Thursday, December 20, 2018

Harvey Washington Wiley

“To be cheated, fooled, bamboozled, cajoled, deceived, pettifogged, demagogued, hypnotized, manicured and chiropodized are privileges dear to us all.” -- Harvey Washington Wiley, quoted in The Poison Squad, p. 52.
“Whenever a food is debased in order to make it cheap, the laboring man pays more for any given nourishment than the rich man does who buys the pure food.” -- Harvey Washington Wiley, quoted p. 230. 

Deborah Blum's book, The Poison Squad: One Chemist's Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, presents the life, accomplishments, and political experiences of Harvey Washington Wiley (1844-1930), chief chemist of the US Department of Agriculture. Blum highlights the uncanny resemblance between food politics now and then, particularly during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (in office from 1901-1909). After many years of government employment, Wiley founded the test labs of Better Homes and Gardens and created their famous "seal of approval."

At our regular, once-a-month meeting of the culinary history reading group, my friends discussed this book along with many issues that it brought up. The four of us who had read it agreed that it was a very good read!

A few comments from our discussion:

Celeste said: "The book made me feel like we were living through that time." She expressed her shock at some of the abuses as well: "Who would poison cake frostings?"

Dan said about the repetition of history: "It's really discouraging: a vicious cycle, a debilitating cycle. For example, the suppression of the papers that Wiley's team wrote. Beyond food contamination, look at the efforts today to destroy the EPA."

Gene said: "It's all about freedom of choice vs. regulation: it took a while for the government to struggle with  the idea of regulating commerce. The American ideal of freedom had to be lined up with the way that regulation could be beneficial, to get away from the idea that cleaner food would ruin American business. Roosevelt didn't have a problem with big business, and had to understand the danger of allowing them total freedom."

Here are some big examples of the events in Harvey Wiley's career that have uncanny parallels to modern food politics:

  • The alteration and debasement of food, including false labeling, false advertising, and other corruption. For example, in the late 19th century, a process was invented to manufacture corn syrup of corn sugar. Wiley wanted to require it to be labeled by a different name (glucose) to prevent confusing it with real sugar: the industry fought back. Further, manufacturers substituted saccharine for sugar in many products, and adulterated many others with considerably more dangerous chemical additives. Ketchup was a big example: H.J.Heinz demonstrated could be made from real tomatoes and condiments, instead of being "made from assorted trimmings dumped into barrels after tomatoes were canned, then thickened with ground pumpkin rinds, apple pomace (the skin, pulp, seeds, and stems left after the fruit was pressed for juice), or cornstarch and dyed a deceptively fresh-looking red." (p. 212).
  • Self-interest of corporations above the welfare of the public -- notably, Monsanto and Dow Chemical, which both promoted chemical additives that they were selling to industry in the late 19th century. Laboratory studies were often commissioned by corporations -- with results coming out to please their sponsors. Wiley was an important counterweight to this, as he did actual tests to see what chemicals were dangerous to human health and life. He was famous for "the poison squad," a series of studies where he controlled the diet of groups of young healthy men to see what would happen if they ate certain commonly used additives.
  • Corporations abused their workers, who were often helpless immigrants. The book The Jungle by Upton Sinclair especially highlighted the dangerous working conditions in meat-packing plants resulting in horrendous filth being sold as sausage. Growing public sentiment favoring regulation was widely rejected by politicians, but The Jungle stirred up the will of the people, supporting Wiley's ongoing efforts.
  • Corrupt elected officials. The book offers a wide variety of examples of the many efforts to pass legislation that were derailed by unsavory deals and campaign contributions between business and politicians. Wiley struggled with this political scene for his entire career in government service.
  • A gap in the nutritional possibilities of rich and poor citizens, especially in large urban areas. Rich people could acquire wholesome, fresh, and not-mislabeled foods; poor people had to shop where they could and buy the often-adulterated foods they could afford. Wiley was acutely aware of this discrepancy and felt responsible for all people, not just those who could afford to help themselves.
From our discussion, a summary of the main theme of the book: this is about the tragedy of the commons, the conflict of freedom with the idea of the common good. As always, I'm grateful to Gene Alloway of Motte and Bailey Books for sponsoring this great group and leading our discussions!


Jeanie said...

This one sounds intriguing. I'd not heard of it before (no big surprise there!) but I wonder if my BC might find it interesting. They're a very political group and we all cook!

Beth F said...

I like the Poisoner's Handbook, so I bet I'd like this!

Carole said...

New to me too. Merry Christmas. Cheers from Carole's Chatter