September 19, 2019

Heroes of Food Safety: Harvey Wiley, Pioneer and Activist

Written by Garret Weigel | Food Safety

Continuing our celebration of Food Safety Education Month, we honor Harvey Wiley, an American chemist best known for his leadership in the passage of the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. He was also the first commissioner of the United States Food and Drug Administration, and the pioneer food safety champion who paved the way for today’s leading consumer advocates.

 

harvey wiley in his lab

Harvey Wiley in his lab. Source: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/10/08/654066794/how-a-19th-century-chemist-took-on-the-food-industry-with-a-grisly-experiment

 

Mr. Wiley Goes to Washington

In the last few decades of the 19th century, the U.S. underwent massive industrialization, leading to a burgeoning urban population increasingly dependent on foods preserved with chemicals untested for human safety. Unfortunately, at this time in our history, food manufacturing was not regulated by government controls. You can imagine the consequences: a marketplace inundated with low-quality, often toxic food products.

 

Corrupt producers were free to tamper with ingredients, frequently substituting cheaper and inferior components for those listed on the package label. For insistence, cottonseed oil was typically blended into olive oil, honey was diluted with corn syrup, and even baby formula was laced with morphine. Equally problematic, commonly used preservatives – such as borax and sulfur – were potential poisons. Clearly the time was ripe for reform.

 

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Enter Harvey Wiley, MD. While teaching chemistry at Purdue University, in 1883 he left academia and moved to Washington, D.C., accepting an offer to act as Chief Chemist at what is now the United States Department of Agriculture. Wiley brought to the USDA a practical knowledge of farming, an understanding of food processing, and talent for public relations.

 

In his new, authoritative position, Wiley took advantage of his national visibility and soon became a crusader for ‘pure food.’ He launched a series of bulletins addressing the adulteration of dairy products, spices, and alcoholic beverages. He also conducted speaking tours across the country to raise public awareness about the mislabeling of food, eventually becoming a household name. In 1899, he issued an annual report warning that impure foods posed a direct threat to millions of Americans, especially children, the elderly, and the sick who were unknowingly ingesting dangerous chemicals.

 

Enter the Poison Squad

Wiley believed that manufacturers should be responsible for proving that their choice of food additives was safe for public consumption. But because he was unable to enforce regulation, in 1902 he decided to conduct his own studies, hoping that the results would scientifically demonstrate which preservatives were harmful, and at what levels. With a budget of $5,000, Wiley organized a group of healthy young men, dubbed the Poison Squad by the press, who volunteered as human “guinea pigs” to see what effects adulterated foods might have on their health.

 

the poison squad

The Poison Squad. Source: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/food-testing-in-1902-featured-a-tuxedoclad-poison-squad-eating-plates-of-acid

 

These men agreed to participate for six months and not to hold the government responsible for any illness or injury that might result. Their only rewards were high-quality meals prepared by a certified chef, and the chance to promote scientific knowledge. The squad pledged to eat all of their meals at a shared and supervised “hygienic table” and to avoid all other foods during the study.

 

The volunteers were completely aware that they were consuming potential toxins, but were regularly monitored by physicians. Wiley finally terminated the experiments when volunteers began suffering from debilitating symptoms, such as exhaustion, nausea, and vomiting. Although no formal long-term follow-up studies were conducted on their health, anecdotal reports suggested that no one was permanently harmed. For instance, one of Wiley’s subjects, William Robinson, died in 1979 at the age of 94.

 

As you might imagine, this experiment was controversial and highly publicized. Food industry leaders objected that the normal consumer would never eat enough preservatives to suffer the same symptoms, and that the additives were safe in small quantities. Wiley argued that no one had yet scientifically set toxic limits for chemical preservatives and, therefore, it remains plausible that a gradual accumulation of additives might pose a threat to public health over time.

 

Wiley was convinced that federal regulations were necessary to discriminate between those chemicals that could safely be added to foods, and those that posed risks to human health, and should therefore be either banned or labelled explicitly with a warning. Although food lobbies continued to block legislation, the vast majority of manufacturers voluntarily stopped using preservatives that made the Poison Squad ill, including borax, salicylic acid, formaldehyde, and copper sulfate.

 

The Pure Food & Drug Act

The Poison Squad was a national sensation and drew attention to the need for federal food and drug laws. To keep the momentum going, Wiley travelled across the country, speaking before dozens of women’s groups, who took up the issue. More than a million women wrote to the White House in support of new legislation, while Ladies Home Journal, one of the most popular magazines of the time, warned mothers of the dangers adulterated foods posed to their children.

 

At the same time, Upton Sinclair had published his sensational novel, The Jungle, about horrific working conditions and contaminated meat in Chicago’s meatpacking district. President Teddy Roosevelt launched an investigation that proved Sinclair’s claims were true, causing his administration to back a pure food bill.

 

One episode in particular galvanized Roosevelt’s commitment to progressive reform. During the Spanish-American War, he served as a combat officer in command of the famous Rough Riders, who seized Cuba from the Spanish in 1898. While occupying the island, the army lived on thousands of pounds of canned meat shipped from producers in the U.S. To their horror, the meat was spoiled, yet before the problem was discovered, thousands of American troops fell sick, while hundreds died. In fact, this foodborne illness outbreak killed more American soldiers than those who died in battle.

