'American Experience: The Poison Squad'
(DVD / NR / 2020 / PBS)
Overview: Based on the book by Deborah Blum, 'The Poison Squad' tells the story of government chemist Dr. Harvey Wiley, who took on powerful food manufacturers and their allies.
Following Wiley's unusual experiments and tireless advocacy, the film charts the path of the forgotten man who laid the groundwork for U.S. consumer protection laws, and ultimately the creation of the FDA.
DVD Verdict: So, what does it take to get the American government to care about its citizens more than corporations?
It’s a dilemma that activists have been churning over for centuries, but one chemist in the early 1900's thought he had the answer: he systematically poisoned a bunch of strapping young men.
At the turn of the 20th century, American food producers could get away with putting just about anything in their food. And they did. Milk was full of chalk and formaldehyde.
Canned food had salicylic acid, borax, and copper sulfate. Producers sold corn syrup as honey and colored lard as butter, and there were no laws or consequences to false labeling.
Dr. Harvey Wiley, a chemist at the USDA, spent years researching mislabeled food, and realized that consumers had no idea what they were consuming and no one knew the long term effects of these additives.
So he gathered “the Poison Squad,” a group of young men who voluntarily consumed poison so that Dr. Wiley could examine the effects.
They became a pop culture sensation, inspiring poems and minstrel shows. And eventually, their work brought about the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which led to the creation of the FDA.
His foes and a few friends were both big and little food processors, politicians on the take, trade associations protecting their turf, bureaucrats, The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Upton Sinclair, Good Housekeeping magazine, throw in Teddy Roosevelt and the Roughriders, it was a wild time back in those days.
At the end of 29 years with the US Department of Agriculture, Wiley had established a blueprint for food testing and more importantly convinced a significant number of people that we should be testing and protecting our food from all sorts of adulterations.
In short, the Poison Squad was a call to arms for more safety and protection for whistle-blowers, not a laissez-faire government. Well written, well paced and detailed without ever becoming mired in chemistry or obscure science, you don't need to be a lab technician to understand and enjoy this compelling look back into history. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.78:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs.