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Being invited by a Major League Baseball team to throw out the first pitch of the season means you are a hit with the public. And that fits Dr. Anthony Fauci — a name so recognizable that you don’t need to do anything other than say his name.

Fauci

Fauci, who’s a modern-day St. Anthony in liberal and progressive America, is something entirely different to those who reside on the political Right. Both outcomes are due to the testy relationship that has evolved between a government scientist and the president.

But every time I think something is new, it isn’t. Sure, the characters change, and the plot twists aren’t the same, but there’s thematic similarity. Today’s back and forth is about public health in the face of a pandemic, but more than a century ago it was about government inaction to ensure food safety. So Dr. Fauci meetDr. Wiley—Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, that is—a government scientist who took on America’s food industry and its sundry political backers.

Every time we open a can, sit down for dinner, or enjoy a glass of milk, we should thank Dr. Wiley for what he did and enabled—food safety.

And make no mistake about it: what Wiley faced a century ago was no less problematic for America’s health. Every time we open a can, sit down for dinner, or enjoy a glass of milk, we should thank Dr. Wiley for what he did and enabled—food safety. Yes, the food safety system in America today is far from perfect, but at least it’s a system—something that didn’t exist before Wiley helped to change the landscape.

In the late 19th Century, America was transitioning from an agrarian society to an industrial giant. As more and more people moved from farms/small towns to live in cities and work in factories, food purchased from industry replaced food that people grew for themselves and/or bought locally.

In an era of lax policies and laws—including no laws at all—the watchwords of the day were ‘Eater Beware!’ You could not trust what you ate—assuming you knew what it was, where it came from, and how it was produced. Most of the time, you didn’t know, and—even if you did—food safety was still a toss-up.

Writing in Forbes, Jane Lavereadds details. “In this pre-refrigeration world, meatpacking and canning companies sought ways to keep their products fresh at the lowest possible cost, regularly processing products with untested chemical preservatives. (as it pertained to milk products) Milk was diluted with water and then sometimes whitened with Plaster of Paris or chalk to get rid of its bluish tint; formaldehyde was often added to sweeten the taste of souring milk, while pureed calf brains could be used to mimic the cream on top.”

President Theodore Roosevelt became aware of the food problem first-hand during his field experience in the Spanish-American War. Soldiers often found ‘a surprise’ upon opening their rations. That experience was depicted in a popular cartoon of the day (1906) with a soldier holding his nose while grasping an open can in an extended hand—a can labeled “embalmed meat.”

But despite having a national problem that was readily apparent, nothing major was being done about it. The challenge was clear. Without rules, regulations, and public agencies to serve as watchdogs, no counterweight existed to protect the public from unscrupulous food producers. Consumers needed to eat, of course, but the price of food cost more than dollars. For the public, it was a Draconian Bargain.

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Enter Dr. Wiley, whose government position was Chief Chemist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Long concerned about food safety, he spoke out and wrote extensively about what he considered to be an unacceptable situation. Then, in 1902, Wiley began a human subjects study. He recruited twelve volunteer men, fed them a diet exclusively of ‘stuff’ he bought off the shelf, and monitored their health status. The group became known as ‘The Poison Squad,’ so named because the food they ate included a variety of chemicals used by manufacturers to process and preserve food, including borax, arsenic, and lead. Producers used additives to keep food fresh and to make manufactured products look and taste like the real thing, such as butter and green beans.

Wiley’s study was one of the numerous things he did to bring food safety to the public’s attention. Over time, he became a master of public relations, realizing that science—as vital as it is—wasn’t enough. The public needed to be educated and engaged and, rather than delegate that task to others, he did it himself. Wiley became a credible and trusted source with the public, and he began butting heads with bosses and those on Capitol Hill.

That didn’t deter Wiley from persisting. Thankfully, he wasn’t a lone wolf. Published in 1906, Upton Sinclair’sThe Jungle unmasked unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry. Other investigative reporting told a similar tale, such as the production of ‘swill milk’ (i.e., milk adulterated with leftover mash from distilleries), which resulted in thousands of infants dying.

But naming the issue was different from resolving it. Public policy was required, and that’s where progress hit the wall. As happens in social change, it takes time to make significant progress. In this case, a big reason was the food industry—a formidable foe—that lobbied long and hard to keep food safety laws from becoming a reality. But a growing chorus of supporters made the difference, including some in Congress. For example, during a Congressional floor debate, Rep. James Mann (IL) described howfruit was being processed with poisonous dye.

In 1906, Congress passed thePure Food and Drug Act, which established theFood and Drug Administration (FDA), and Dr. Wiley was appointed its first commissioner. But it would take years of continued pushing to bring greater assurance to the public that food safety was indeed a national priority. A critical step came in 1938 when Congress passed theFood, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which gave the FDA greater authority to play its oversight role.

Dr. Wiley didn’t live to see that day. He had retired from government service decades before, worn down by years of defending his work to the USDA and fending off antagonist elected officials and the industry. He wasn’t done, though. In 1912, Wileybecame a director at Good Housekeeping, an organization with a history of product testing. There, Wiley was able to connect his primary interests—food science, food safety, and public education—in a supportive environment.The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval (established in 1909) was an important platform for serving the public good.

For those who believe that Dr. Fauci faces a unique set of challenges, he doesn’t. And there’s every reason to believe this: just as Fauci succeeded Wiley, Fauci will have a successor, too. What else can you expect when big money and big-time politics are involved?

But rather than focus on what may or may not happen, let’s take heart in what already has. “Well done, Dr. Fauci!” (That’s Dr. Wiley speaking.) 

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You can listen to this article on Anchor, Apple and other podcast platforms. Tune toUnder the Radar with Host Frank Fear.

Frank Fear

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