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tv   Deborah Blum The Poison Squad  CSPAN  October 21, 2018 11:00pm-12:01am EDT

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politics and prose. the director of the knight science journalism program at mit and a publisher of a dark magazine the poisoners handbook ghost hunters, love a is part ad sex on the brain. a chemistry professor from perdue university and his investigation into food and drink fraud. in the 18 hundreds products such
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as milk, meat and canned vegetables were preserved with chemicals that were known to be toxic in often used in formulas such as embalming fluid and products. as chief chemist of the department of agriculture, doctor whiteley and his test subjects known as the place in the squad investigated these harmful products and began campaigning for food safety and consumer protection, a campaign that culminated in the passage of the 190 1906 pure food and dg act. the author of the curious science of human death for rights she's cooked up a delicious brew burger, forensic toxicology come in new york city in the 1920s, the biochemistry of poison i loved this book i knocked it back in one go and
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now i want more. now please join me in welcoming deborah. [applause] thanks so much. it is a pleasure to be at the bookstore that i admire most and to see all of you here including some science writers which always makes me happy. i'm going to start with a kind of admission that i'm fascinated by things that kill you and i know it makes me sound creepy, but i've been following poisonse and then toxicology now for almost ten years and the book that preceded this actually came out nine years ago and i've been looking at interest things ever since. this led me unexpectedly to the book i'm writing now which is the invention of food safety and protection in the united states and it started when i heard about this experiment which is
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what the book is named after and it was not named that by the scientist so disclaimer this was a science, and experiment funded by harvey washington by lee who was the chief chemist in the department of agriculture and he called it hygienic table trials which is a really boring title as the "washington post" decided early on when it was covering these experiments and so there was a "washington post" reporter who nicknamed it the poison squad and that was its name nationwide so while i was looking at early 20th century toxicolog20thcentury toxicologyy other books, i read about what seemed to be a completely crazy experiment and in fact it is a crazy experiment. it's one of the few public health experiments that script
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animal safety testing entirely and start to put humans in the south in 1902, whiteley persuaded government employees to volunteer to dine dangerously to test out additives in food supply and i'm going to come back to that but i want to do now is talk about why would anyone decide that the only answer in understanding what was in our food is to test compounds on young men. why we had come to the federal government in the 80s and was a kind of crusading chemist. when he came to the usda just to set the scene a little bit this is the late 19th century. there are no regulations on food and drink. there are no federal consumer protection laws and there are actually no labeling
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requirements so that when people are making food they can put anything they want to. they do not have to safety test it and they do not have to tell you what they've put in your food so when whiteley comes to the usda in 1983 the usda is in fact the only government agency that has any responsibility for food safety in the entire country and they've never looked at it. as they should have on the era grid business whiteley comes in as the first professor when perdue had only six faculty including the president and he started the chemistry department and she had gotten very interested so when he comes to the federal level, he basically says to his boss i'm going to do all this other business friendly science but i want to look at the quantity of food in the
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united states so starting in the mid-1880s, his tiny department of about six chemists start of a series of investigations of the american food supply and as they do this, he starts to realize how crazy food is, manufactured food is and when you read these bulletins, and i can say i'm one of the few people standing in the united states who's read all of them and some of them are 500 pages long so i'm not entirely recommending them as night time reading that when you start reading fees, you start to see an unfolding portrait of what food is like in the united states and so he started looking at melt. i talked a lot about milk when i talked about this book because it's kind of a case study of just how bad things were and i
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want to say this was a big shock to me when i started. i think i had a kind of fairytale idea that our four founders ate really healthy stuff. they were out milking their cows and plucking of eggs and eating nothing but a farm fresh vegetables and they were all happy and healthy and that's just wrong. i actually was talking to somebody i'd written a book about, the kellogg brothers and their fight to bring healthy cereal serial into the american diet and he called the 19th century to century o the centurt american stomach ache because so many people were eating bad things and so many people had gastroenteritis so when you try to figure out is that the food made them sick or something else, there isn't any public health tracking that there is a
