Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Poison Eaters

The Poison Eaters: Fighting Danger and Fraud in our Food and Drugs by Gail Jarrow. Grades 6-10. Calkins Creek, 2019. 160 pages. Review copy provided by my local library. 


How much would I have to pay you to eat poison? What if you knew that it would make you feel sick and weak and lose weight? What if you knew that you could possibly die? 

The "poison eaters" were a group of young men who volunteered to participate in a study about food safety, to eat food that had been preserved with potentially harmful substances, so that scientists could prove that the producers and packagers of processed foods were killing America. 

Go to the store today and pick up any packaged food. We take for granted that it will have a label listing the ingredients and nutritional information. That if the item contains an active ingredient (like in medicines), it will be listed on the box. That if the item could cause harmful side effects or needs further instructions, there will be a warning label on the box. 

That was not always the case. And it took a huge battle and a long, long time to win those requirements to protect the American consumer. 

It is truly disturbing what food packagers and processors used to be able to get away with. People were sickened by rotten food that had been disguised with formaldehyde to mask the smell. Mothers gave children "soothing syrup" that contained alcohol or morphine - yes, it stopped teething pain... because it knocked them straight out until morning! Quack doctors were able to sell "medicine" making outrageous healing claims without testing anything or even making sure it was safe to consume. 

And our American government let them get away with it - until the poison eaters stood up to say that it was wrong and things needed to change. 

My thoughts: 

This book provides so many riveting and appalling examples of what producers were able to get away with before the government enacted regulations. I kept reading bits out loud to my husband because I was so outraged that people had to deal with this. Beyond just unsafe and unsanitary food preparation, Jarrow also touches on issues like the radium girls who were poisoned by radium that was advertised as healthy and the pregnant mothers who were prescribed thalidomide which caused catastrophic birth defects. 

Gail Jarrow is a master of narrative nonfiction and this book is packed to the gills with historical figures and facts. It was fascinating to me how many groups and individuals rallied for the passing of laws to protect consumers while the House and Senate (no doubt influenced by the deep pockets of the food and drug manufacturers) drug their feet. Even after regulations were passed in 1906, producers often found loopholes and made huge profits off them. 

Readers interested in American history, especially those with an interest in food science or medicine, will find much to pore over here. 


Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (HMH, 2015). Although the subject matter's a bit different - this one concentrates on the spread of a deadly illness - these books both deal with health threats in the early 1900s and the struggle to stop them. Readers of narrative nonfiction who are interested in the history medicine and health will enjoy both.