Those folks at PBS have done it again. They’ve aired a provocative piece that will stun you. It’s about the man behind the so-called Poison Squad.

Sounds scary doesn’t it. It’s fascinating. You won’t be able to look away. It’s the documentary film “The Poison Squad” and it premiered last night on the PBS series “American Experience.” 

Food safety is no stranger to the headlines nowadays. Who doesn’t know about the E. coli outbreaks links to romaine lettuce the past three years and the Jack in the Box E. coli hamburger outbreak in 1993. Then there was the deadly listeria cantaloupe outbreak of 2011, the deadly peanut butter outbreak of 2009, the deadly spinach outbreak of 2006 — you get my point. 

At the turn of the 21st Century and beyond, foodborne hazards are well known. People understand what you can’t see can kill you. It wasn’t always that way.

In 1956 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp to honor the 50th anniversary of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Based on the book “The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century” by the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Deborah Blum, the documentary tells the story of Harvey Wiley, a chemist who was smart enough and brave enough to figure out that someone needed to pay closer attention to how food is made, what’s in it, and the potential harm it holds.

Wiley was also a crusader for truth in labeling. Heck, he was one of the people who realized early on that processed foods needed ingredient labels.

Wiley was also the man behind the Poison Squad, a cadre of knowing volunteers who ingested common food additives at the turn of the previous millennium. Stuff like borax, formaldehyde and other chemical preservatives were on the squad’s menu. No one at the time knew the potential effects of the substances.

In addition to his research, Wiley is known for his work on the landmark Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Also known as the Wiley Act, it was the federal government’s first meaningful move to protect the public from harmful foods and regulate drugs.

Harvey Wiley, third from right, posed with his staff at USDA after being named the agency’s chief chemist.

Before working on the act, though, Wiley became the chief chemist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1882. He started working on the misbranding and adulteration of foods.

Without the courage of the members of the Poison Squad much of Wiley’s work would have been impossible. To learn about all of the details between Wiley’s education and his education of the world, watch the movie.

If you haven’t already paused to find out when the documentary will be aired by your local PBS station, do yourself a favor and look it up right now. Wiley’s is a compelling story and the film is waaaaaaay more real than all of that so-called reality programming that wants to grab your attention.

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