensils clinking)

NARRATOR: The average bottle of wine

sold in the United States at the turn of the century

contained almost two grams of salicylic acid--

and beer nearly as much.

Almost immediately,

Poison Squad members selected to receive the preservative

began reporting its ill effects.

One complained of a"pronounced" feeling of hunger,

even though he was eating a normal dinner;

another described

"very severe burning pains in the stomach."

Almost all of the men described

some degree of intestinal distress.

Based on these results, Wiley concluded

salicylic acid was one of the worst of all preservatives

currently in use in American food products.

It's brand new.

They... you put it into all kinds

of food and drink products.

Except that of course

it causes the lining of thegastrointestinal tract to bleed,

and you're not telling anyone

how much of it you're putting in your product,

so people are really getting a high dose

of something that causes G.I. problems.

NARRATOR: His report was picked up by the national newspapers,

and the Poison Squad was again stoking public outrage.

But despite the outcry, the new report did little

to break the hold ofindustry lobbyists on Congress,

where food legislation remained stalled.

By 1905, it was becoming clear to Wiley

that the path to food legislation

lay beyond the many bought politicians on Capitol Hill.

And he chose instead to focus his energy

on pressuring the White House.

But Wiley's unbending approach

had made him few allies in the administration,

especially with President Roosevelt.

WATSON: Teddy Roosevelt's progressive,

but he's also a pragmatist, and Wiley's not.

Wiley's an absolutist, he's an evangelist.

He was vexatious.

He was unwilling to compromise.

LOHMAN: One of the things Roosevelt disagreed with him on

was saccharin.

(dog barking)

Roosevelt had been prescribed saccharin

by his doctor.

It's thought that his doctor believed

that Roosevelt was probably pre-diabetic,

so the doctor suggested

substituting saccharin.

Wiley was really not behind saccharin.

He didn't really believe in its safety.

So when Wiley spoke out against saccharin,

Roosevelt said, you know, "My doctor prescribes that for me.

A fool would say saccharin is bad for you."

And Wiley is pained by these moments

in his relationship with Roosevelt,

but also Roosevelt can bevery unforgiving sometimes too.

NARRATOR: Despite his tense relationship with Roosevelt,

Wiley was convinced that,

coupled with his scientific data

and growing army of progressive pure food allies,

especially those from the women's movement,

he might be able to sway the reluctant reformer.

DALTON: Theodore Roosevelt could see the writing on the wall,

which is that women could vote for president

in some western states,

and he saw that coming,

women were going to get the vote.

So they did count, they counted a lot.

They're not just voters,

they're publicists, they're lobbyists,

they're married to people whovote, and they're a moral voice.

NARRATOR: Wiley helped organize a delegation

that included the suffragist Alice Lakey,

representatives from Heinz,

and other progressive leaders,

to meet with President Roosevelt at the White House.

They carried a message of support

for pure food legislation

from men and women across the country

and hoped to show the president

that the tide was turning against unregulated industry.

There's been more and more and more controversy--

largely generated by Wiley and his allies--

and Roosevelt decided he is going to

at least make a recommendation to Congress.

And so in December of 1905,

he puts support for a food and drug law

into his message to Congress at the end of the year.

And that was the first time since he had become president

that he went really publicly on the record and said, "Yes,

this is starting to be an untenable situation."

NARRATOR: With Roosevelt's support,

Wiley was more optimistic than ever

that after two decades of sounding alarm bells,

the time was finally right forthe passage of a pure food law.

On the morning of February 10, 1906,

as Wiley was busily preparing

for the coming battle in Congress,

the American public awoke to the shocking headlines

about a scandal within the meatpacking industry.

Newspapers were filled

with stomach-churning details of the filthy conditions

of Chicago's largest beef companies,

as described in a damning new book called "The Jungle"

by novelist Upton Sinclair.

Sinclair had spent nearly two months working undercover,

documenting the inhuman labor practices

and unsanitary conditions on factory floors--

stories of rat infestations,

widespread contaminated and diseased carcasses,

and even of human appendages finding their way

into processed meatand onto grocery store shelves.

"The Jungle" was not written

as an argument for safe-food legislation.

It was written as an argument on behalf of worker's rights,

but it had unintended consequences.

There were a number of scenes in the novel

about rats, you know, getting into the meat

and being turned into sausage,

about how filthy the conditions were.

And Americans were eating a lot of meat.

There were stories of people distracting the inspector

who was there to check for tuberculosis in cows,

so that cows that they knew were tubercular

could just be passed throughand end up in the cooling cars.

BLUM: The book describes

mold-covered meat that's washed off in a bath of borax

and then goes back into the food supply.

The walls are scummy with rotting meat that has dried

and blood spatter and germs are growing everywhere.

LOHMAN:You have the fresh cuts of meat

on down to, like, the pieces of meat,

on down to the scraps ofthe pieces of the spoiled meat,

and they're all going into different products

and being canned and sold to different populations

who are completely ignorant

of what is or isn't going into their food.

(cows mooing)

NARRATOR: It was a portrait of an industry run amok,

an extremely worrying depiction

of America's food supply that transfixed the country.

"I aimed for the public's heart," Sinclair recalled.

"And by accident, I hit it in the stomach."

KUMMER:It's Upton Sinclair who stirred the public outrage about it.

People were outraged at the human hands and legs

that got ground up into their food.

They were grossed out.

BLUM:Now you have the American public wondering if they're cannibals

because of the shoddy meat production.

KUMMER: Upton Sinclair's showing the reader

what it felt like and what it looked like--

the horror, the graphicness,the gruesomeness of the scenes.

NARRATOR: For President Roosevelt,

"The Jungle" confirmed suspicions

of the canned meat industry,

which he had held since his time in the Spanish-American war.

SCHLOSSER: One of the reasons that Teddy Roosevelt was so receptive

to "The Jungle" is he had personal, firsthand memory

of really disgusting food being sold to the U.S. government

and served to his troops.

So he had a reservoir of anger at the meatpacking industry,

and reading "The Jungle" just seemed to confirm

his own instincts aboutthese shoddy business practices.

NARRATOR: As letters and telegrams demanding action

poured into the White House,

Roosevelt dispatched his own team to Chicago

to investigate the dangerousconditions Sinclair wrote about.

Sinclair went and did this research,

and when you read it, just like the swill milk exposés,

it sounds too horrific to be believed.

But then Roosevelt sends people in to see what's happening,

and they come back, and their report says

"Sinclair was absolutely right.

These exact same things were happening."

BLUM: And when Roosevelt's team went out,

they did not find people falling into the lard production,

but there was one, thishorrifying scene they described

in which the cow falls

into one of the latrines used by the workers,

and they just pull it out, chop it up, and send...

they don't even wash it off, itjust goes right into... I mean,

it was really a horrifying report.

NARRATOR: A summary of the president'sreport hit the "New York Times,"

confirming what Harvey Wiley had been saying for a long time--

that the American food industry was rotten to its core.

By early 1906, Wiley could see

that the debate over food safety had reached a boiling point.

Upton Sinclair's writing

had been the final spark Wiley had been hoping for,

igniting a truly national conversation

on the critical need for food safety.

The public outrage over "The Jungle,"

and the president's backing of a food bill,

gave him the momentum he needed.

BLUM: He gets a lot of letters

and telegrams and messages of support.

He knows that people are starting to be more engaged.

And so he just believes,

"This is not the moment to give up.

You just keep pushing one more time," and he does.

NARRATOR: In the back rooms of Capitol Hill,

Wiley pounced on his congressional allies

to hold hearings on the pure food bill.

Industry-friendly congressmen argued

that regulation would be the death knell for business,

while others warned a ban on preservatives

would lead to untold deaths by contaminated food.

Wiley defended the bill against its critics

in two straight days of dramatic testimony.

"There are hundreds and thousands of our citizens,"

Wiley declaimed,

"who do not wish to usethese chemicals in their foods.

"It is the consumers, and not the producers,

who should be venting their wrath."

WATSON: He goes up against Congress.

He just keeps pushing at it.

Because again, you've got this evangelist.

He was a showman,

and there's a contemporary journalist, Mark Sullivan,

who wrote about the entire theatrical spectacle

of Wiley's talks

and the way he would dominate the room.

And he knew he was a theatrical presence,

and he used that.

He used it to draw attention.

NARRATOR: Roosevelt grew tired of the debate on Capitol Hill

and of the industry stonewalling.

He made it known to the leadership

that he wanted legislation on his desk immediately.

If Congress did not produce a bill, he threatened,

he would release the report that his team had conducted

in Chicago, in all its damning detail.

BLUM:And the summary is so explosive

that Congress does come back,

and they pass a meat inspection act.

They just have to, right?

Everyone gets that.

And in the kind of wash of the Meat Inspection Act,

the food-and-drug people like Wiley say,

"This is our minute."

