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"O, they may get over it but they'll never look the same,
Chorus from "Song of the Poison Squad" Lew Dockstader's Minstrels, October 1903
A century ago, 12 men sat down to a plate of food laced with poison and came back for more. Blessed by Congress, the dinner was the first in a series of meals containing steadily increasing doses of suspected toxic chemicals. What better animal to test toxicity in humans, than a human?
Although Wiley believed the burden of proving the safety of preservatives should fall on the manufacturers of such additives, still, he boldly asked Congress during Senate hearings on food adulteration in 1899 for money to conduct such tests himself. Wiley hoped to learn "whether preservatives should ever be used or not, and if so, what preservatives and in what quantities." Ultimately, if Wiley could prove from his studies that food adulteration went beyond flagrant cheating to obvious harm, then both the public and Congress would likely support a national policy.
'None But the Brave Can Eat the Fare'
Three years after Wiley's initial request, Congress enacted new controls over imported foods, including provisions for the inspection and rejection of adulterated shipments. Historians write that greater knowledge about the safety of common preservatives, it was believed, would serve to strengthen enforcement of these new laws. Therefore, Congress included funding in the chemical division's 1902 budget appropriations to carry out the proposed "hygienic table trials."
Wiley and other scientists quickly assembled the first dozen young, able-bodied Department of Agriculture volunteers--dubbed the "Poison Squad" by newspapers--and fed them wholesome meals containing potentially harmful substances. The initial five preservatives studied were borax, salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, sodium benzoate, and formaldehyde. Dosages ranged from one-half gram daily to four grams by the end of the five-year study. Each subsequent group of a dozen men tested one preservative, and in all of the five years, there was never a shortage of volunteers.
The squad pledged to eat all their meals at the "hygienic table." They agreed not to consume any outside foods or beverages, except water. Even that had to be measured and reported. Each participant recorded his weight, temperature and pulse rate before each meal, and what he ate. Every week, physicians from the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service examined the squad members. Any symptoms noted were reported.
From the men's point of view, perhaps the most annoying aspect of the study was submitting all their urine and feces to government chemists for daily analysis. Additionally, a portion of the study was devoted to determining whether any preservative was eliminated through perspiration and respiration.
Bad Publicity for a Good Cause
Overnight, the Poison Squad became a national sensation. Wiley worried, however, that humorous banter about the squad would discredit the seriousness of his scientific project. But he also knew the importance of winning over the public--not only for the policy he was beginning to envision on chemicals in foods, but also for the progress of the pending federal food and drug law, then under debate in Congress.
After learning that reporters had taken to interviewing the Poison Squad's chef through a basement window, Wiley bowed to the inevitable interest and took reporters into his confidence. He reported to newspapers every detail of the experiment and its effects on the men, and also had the nerve to join the group for most of his own meals.
Wiley stopped the experiments only when the chemicals made several of the diners so sick that they couldn't function--nausea, vomiting, stomachaches, and the inability to perform work of any kind. By this time, though, stories of the men's indigestion had run rampant and were being followed by fascinated readers all over the United States. The table trials even made the minstrel shows. In the end, the publicity helped Wiley gain a Congressional hearing, as well as support for his contention that chemical preservatives had no place in food.
The Science Behind Food Additive Regulation
Wiley's findings on borax were not impressive. The results reported in 1904 showed that borax was one of the least toxic of the preservatives studied. More impressive, however, were the symptoms reported in the individual case histories as dosages of borax and other preservatives were increased: diminished appetite, feelings of fullness and discomfort in the stomach, dull and persistent headache, and in some instances, abdominal pain.
FDA Consumer magazine, Nov-Dec 2002
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