Food Fights

An excerpt from The Poison Squad

Grocery store aisle
Thomas Hawk/Flickr

From monoculture to GMOs, contemporary debates over food quality in the United States often inspire a longing for a simpler, earlier time in our country’s history: an era of family farms, doorstep milk deliveries, and homecooked meals. It turns out that early Americans had their own set of food problems—ones that involved brown sugar laced with ground-up lice or milk doctored with formaldehyde (popularly known as “embalmed milk”). In her new book, The Poison Squad, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum tells the riveting—and occasionally stomach-churning—story of one dedicated chemist’s quest to advocate for food safety regulations at the turn of the 20th century.

We tend these days to cast a romantic glow over the foods of our forefathers. In such rosy light, we may imagine grandparents or great-grandparents thriving happily—and solely—on farm-fresh produce and pasture-raised livestock. We may even believe that they ate and drank in a world untouched by the chemically enhanced and deceptive food manufacturing practices of today.

In this we would be wrong.

By the mid-nineteenth century, in fact, many foods and drinks sold in the United States had earned a reputation as often untrustworthy and occasionally downright dangerous.

Milk offers a stunning case in point. Dairymen, especially those serving crowded American cities in the nineteenth century, learned that there were profits to be made by skimming and watering down their product. The standard recipe was a pint of lukewarm water to every quart of milk—after the cream had been skimmed off. To improve the bluish look of the remaining liquid, milk producers learned to add whitening agents such as plaster of paris or chalk. Sometimes they added a dollop of molasses to give the liquid a more golden, creamy color. To mimic the expected layer of cream on top, they might also add a final squirt of something yellowish, occasionally pureed calf brains.

“Where are the police?” demanded New York journalist John Mullaly as he detailed such practices and worse in his 1853 book, The Milk Trade in New York and Vicinity. Mullaly’s evidence included reports from frustrated physicians stating that thousands of children were killed in New York City every year by dirty (bacteria-laden) and deliberately tainted milk. His demands for prosecution were partly theater. Despite his and others’ outraged demands for change, no laws existed to make such adulterations illegal. Still Mullaly continued to ask, when would enough be enough?

Fakery and adulteration ran rampant in other American products as well. “Honey” often proved to be thickened, colored corn syrup, and “vanilla” extract a mixture of alcohol and brown food coloring. “Strawberry” jam could be sweetened paste made from mashed apple peelings laced with grass seeds and dyed red. “Coffee” might be largely sawdust, or wheat, beans, beets, peas, and dandelion seeds, scorched black and ground to resemble the genuine article. Containers of “pepper,” “cinnamon,” or “nutmeg” were frequently laced with a cheaper filler material such as pulverized coconut shells, charred rope, or occasionally floor sweepings. “Flour” routinely contained crushed stone or gypsum as a cheap extender. Ground insects could be mixed into brown sugar, often without detection—their use linked to an unpleasant condition known as “grocer’s itch.”

By the end of the nineteenth century, the sweeping industrial revolution—and the rise of industrial chemistry—had also brought a host of new chemical additives and synthetic compounds into the food supply. Still unchecked by government regulation, basic safety testing, or even labeling requirements, food and drink manufacturers embraced the new materials with enthusiasm, mixing them into goods destined for the grocery store at sometimes lethal levels. The most popular preservative for milk—a product prone to rot in an era that lacked effective refrigeration—was formaldehyde, its use adapted from the newest embalming practices of undertakers. Processors employed formaldehyde solutions—sold under innocuous names such as Preservaline—to restore decaying meats as well. Other popular preservatives included salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical com- pound, and borax, a mineral- based material best known as a cleaning product.

Food manufacturers also adopted new synthetic dyes, derived from coal by-products, to improve the color of their less appealing products. They found inexpensive synthetic compounds that they could secretly substitute into food and drink—saccharin to replace sugar; acetic acid instead of lemon juice; lab-created alcohols, dyed and flavored, to mimic aged whiskeys and fine wines. As progressive Wisconsin senator Robert M. La Follette described such practices in 1886: “Ingenuity, striking hands with cunning trickery, compounds a substance to counterfeit an article of food. It is made to look like something it is not; to taste and smell like something it is not; to sell something it is not, and so do deceive the purchaser.” No wonder, then, that when alarmed citizens began pushing for federal help in checking such fraud and fakery, they did so under the banner of purity. They saw themselves as “pure food” crusaders, fighting to clean up not only a contaminated supply chain but also a system that was dirty to its roots and protected by politicians friendly to industry. As Mullaly had done decades earlier, the new crusaders—scientists and journalists, state health officials and leaders of women’s groups—loudly deplored their national government’s willingness to allow such corrupt practices to continue.

The leaders of the pure-food movement united behind the idea that regulatory oversight was the only realistic answer. They’d seen many times that the country’s food processors and manufacturers felt little or no responsibility to protect the food supply, especially if it meant reducing profits. Formaldehyde, for instance, had been directly linked to deaths—notably of children drinking what came to be called embalmed milk—without any move by producers to discontinue the preservative’s use. The preservative’s usefulness in salvaging bad milk—otherwise unsalable—was too valuable to lose.

American corporations had successfully and repeatedly blocked efforts to pass even modest food safety legislation. This especially galled consumer safety advocates because governments in Europe were enacting protective measures; some foods and drinks sold freely in the United States were now banned abroad. Unlike their American counterparts, European beer and wine makers were blocked from using risky preservatives in their beverages (although they could put them in products destined for U.S. sales).

Excerpted from The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Copyright © 2018 by Deborah Blum. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Katie Daniels is the assistant editor for the Scholar.


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