NARRATOR: For Wiley,

Roosevelt's threat was the last best hope for change,

and he waited anxiously for word from Congress.

As the roll was called,

it was clear to senators who had fought a bill for decades

that the war was finally coming to an end.

BLUM:So, the Food and Drug Act passed after the Meat Inspection Act.

The one pulls the other forward and both of them pass.

NARRATOR: On June 30, 1906, Roosevelt officially signed into law

both the Meat Inspection Act and the Food and Drug Act--

the first consumer-protection laws

in American history.

Wiley couldn't help but marvel that it took only four months

since the publication of "The Jungle"

to accomplish what he had been working toward

for nearly a quarter century.

KUMMER: Wiley was enormously helped

by his scientific backing of his studies

that gave this kind of mantle of authority.

Upton Sinclair could tell these shocking human stories,

but Wiley could say,

"Look at what I have been able to demonstrate in a lab."

It was his ability to generate attention for the Poison Squad

that led to the Pure Food Act.

BLUM: These are a huge, paradigm-shifting moment,

because they're the first consumer-protection laws

ever passed by the federal government.

It's the first time that the U.S. government says,

"We're in the business of consumer protection."

This was a government that responded to public outrage

about the quality of the food that was being produced

by passing two laws.

And did it so quickly, completely bipartisan,

that it just takes your breath away to think about it.

It's an amazing moment in American history

for the feds to finally say, "Yes,

we're here to protect you in your everyday life."

SCHLOSSER: Upton Sinclair generated an extraordinary amount

of publicity for the issue,

but the groundwork had been laid for this legislation

for years and years by Wiley.

So, the actual bill itself,

I give Wiley enormous credit for.

NARRATOR: President Roosevelt was not interested

in assigning credit for the law beyond his own.

"The Pure Food and Drug Bill became a law,"

the president later proclaimed,

"purely because of the active stand I took."

WATSON: There's almost no episode

in Theodore Roosevelt's life

where he didn't write about himself

as the hero of, you know...

he-he won the Spanish-American War single-handedly.

He's not a person to share credit.

TR was an incredible egomaniac.

He wasn't going to share it with Harvey Wiley,

he didn't like Harvey Wiley.

NARRATOR: In the newspapers and in public, however,

the Pure Food and Drug Act would be given a different name--

"Dr. Wiley's Law."

The passage of the 1906 food bill

should have been a momentfor Wiley to savor his victory,

but he had little time to rest.

It was his job to come up with new food safety standards

and to ensure that the industry complied.

SCHLOSSER: Passing the law is very different

from enforcing the law.

It was true with antitrust regulation,

it's true now with environmental regulations and food safety.

Getting the bill passed is only the first step.

The biggest thing that Wiley had to do after the bill

was really establish,with proof, with documentation,

what was safe, what was unsafe, and in what amounts.

And that would just take time.

(talking in background, instruments clinking)

NARRATOR: Wiley continued to publish the results of the Poison Squad,

including studies into sulfurous acid

and sodium benzoate--

the preservative of choice in ketchup.

(utensils clinking)

But Wiley's final Poison Squad study was his most definitive:

his human experiments with formaldehyde--

the chemical favored for embalming cadavers

and used throughout the meat and dairy industry.


Nearly every member of the Poison Squad became ill

after only a small dose of the preservative,

and Wiley discontinued the experiments.

JUNOD: If there's one study that the Poison Squad did

that was never disputed,

it was the influence of formaldehyde.

After the Poison Squad studies,

no one thought about allowing or using formaldehyde.

The effects were far more serious

than for some of the other chemicals that they saw.

NARRATOR:Now with the food law in place,

Wiley called for a total ban on formaldehyde

and every other chemical adulterant

he tested in the Poison Squad.

Wiley and the members of the Chemistry Division

were empowered to go after food manufacturers

they deemed in violation of their new regulations,

prosecuting companies for tainting food products

with a host of dangerous additives.

Just two years after the passage of the law,

Wiley and his team had seized and destroyed

shipments of adulterated food nationwide.

But even as Wiley racked up

victories over food manufacturers,

his hardline approach was increasingly

coming under scrutiny.

Industry cried foul,

portraying Wiley as irrational and out of control

and calling for his ouster.

And his boss, Secretary Wilson,

was beginning to feel the political strain

of Wiley's draconian approach

and began to second-guess his chief chemist

at every turn.

There were some questions being raised as to judgment.

