Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Poison Squad.

It is a double anniversary of foodie significance today. On June 30, 1906, the first Federal Food and Drug Act was signed into law in the United States. In 1930, on the same date, the chief architect of the legislation and the first commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration – Harvey Washington Wiley – died at the age of 85 years.

Wiley was a chemist who became deeply concerned about the amount of chemical preservatives being increasingly added to food, and the potential damage these might cause. In a project that would not even be mooted in a mood of malicious office humour today, he tested a variety of these chemicals on volunteers from within the Bureau of Chemistry. The experiments began in 1902, and the daring employees became known as “The Poison Squad”.

Initially the preservative being tested was added to the food, but the unpleasant taste led the volunteers to avoid that particular dish, so the chemicals were then given in capsule form. The most discussed experiment was with borax. Wiley described the system:

“With the ordinary quantities of butter and meat preserved with borax there would be consumed about 7 ½ grains of borax per day [in two doses] by each individual; and so we fed that for sixty days in succession, beginning with the preliminary period of ten days, then following sixty days in which we gave the borax”

Many of the men became symptomatic and unwell (although apparently not seriously so) and the results were accepted as proving that many preservatives were harmful. No deaths were attributed to the “poisons”, and one of the volunteers lived into his 90’s.

The experiment gave unequivocal support to the rising move against adulteration and contamination and other unsavoury practices in the food industry. Another timely exposé was the publication of The Jungle - the very provocative book about conditions (for workers as well as animals) in the meat industry - by Upton Sinclair in 1906 (and which featured in a previous blog post here.)

The law said, essentially, that food was unfit or unsafe for consumption if:

“ ...it is mixed or packed with another substance so as to reduce or lower or injuriously affect its quality and strength if any substance has been substituted wholly or in part; if any valuable constituent has been wholly or in part abstracted, if it has been colored, powdered, coated, or stained to conceal damage or inferiority; if poisonous or deleterious substances have been added; if it consists wholly or in part of filthy, putrid, or decomposed animal or vegetable substance, or any portion of an animal unfit for food; or if the product is from a diseased animal or one that died otherwise than by slaughter.”

Our recipe for the day is for sausage – sausage meat, not sausage links – because, lets face it, despite the laws, purchased commercial sausages can be a bit dodgy!

Allow three pouns of fresh, lean pork and two of fat; must be free from gristle, sinews, and skin; have them put twice through the sausage-grinder; then add two and one half ounces of salt, half an ounce of pepper, 12 cloves, ground, and a dozen blades of mace, powdered, three grated nutmegs, six tablespoons sage, two teaspoonfuls powdered rosemary; mix all together; pack tightly in a stone jar, and cover with oiled paper; keep in a dry, cool place.
New York Times, April 29, 1877.

Quotation for the Day.

Song of the Pizen [Poison] Squad.
(Respectfully Dedicated to the Department of Agriculture)
By S. W. Gillilan.
O we're the merriest herd of hulks
that ever the world has seen;
We don't shy off from your rough
on rats or even from Paris green:
We're on the hunt for a toxic dope
That's certain to kill, sans fail.
But 'tis a tricky, elusive thing and
knows we are on its trail;
For all the things that could kill
we've downed in many a gruesome wad,
And still we're gaining a pound a day,
for we are the Pizen Squad.
On Prussic acid we break our fast;
we lunch on a morphine stew;
We dine with a matchhead consomme,
drink carbolic acid brew;
Corrosive sublimate tones us up
like laudanum ketchup rare,
While tyro-toxicon condiments
are wholesome as mountain air.
Thus all the "deadlies" we double-dare
to put us beneath the sod;
We're death-immunes and we're proud as proud--
Hooray for the Pizen Squad!

1 comment:

GlenH said...

The scary thing is that some people in the United States seriously want to get rid of the FDA,because "Big Government" supposedly doesn't work!