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general sort of intestinal on easiness across the country i'm going to call it. so now i will move forward a little bit. the problem is about the 1850s you see doctors starting to describe milk as milk poisoning and there are several reasons for that. this is a period before refrigeration and bastardization, ancome and milkd its proteins are all a wonderful breeding ground for bacteria and at that time the bacteria were thriving in milk tea don't worry about so much today like bovine tuberculosis. so you have a lot of illnesses related to milk that way, but the only problem was the dairy men seeking to improve their profit would alter the milk so
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they would fill it with water. it didn't have to be clean water. there was a wonderful case of indiana where they wen went in o scoop water out of a nearby pond to translate and this was reported to the public health department of famildepartment tn their bottle of milk because it was wiggling at the bottom. this turned out to be horsehair worms and when the health department ran the analysis, they discovered that in fact it was stagnant water. but in addition to that, once you pour water into milk it doesn't look like milk anymore. it's got a kind of grayish blue so if we put chalk into milk they could gelatin to thicken it back up and down so a famous case from indiana and this is not the most disgusting thing that i will tell you tonight, but they discovered if they
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puréed brains they could float on the top of the milk and it would look like cream. i read a statement by a public officer but said the problem is when you pour the cream into your coffee, the little brain later with cook on the top of your coffee so then you knew it wasn't real cream and that is how you found out and then the final step of this is it the case. there isn't a good refrigeration or bastardization, the milk would take a during the civil war the number one i and bombing material that was used was formaldehyde which was a wonderful way of preserving many corpses from the civil war and because it became so well known food producers started saying i wonder if this would work with our products and so they would put it into milk and give it different names. there were compounds that are so
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innocuous that they are basically formaldehyde compounds and so two things happened with milk. they started having no scandals and you can find peac these on american newspapers around the country when you see the headline it meant children died because the dose of formaldehyde was high for kids so there was one case in indianapolis where they had 400 children die in an outbreak related to the end bombing began this is legal. but again this is legal. there's nothing to prosecute you for you can put anything you want into fruit where you don't have to safety test it or label it and so the poison squad experiment which starts after the turn of the 20th century is after 20 years of investigating
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the food supply and trying to work with congressmen to get some sort of safety standards unveiled for all kinds of reasons, political reasons, american character and so finally he says okay we are dumping all of these things into food. he was particularly by that time concerned about the new industrial additives said he drew up a list of things going into food that have never been tested and these included formaldehyde and you may occasionally still see this in the cleaning section that company at that point sold it as a food preservative and it's usually used in milk and butter and meat and copper sulfate when people with canned vegetables they were in the canning process to turn them back color.
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the vegetables look wonderful and salicylic acid, which many of you probably know because it is a fever reducer, it's related to there is a variant that we see an aspirin and i in aspirinw anything about salicylic acid, you know that it's a wonderful fever reducer but it also causes the lining of your stomach to bleed. so american beer and wine producers put it into beer and wine and in fact -- i should say that europe by this time had food safety laws though we did not cause that is a situation where germany made salicylic acid is illegal in beer sold to germany but they shipped it with you that the united states because it was okay here and you see that kind of juggling going on. finally he says there's no good safety testing i want to just
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try this out on healthy young men in their 20s because he considered them the turn of the 20th century the story of the specimens and so the least likely to kill over so they put out a call saying we are looking for volunteers to dine dangerously coming in here is the bargain so we will see three meals every day for months and they actually build a kitchen in the basement of the agriculture department and beautiful dining room and hired a professional chef who worked in hotels so the meals would be delicious and had to be the farm fresh fantasy. imagine if i used only on preserved food and the only catch was any given point during the poison squad experiment half of the people in the room had to
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add capsules to their meals with a dose of formaldehyde or salicylic acid so she started with borax because he thought that was the safest on the list and it didn't turn out that way. it turned out that people got very sick so this is the first time in here is the other part iof it there are no labels on food. companies are not telling you that they are doing this. so the american public actually did not realize that these things are going into their food in any meaningful way until you can get that information out and so the poison squad experiment, because they got so much attention they make them very angry.