How wise is he being in identifying his targets,

the companies they were going after?

BLUM:One of the things that you find

is Wilson starts suppressing Wiley's publications entirely

and started cutting down on the Poison Squad studies.

NARRATOR: Wiley was facing even greater opposition

from within the White House,

where President Roosevelt had grown tired

of the steady stream of industry lobbyists

complaining about Wiley's confiscations

and strict enforcement of the law.

WATSON: And that's also where he runs into conflict

with Teddy Roosevelt, because he's pushing

for greater regulation and greater enforcement.

Teddy Roosevelt is sort of like,

"We've kind of dealt with this already,

"let's move on to the next thing.

I got parks to make," you know.

And so you've got that tension there.

NARRATOR: In 1908,

in order to control what hedeemed Wiley's radical impulses,

Roosevelt appointed industry-friendly scientists

to an internal review board,

tasked with analyzing the work of Wiley's Chemistry Division.

The lead scientist was Ira Remsen,

the man who discovered saccharin,

the president's favorite sugar substitute,

which Wiley sought to ban.

The Remsen board challenged the Poison Squad studies,

questioning the very design andscience behind its conclusions.

BLUM: They create a sort of shadow advisory board,

to second guess Wiley's food safety.

They actually redo some of the Poison Squad studies.

And Roosevelt endorses those actions.

The Remsen board really criticized

some of that study design.

You know, you really needed one clear control group

and one clear tainted group for comparison,

and Wiley didn't do that perfectly.

NARRATOR: Wiley scoffed at their criticisms,

understanding that he was now an even bigger target.

Naturally, when the battle array was formed," Wiley wrote,

"the first point of attack was on me."

But Roosevelt, Wilson, and the food manufactures

had underestimated the public support of pure food

and Wiley's popularity.

In newspapers across the country,

the Remsen board was roundly criticized

for being another tool of industry,

while Wiley was lauded in editorials

supporting his enforcement of the law.

Once again, Wiley had outmaneuvered his adversaries

and refused to be silenced.

SCHLOSSER: I think he is very much of a part

of a great many reformers of the Progressive Era

who looked at the injustice

and wanted to make the system live up to its own ideals.

If you look at so many other people

in the Department of Agriculture,

they didn't want to rock the boat,

but there was something about him

that just gave him the strength to do it.

(fluid bubbling)

NARRATOR: By 1909, Wiley had grown increasingly isolated

from his superiors within the Department of Agriculture.

But emboldened by his public support,

he continued to crack down on manufacturers

in violation of the Food and Drug Act.

Despite the restrictions

Secretary Wilson was putting on his research,

he continued to analyze a host of products,

including medicated soft drinks,

which were hugely popular at the time.

His analysis turned up ashocking number of adulterants,

like cocaine, benzoic acid, and saccharin.

But what worried him most

were dangerously high levels of caffeine

he was finding across the board,

which led to the seizure of multiple popular drink brands.

It wasn't long before he turned his sights

to the country's leading soft drink,

and one of the behemoths of the American food industry.

BLUM: Coca-Cola, of course, in the19th century contained cocaine--

that was the basis for the name--

and a lot of other soft drinks did too.

Wiley had gotten interested in Coca-Cola

partly because he did think it was false advertising.

There was no more cocaine in it,

but Coca-Cola had replaced cocaine

with this insane level of caffeine.

And he worried about that as a,you know, unregulated stimulant.

NARRATOR:At the time, Americans consumed

more than ten million gallons of Coca-Cola every year.

The company marketed the beverage

as an "ideal brain tonic,"

that "invigorated the fatigued body

and quickened the tired brain,"

all of which Wiley saw as fraud.

Coca-Cola president Asa Candler

was well connected in Washington,

and Coke was considered an iconic American brand.

Nevertheless, Wiley was convinced

that Candler was pushing a product

with dangerous levels of caffeine,

that he believed was a habit-forming drug.

"Our duty," he wrote to Secretary Wilson,

"is clearly to protect the people of our country

in every possible way."

LOHMAN: Up until the advent of soda,

caffeine was something adults consumed.

You drank it in tea,

and you drank it in coffee,

and those weren't really thought of as drinks for children.

This is the first product that contains caffeine

that is being marketed specifically to children.

Wiley was taking on a big corporation,

but I don't really think that that bothered Wiley.

I think he hoped to make an example out of Coca-Cola.

BLUM: He wanted to have Coca-Cola

pull down the amount of caffeine in their Coke,

and they didn't have to under the law.

