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How Human Guinea Pigs (and a Chemist) Protected Millions – March 2024

How Human Guinea Pigs (and a Chemist) Protected Millions

In the late 19th century, the United States faced a significant public health crisis. Adulterated and unsafe food products flooded the market, causing widespread illness and even death. A recent American Chemical Society (ACS) webinar on the topic focused on the pivotal historical moment that spurred the creation of the first food and drug law and agency in U.S. history. The webinar focused on Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, a Chemist and visionary who used human volunteers as guinea pigs and, with his data and persistence, moved the U.S. government into action.

Things were bad. Arsenic was being used for green food coloring in candy, and red lead was used to give cheddar cheese an appetizing hue. The U.S. was well behind Europe on adopting pasteurization. Enter Dr. Wiley, who would revolutionize food safety and protect the health of millions of Americans.

The Poison Squad

Dr. Wiley’s most famous endeavor was the creation of the “Poison Squad.” In 1902, he assembled a group of young, healthy volunteers who agreed to consume various food additives and preservatives to test their safety. These brave men became test subjects in studies that in retrospect can be viewed as in vivo acute toxicity testing. They ingested substances like borax, formaldehyde, and salicylic acid. Their sacrifice was not in vain; their experiences led to groundbreaking changes in food regulation.

Dr. Wiley’s fight against food adulteration was relentless. He exposed unscrupulous practices by food manufacturers, such as adding chalk to milk, formaldehyde to meat, and copper sulfate to pickles. His research and advocacy led to stricter regulations and the removal of harmful substances from the food supply.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906

Dr. Wiley’s work culminated in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This landmark legislation established the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and mandated accurate labeling of food products. For the first time, manufacturers had to disclose the ingredients in their products, ensuring transparency and empowering consumers to make informed choices.

Advanced Analytical Methods

Dr. Wiley used advanced analytical methods learned during tenures as the Indiana Medical College, Harvard University, Purdue University, and the Imperial Food Laboratory in Bismarck, Germany. He published Principles and Practice of Agricultural Analysis, of which multiple volumes and editions were subsequently issued.

The Legacy

Dr. Wiley’s legacy extends beyond the Poison Squad and the Pure Food and Drug Act. Wiley was a founding member of the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists (AOAC), President in 1886, Secretary from 1889 to 1912, and Honorary President until his death in 1930.

His tireless efforts paved the way for subsequent food safety regulations, including the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938. Today, the FDA continues to protect consumers by ensuring the safety of our food supply.

Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley’s dedication to food safety transformed the landscape of American public health. His Poison Squad experiments and advocacy efforts remain a testament to the power of science, persistence, and the pursuit of a healthier nation. As we enjoy safe food and transparency in the food industry today, we owe a debt of gratitude to this visionary Chemist and his unwavering commitment to our well-being.

Environmental Standards’ Services in Food Chemistry and Pathogens

Environmental Standards’ scientists have assisted food producers and distributors for decades to achieve reliable assessments of contaminants in foods. We oversee and, if necessary, develop or improve analyses for contaminants in agricultural products, meats, seafoods, additives and processed food ingredients. We conduct forensic studies to identify contaminant source and formation mechanisms and guide the use of advanced analytical techniques to identify and quantify known and unknown contaminants. We also are highly experienced in the evaluation of foodborne pathogen testing. Call us to set up a discussion on your needs.

David Thal

David Thal, CQA, CEAC, CFS

Principal Chemist