Meet the Volunteers Who Fought for Food Safety in 'The Poison Squad'

Rick and Christina Gables
Courtesy of FDA

By the late 19th century, the American food supply was rife with frauds, fakes, and legions of untested and often deadly chemicals that threatened the health of consumers. PBS’s American Experience: The Poison Squad, based on the acclaimed book by Deborah Blum, tells the story of a little known government chemist named Dr. Harvey Wiley, who, determined to banish these dangerous substances from the American diet, took on the powerful food manufacturers and their allies in government.

Wiley embarked upon a series of bold and controversial trials on human subjects, a dozen brave young men who would become known as the “Poison Squad.” Following Wiley’s unusual experiments and tireless crusade for food safety, the film charts his work which becomes the basis for our consumer protection laws, and ultimately the creation of the FDA. The film premieres Tuesday, January 28 on PBS.

Courtesy of The Library of Congress

Determined to banish dangerous substances from American dinner tables, Wiley faced enormous opposition from big business and their lobbyists and cronies in Congress. He decided that the only way to prove the toxicity of these chemicals would be through a scientific study using human subjects.

Wiley’s experiments became one of the most influential scientific studies of the 19th century. Finally, in 1906, decades after he first sounded the alarm, Congress passed the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first consumer protection laws in the nation’s history.

American Experience: The Poison Squad, Premiere, Tuesday, January 28, 9/8, PBS (Check your local listings)