And the only way that he could get them to do that

was to take them to court.

NARRATOR: On October 21, 1909,

facing pressure from Wiley,

the government seized a shipment of Coca-Cola syrup.

Two years later, in March of 1911,

the trial opened:

The United States v. 40 Barrels and 20 Kegs of Coca-Cola.

The case immediately made headlines.

JUNOD: It couldn't have been better fireworks,

it couldn't have made for better television,

in terms of, you know,the battle of the great titans,

and the moguls of soft drinks

versus the, you know, the public servant.

It was the sheer audacityand the sheer drama of the case

that drew people's attention.

NARRATOR: The trial opened with dramatic testimony.

The government called scientists

who testified to the injurious nature of caffeine on the body

and even pulled in Coca-Cola addicts,

who testified about their hardship.

"As the habit increased," one patient recalled,

"I consumed up to a dozen drinks a day."

Coke countered with its own study,

by a Columbia University psychologist

who dazzled the jury with charts and graphs

that showed caffeine in Coke was far from hazardous

and actually enhanced cognitive performance.

At one point,

Coke co-founder John Candler took the witness stand.

He testified that he sometimes drank

as many as six glasses of Coke a day,

and yet remained in good health.

The spectacle of the trial had some reporters wondering

if Wiley had finally reached too far

in his crusade against the food industry,

while others wondered whether he'd been set up to fail.

BLUM: It's a fascinating trial.

Some people think that

the Agriculture Department encouraged Wiley to sue Coke

because they thought it would destroy him.

JUNOD: The Justice Department just thought that, "Okay, finally,

we're going to show Wiley

that there are limits," okay,

"that there are limits to this law."

NARRATOR:By the beginning of April 1911, Wiley's case was unraveling.

Two weeks later, Coke's lawyers tried a new tactic

by questioning whether the government even had standing

to sue the company.

To everybody's surprise, the judge agreed.

In an instant, Wiley's crusade against Coke

was dead in its tracks.

JUNOD: To take on this project was

ambitious and a little audacious, frankly.

And so Coca-Cola became a cause célèbre

on the limits to which we're going to go

to regulate a product, especially one that's popular,

and not considered terribly harmful.

NARRATOR: In the aftermath,

as Coca-Cola grew ever more present in the American diet,

Wiley lamented, "It was a baleful condition

which could have been easily avoided."

Despite the professional embarrassment

over the loss of the Coca-Cola trial,

the year would end ona personal high note for Wiley.

In 1911, the 67-year-old bachelor

married his one true love, Anna Kelton,

the woman who had turned him down over a decade earlier.

By 1911, Anna was a well-known and outspoken suffragist

who shared Wiley's passion for social reform.

LOHMAN: Wiley's friends would joke

that soon, that they were going to start calling him,

"The husband of the famous Mrs. Wiley,"

because she was out there.

She was getting arrested.

She was protesting in front of the White House.

Um, they had a very happy marriage,

a couple of children-- pure food babies.

NARRATOR: Domestic life nor the Coca-Cola defeat

did little to quell Wiley's determined efforts

to enforce the food law,

as he continued to hold industry accountable.

But by 1912,

the climate in Washington had turned decisively against

food regulation

and even more decisively against Harvey Wiley.

Though he was battle tested,

Wiley was not prepared for what his enemies,

including Secretary Wilson,

would do next to try to keep him quiet.

After the Coca-Cola trial ended,

Wiley's use of government funds

suddenly came under greater scrutiny,

with government auditors singling out a payment he made

to an expert witness.

BLUM: One of the experts on caffeine that Wiley brought in

was a eminent U.S. scientist.

Wilson had approved it,

but he and his minions used that contract

to accuse Wiley of cheating the U.S. taxpayer.

And they really wanted him out.

NARRATOR: Without alerting Wiley,

Wilson and his allies raise the issue with President Taft,

recommending that the chief chemist be fired.

Taft agreed.

Wiley would have to go.

But when the news broke in the "New York Times"

on July 20, 1911,

it was not the story that Wilson or Taft had expected.

Wiley had learned of his impending firing

and had carefully leaked the information

to the sympathetic "Times,"

and the newspaper reacted as he had expected.

"If Taft succeeded in firing Wiley," the "Times" wrote,

"it will be hailed with delight

"by the food and drug adulterers and misbranders

from all over the country."

The story was picked up nationwide,

painting the administration as industry-friendly sycophants.

