The Poison Squad

One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Narrated by: Kirsten Potter
Length: 11 hrs and 5 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (280 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

A New York Times Notable Book.

The inspiration for PBS's American Experience film The Poison Squad

From Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times best-selling author Deborah Blum, the dramatic true story of how food was made safe in the United States and the heroes, led by the inimitable Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, who fought for change

By the end of 19th century, food was dangerous. Lethal, even. "Milk" might contain formaldehyde, most often used to embalm corpses. Decaying meat was preserved with both salicylic acid, a pharmaceutical chemical, and borax, a compound first identified as a cleaning product. This was not by accident; food manufacturers had rushed to embrace the rise of industrial chemistry and were knowingly selling harmful products. Unchecked by government regulation, basic safety, or even labelling requirements, they put profit before the health of their customers. By some estimates, in New York City alone, thousands of children were killed by "embalmed milk" every year. Citizens - activists, journalists, scientists, and women's groups - began agitating for change. But even as protective measures were enacted in Europe, American corporations blocked even modest regulations. Then, in 1883, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a chemistry professor from Purdue University, was named chief chemist of the agriculture department, and the agency began methodically investigating food and drink fraud, even conducting shocking human tests on groups of young men who came to be known as, "The Poison Squad". 

Over the next 30 years, a titanic struggle took place, with the courageous and fascinating Dr. Wiley campaigning indefatigably for food safety and consumer protection. Together with a gallant cast, including the muckraking reporter Upton Sinclair, whose fiction revealed the horrific truth about the Chicago stockyards; Fannie Farmer, then the most famous cookbook author in the country; and Henry J. Heinz, one of the few food producers who actively advocated for pure food, Dr. Wiley changed history. When the landmark 1906 Food and Drug Act was finally passed, it was known across the land, as "Dr. Wiley's Law". 

Blum brings to life this timeless and hugely satisfying "David and Goliath" tale with righteous verve and style, driving home the moral imperative of confronting corporate greed and government corruption with a bracing clarity, which speaks resoundingly to the enormous social and political challenges we face today.

©2018 Deborah Blum (P)2018 Penguin Audio

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Food Chemist

As a former Food Chemistry Laboratory Director at the FDA for 31 years I am proud and blessed to be a member of Wiley's professional legacy. We are all global citizens and as such we must be more vigilant in protecting the food supply for all.

Excellent historical account of a public servant. Much respect to Blum!

2 people found this helpful

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poison squad

so informative. this book makes me appreciate how far we've come and realize how far we've yet to go in the pesticide ,/herbicide industries.

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Amazing how history repeats itself!

Listening to the ways that our lawmakers were owned by corporations in the past, and seeing examples everyday in the news of exactly the same horsesh*t happening today makes me sick to my stomach. We really have not progressed as a society. I loved this book for it's eye-opening ability.

2 people found this helpful

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I learned so much!

I never knew what used to be in our food. Amazing! She does such a nice job telling the story.

2 people found this helpful

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Interesting & important book but misleading title

I was hesitant to read this book because of the title, which suggests the book is about people ingesting poisons as part of an experiment or study. That sounded like it might be a book about sickness, death and the horrors that come with being poisoned. That might be a very long slog. But the so-called "poison squad" is only one small part of this story. And while sickness, death and the horrors of being poisoned do make an unavoidable appearance in the pages of this book, the reader is not accosted on every page with such material. A better title for this book might be "Harvey Wiley and the Battle for Food Safety in America." Much of the book is about legal battles and political maneuvering at the dawn of food safety regulations in America. Some might find such material dry or tedious, but I found it fairly interesting. It certainly made me appreciate the relatively pure and wholesome food we enjoy today. One thing I did not realize was how long arguments over the safety of saccharine and caffeine have been going on. After so much discussion about this, it would have been nice if the book had included information about how these additives are regulated today.

My biggest complaint is the first chapter of the book, which is simply a list of the many people who make an appearance in the book, along with brief descriptions of each. There are dozens (or scores?) of people in this list and it seems to go on and on. I finally skipped this section entirely. I think including it in the audio version of the book was a serious mistake. It should have been provided as a downloadable PDF, or just skipped entirely. The audio book seems fine without it, and is certainly not enhanced by such a long and tedious list.

I thought the reading was more than adequate. But I did notice that a couple of paragraphs that required thick foreign accents seemed like they might have been read by a different narrator.

2 people found this helpful

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Excellent and Timely Lesson and Call to Action

The research that went into creating the potrait of a brilliant, dedicated and passionate, though long-suffering and sometimes self-sabotaging character of Dr. Wiley is admirable. As the epilogue clearly states, this book provides a timely look at the history of food regulation and the long-running war between science and politics; as we look at Wiley's discoveries, battles and political roadblocks toward protecting public health through the Pure Foods Act, we are reminded how little has changed in the landscape of pilitics and how crucual both an educated public and tireless crusaders are to ensuring the public good over the interests of business. I enjoyed this book, and I enjoyed the reader's performance. I think she is able to convery Wiley's wry, dry humor very well. <3

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Regulation Saves Lives

Listen to this book and see why regulation is so important to all of us

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very informative

i learned a lot and it was entertaining as well would recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about food history

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Boring!

This book was extremely hard to get through – boring and a focus on useless information told in a very dry manner. I would have enjoyed it more if it had gone all the way to the present day, and not into so much depth about the politicians and the food and drug administration during its inception. The author seems passionate about the subject, but is not a very good storyteller and I don’t see this book interesting the average reader enough to complete it.

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Entirely Too Thorough

If you're interested in the origins of the FDA and the legislation surrounding it, watch the PBS American Experience Episode based on this book. If you're doing deep research on the subject, or looking for nitty gritty details, this book has eleven full hours of them. Kudos to author for her meticulous research and compilation of the material. The very real struggle against this country's government and oligarchs to ensure citizens had safe food to eat is a story that needed to be recorded and remembered. And the victory in that struggle is one that needs retold in these questionable political times.