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they are forced to put in infections about how bad the food is and fannie farmer wrote a book on cooking for the sake in which she put in do not give the milk and if you have to give them milk, sterilize the milk and if you have to, don't buy it from places that might have these compounds and so you start to see this wave of information coming forward and it becomes as nothing still happens, there's a huge organization by food and drink manufacturers at this point to push it back. you start seeing the consumer safety advocates and while he wasn't the only one of course, but we just have to get people to notice and if we have enough people in the united states understand how bad the food supply is, then we can get some
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attention. so i wanted to read you a couple examples and these are from, the first one is from 1904 and it involves the world fair in st. louis. this was an amazing fare but one of the things that happened was all of the what they called fewer fewer food advocates said let's use this on behalf of hundreds of thousands of people. there was a 20-acre agricultural exhibits, and harvey wiley who was the chemist who's been doing these experiments is able to negotiate to get them to acres to show them what bad food is
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like in the united states, and what happens is they write to every state in the country and say send us an example of what food is like and they get so much that they realize they havd about 10 acres worth of examples so they set up a sort of hierarchy of th but the organizs decided to exhibit only 2,000 different brands representing the tainted foods sold in the united states. i've never yet found a can in the state of north dakota that contained in a determinable quantity chicken or turkey. they sent sheets of silk and wool each brilliantly dyed with
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a new industrial chemistry thing you can make them out of the old vegetable dyes they would make them out of the derivatives. extracted from strawberry syrup and red wine. they sent samples of the extract in which the manufacturer used wood alcohol as the base and the providers they offered up lemon drops covered in jungle by poisonous lead and burnt sienna labeled as a tomato product and some 50 brands of baking powder that were largely well ground chalked enhanced by aluminum compounds to be food executives of publicity send out a news
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release titled lessons in food poisoning that no tape if you want to have your faith in mankind shaken, take the time to look about in the exhibit of this commissioner at the south end of the palace of agriculture. for those that have not been following the issue they offered a guide to some of the problems. maple syrup was still likely to be glucose, diagram with acid colored with burnt sugar, butter soaked turned out to be deliberately mislabeled on the in march or at the time made with animal fat it was a combination of ground fast and ground sheep stomach that was bleached and dyed and made a kind of july this creamy thing. they were not the only marcher comes at th up time and space ie
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cayenne turned out to be ground-up nutshells with any old thing died any old color down a long list we might go telling the secrets of those putting dollars in their pockets by putting poisons into our foods suppresses the state of manufactured footookmanufactured states before we get the 1906 drug law and you see this wash of consumer activism trying to push forward that wall and it just doesn't still happen. so two years later what happens of course is as some of you know the socialist novelist named upton sinclair writes a very incendiary novel called the jungle and i know what is melodramatiit ismelodramatic but interesting is the power of the
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real so i'm going to tell you about that and read a small part of that section and get you to the complete corruption by the business interests of the time. what happened is sinclair was a practicing socialist and a very poor writer who got interest in a strike in chicago in which they managed to completely suppress the strike and a point kansas was a hotbed of socialism and they published a newspaper called appeal to reason. so sinclair wrote and said lets me write a story about the pictures strike.
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they call them muckraking journalists. it was a name teddy roosevelt called in for the investigative reporters he wasn't that fond of so often sinclair hung out with a lot of muckraking journalists and before he did his novel he moved to chicago and lived with workers and spend weeks in the area where they process post of the need for the country and he was very poor. apparently he blended in with all of the poor butchers and canners because his clothes were so shabby and he took reams of notes so it was journalism based and he also got a contract to publish.