BLUM: So Wiley survived this attack.

He stayed on, but Wilson kept, you know,

shutting him out of things

and undermining him,

and he finally realized he couldn't stay.

On March 15, 1912,

Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley officially resigned

from the U.S.D.A. after nearly 30 years as its chief chemist.

The elevators and stairs leading up to his office

were crowded with well-wishers mourning his departure.

Tributes to his work poured in from across the country.

In a heartfelt gesture,

Congressman Ralph Moss from Wiley's home state of Indiana

paid tribute to the chemist

as someone who did more for mankind

than anyone in the country.

I know that the people who worked closely with him

were incredibly loyal and fervent supporters of him,

whether that was within the Chemistry Bureau

or any of the activists or women's leagues

or grocers or packers that heworked with across the country,

I think that they really admired

his single-mindedness in doing something

that was undeniably good.

NARRATOR: Under Wiley, the Bureau of Chemistry had grown

from a half dozen employees

to more than 600.

"It was," he wrote,

"an organization of which to be proud."

68-year-old Wiley was notout of the public eye for long.

The women's magazine "Good Housekeeping"

was known for its crusading spirit,

and Wiley had barely left the Agricultural Department

when he was offered a job as the publication's director

of food, health, and sanitation.

In his new position,

Wiley would run a state-of-the-art laboratory

to test products andadvise readers on their safety.

He would also write a column on food safety and nutrition.

For Wiley, it was a natural fit.

LOHMAN: What really amazed me

was he had veto power

over any of the advertisers in the magazine.

The advertisers that

really did have these pure, unadulterated products

would get this "GoodHousekeeping" seal of approval,

which was really Wiley saying,

"Yes, these are the products you should buy."

KUMMER: "Good Housekeeping" was,

for at least 50 years, what women relied on.

They didn't have television,

they didn't have videos on websites

to show them demonstrations.

They had columnists like Wiley at "Good Housekeeping."

This is a completely honorable way to keep in the public eye

and keep pushing your ideas.

BLUM: His columns are actually cited by congressmen

when they were fending off attacks on the law.

So it gave him that same platform

in a different way, and he used it really effectively.

It was good for him.

NARRATOR: Wiley would spend the rest of his life

railing against a corrupt food industry

and lobbying the government

to support and enforce the Pure Food Act.

He remained the law's staunchest advocate

even as he receded from the public eye.

The Food Law was passed and signed by President Roosevelt

on the 30th of June 1906.

There was a powerful lobby opposed to the food law

of manufacturers who wanted to make adulterated foods

and drugs.

They were always on the job.

And finally

it was accomplished

to the great benefit of the people of this country

and to the protection of our health,

which is the most valuable asset we have,

and our lives.

NARRATOR: When he died in 1930 at the age of 85,

Harvey Washington Wiley was buried in Arlington Cemetery.

On his headstone were inscribed the words,

"Father of the Pure Food Law."

Eight years after Wiley's death,

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

signed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938,

empowering the Food and Drug Administration--

the direct descendentof Wiley's Chemistry Division--

and providing it with real authority

to protect Americans against unsafe food and drugs.

Where is Wiley's legacy today?

I can go to the grocery store

and buy a gallon of milk, and I won't die.

It's, it's that simple.

If it came from a package, if it came from a can,

it's sanitary, it's trustworthy because of Wiley.

LOHMAN: His legacy, ironically, is in that we seldom think about it.

It is the expectation that our food is safe.

And he did that.

NARRATOR: The men of the Poison Squad were largely lost to history.

Their names were hidden from public view.

Though many became ill,

not a single volunteer diedin the course of Wiley's study,

and while their service was never recognized,

their contributions to science and public health

were immeasurable.

BLUM: The Poison Squad was

one of the most influential scientific studies

of the 20th century.

Harvey Wiley changed the way we think

about food and food safety.

One very obsessive, determined person

can change the world.

And he did.

ANNOUNCER: Next time...

In the shadow of a world war,

they were reluctant symbols of their people.

MAN: We invested so much in Joe Louis.

ANNOUNCER: But when they stepped into the ring,

the world stopped and watched two men,

Joe Louis and Max Schmeling,

fight for the title of champion.

"The Fight," next time, on "American Experience."

Made possible in part by Liberty Mutual Insurance.

"American Experience: The Poison Squad"

is available on DVD.

To order, visit ShopPBS or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

"American Experience" is also available

with PBS Passport and on Amazon Prime Video.


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