 

The incident enraged Roosevelt. He came to believe that the federal government had placed too much emphasis on laissez faire policies and not enough emphasis on providing basic protections for the American people. Soon, he partnered with Wiley, who helped draft a new food and drug bill that eventually found its way to the Senate for a vote.

 

In the meantime, Wiley met personally with packing and canning industry lobbyists, assuring them that the law would not harm manufacturers engaged in honest production and labeling. Contrary to prevailing assumptions that corporations monolithically opposed reform, many food companies, such as Heinz, which differentiated itself in the marketplace using ads stressing the purity of its products, considered federal regulation as a beneficial measure.

 

These companies had much higher standards of sanitation than their competitors, which puts them at a disadvantage when competing with unscrupulous market rivals who could sell inferior products at a lower price. Government regulation of food production would reward corporations that already had high standards because it would force the competition to implement expensive improvements in sanitation.

 

political cartoon Bureau of Chemistry Chief Chemist Harvey Wiley

Political cartoon of Bureau of Chemistry Chief Chemist Harvey Wiley. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fdaphotos/4901387486/in/set-72157624615595535/

 

Finally, the battle was won on June 30, 1906, when President Roosevelt signed the legislation. A national hero, Wiley was nicknamed the "Father of the Pure Food and Drug Act" when it became law. For the first time in American history, the federal government assumed permanent and widespread responsibility for the health and safety of the American food supply.

 

Birth of the FDA

Roosevelt appointed Wiley to oversee the administration of the new law. As the Chief of the Bureau of Chemistry, one of Wiley’s first innovations was to hire food and drug inspectors to complement the work of laboratory scientists, thus starting a national food inspection program that revolutionized both manufacturing and the supply chain.

 

The fact that enforcement of the Pure Food and Drug Act fell under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Chemistry, rather than the Department of Commerce or the Department of the Interior, was a tribute to Wiley’s reputable studies of food adulteration. Under his leadership, the Bureau of Chemistry grew significantly in size and in stature, moving into its own building and adopting the healing symbol of the Rod of Asclepius as its logo. Eventually, the Bureau evolved into the federal agency we know today as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

 

rod of asclepius

The rod of Asclepius. Source: https://mythologian.net/staff-rod-asclepius-medical-symbol-symbol-medicine-meaning/

 

Mr. Wiley Goes to Good Housekeeping

Wiley was a maverick in his new role. Unfortunately, he still had many adversaries in Congress and in the food industry who continued to block his ongoing plans for reform. Frustrated and disappointed, on March 15, 1912, Wiley resigned his leadership of the Chemistry Bureau because, from nearly the beginning, he had seen the law’s principles either compromised or discredited. A newspaper headline of the day read: “Women Weep as Watchdog of the Kitchen Quits After 29 Years.”

 

Fortunately, Wiley did not abandon his female constituents. Just prior to resigning, he had been recruited by Good Housekeeping magazine to direct the Bureau of Foods, Sanitation, and Health at is well-known Research Institute. Once Wiley was on staff, working in his own chemistry laboratories in Washington, D.C., he was able to monitor government activities and continue his fight for pure foods by writing articles and editorials in the magazine.

 

In his 19 years as director, Wiley led the fight for tougher government inspection of meat, pure butter unadulterated with water, and whole wheat flour, which growers were mixing with other grains. The Bureau also analyzed food products and published the findings. For instance, in 1914, Wiley published a groundbreaking exposé on obesity cures, called "Swindled Getting Slim." The article described ways diet hucksters misleadingly sold fraudulent products by evading government regulators. The Bureau also established the famous Good Housekeeping "Tested and Approved" seal, a coveted symbol of good manufacturing practices that raised consumer confidence in the food industry.

 

good housekeeping seal

Good Housekeeping Seal. Source: https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/institute/about-the-institute/a22148/about-good-housekeeping-seal/

 

Harvey Wiley’s Legacy

Over his 50-year crusade, Harvey Wiley was an unceasing advocate of food safety regulations. He traveled the country delivering hundreds of lectures to audiences in every state. He also toured Europe, where he received many accolades, including the Legion of Honor from the French government.

 

In 1921, Wiley's provocative publications contributed to the passage of the Maternity Bill, which allocated federal funds for improved infant care – and led to a reduction of the shocking infant mortality rate. Remarkably prescient, in 1927 he expressed his suspicion that the use of any form of tobacco might be harmful and that it might promote cancer. Because of mounting evidence confirming Wiley's early warnings, Good Housekeeping stopped accepting cigarette ads in 1952, twelve years before the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report detailing the health hazards of smoking.

 

When he died in 1930, at age 86, Harvey Wiley was given a patriot's funeral at Arlington Cemetery. His legacy lives on in the careers of his disciples such as Ralph Nader, Bill Marler, and Michael Jocobson, who have followed in his footsteps and continue to crusade for safe food today.

 

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