Thursday, May 09, 2019

The Poison Squad

The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Deborah Blum. 2018. 330 pages. [Source: Library]

First sentence from introduction: 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 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.

First sentence from chapter one: The sixth of seven children, Harvey Washington Wiley was born on April 16, 1844, in a log cabin on a small farm in Kent, Indiana, about a hundred miles northeast of the farm where Abraham Lincoln had grown up a few decades earlier. 

Premise/plot: The Poison Squad is a page-turner. It is the story of Harvey Washington Wiley and the FIGHT for food safety. Wiley wanted LAWS, REGULATIONS, OVERSIGHT. At the very least, he wanted FOOD LABELS that clearly and accurately listed WHAT was in the food (and drinks) being manufactured. Shouldn't milk be milk, sugar be sugar, pepper be pepper, and flour be flour? You'd think so--but that wasn't often the case. Manufacturers were ADDING things to their products--legally since there wasn't a law against--and people--sometimes children--were dying.

Though the story mainly focuses on the early twentieth century--up through the first world war--the story begins in the nineteenth century. It isn't Wiley's story alone for he wasn't alone in his fight. There were good guys and bad guys. The manufacturers often were buddy-buddy with politicians. Politicians cared more about staying that way--protecting the interests of businesses and manufacturers--than about public safety. You'd almost think that politicians didn't have families of their own. Then again, this is also a story of class. It was mainly the poor whose food supply was effected. The ultra-rich could always buy fresh food--fresh meat, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, fresh dairy products. Wiley's argument was that we should CARE what is in our food and care about HOW our food is being handled and processed.

My thoughts: Fascinating. Compelling. Scary. Those words are how I'd sum up this biographical must-read. This is an incredible read. It has almost robbed me of any desire I had to TIME TRAVEL. If I ever do time travel, I think I'll bring my own food with me. It was SUPER-SCARY to read accounts about how UNSAFE food was. For example, today we may think that candy is "unhealthy" because of SUGAR but THEN candy was unhealthy because it actually-actually contained POISON. And that's just one example.

I'd be surprised if anyone could read this one without starting to share facts or factoids with others. DID YOU KNOW? DID YOU KNOW? DID YOU KNOW? It's just a super-absorbing read that gives much food for thought.

Food labels are something that most people take for granted. I know I did for most of my life. All that changed for me--a few years ago. I developed allergies to certain foods as an adult. I now read food labels super-closely. Knowing exactly what is in something is crucial. Wiley is a super-hero; his name should be better known and his work celebrated.

© 2019 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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