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he mailed the installment to the firm and chapter by chapter it became dismayed. the book described them as driving by a railroad to be raie butchered and sold to american houses. it is a nasty business so when you plunge right into them that first and splash smoking stuff into your face. sinclair also have the embarrassing food scandals of the spanish-american war. there was an embalmed speech scandal after the war in which generals accuse them of poisoning more soldiers with food and the spanish actually shot.
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it was stuff such as this that killed several times as many soldiers as all of the bullets of the spaniards and over the army beef that was all stuff that had been lying around for years in the cellar. the men working the line had their fingers easily by exposure, tuberculosis germs in the air of the processing plant and workers occasionally fill in and, quote, when they were fished out, there was never enough left of them to be worth exhibiting. sometimes they wrote staying after hours to earn a little more to be overlooked for days until all had gone out into the world as & which was the pseudonym for farmers. the editor sent the chapters out for review and they declared
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that it was better and canceled the book so now you hav you havo jungle his onlthejungle had onln specialist circles. what upton sinclair did it went publisher to publisher around the streets of new york until they found an editor with a flair for drama they thought they could actually make this work and so the publishing company at the time agreed to take on the book but when they got it they said this can't be true and they sent it to "the chicago tribune." what happened is the tribune sent them back this completely total fiction kind of answer and so upton sinclair went to a
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publisher with medical books to persuade them that it was wrong. they sent us to a representative of the packing industry but meanwhile, doubleday pages and their own investigators to chicago and they came back and said it's worse than he says so in the magazine to the island they sent the book to teddy roosevelt signed byte upton sinclair and the book is getting a huge amount of attention. he said none of this can't be true. you see this cascade of people saying that can't be right. so they came back to the department of the head of labor and i of as a social activist ty came back and said it is s thats
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so much work van and the book. they were slipping into the process but they did see the bread that was used to poison them and one of the investigators was o of meats tht have gotten moldy so they scraped off the mold and ground it up and put it into the processing system. he wasn't interested in food crusades he said to the members of congress and said if you don't give us an act i'm going to release this report, and they didn't do anything so he released a three-page summary of the report and that caused such an enormous scandal that they
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canceled their contracts in the american meat industry and so at that point he was able to see if you don't really report so they passed that june and the food and drug act passed about a week later. it's the first time in our history that the government assigns laws that says it's our job to protect american citizens in their everyday life not just military protection, but the protection of the safety of who we are. i spent some time and i won't go into all of this now because i would love to answer questions
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talking about what happens to the wall once it passes into some of the corporate influences, but i will briefly say rightly that spent his life crusading for this the year before he died in 1929 it was a really bad that he wrote a book called the history of the crime against the food law which is just his exploration of all of the corporate things that happened to regulation and watered it down in the 20 something years after that law passed in about eight years after he died, we got a new law in the 1938 cosmetics act that established the fda and brought us into a much more serious and empowered consumer protection.
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we still use a lot of that and i'm happy to talk about with some of that means. we still use decisions that their staff need from about 1906 to 1911 to guide the food safety system and to give one quick example of that, every food diet approved in the united states today was approved by harvey wiley in 1908 and he hired a chemist to go through all of them on the market and some of them were really bad. arsenic i can't speak too highly of it, but people used it to make candy grain and decorations for cake and pastry. it was very toxic and you see
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all kinds of deaths related to it. they kept the core of less than 20 and those are the guys that are still approved in the u.s.. we took the mountain in 19 these other than that, we are still using almost 120-year-old research to guide us in the use of food dye and if you go to 1938 act decisions made in 1938 as to how we should label our products i will give you one quick example and then i'm happy to answer questions. i found myself crusading for more labels since i wrote this book we are much safer than we were in the 19th century.
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the one example that has been sticking with me they simply if you pick up on a manufacturer's product you will see among the ingredients is sally a lot edits and extend their and a stabilizer. it's almost always woodpulp. so it is a technical term for what is woodpulp but i want to get to the point i won't complete transparency so i can make a decision that is what i really want today and i think i have that right as an informed citizen. people say be an informed consumer. how about letting us be informed and so i am on a personal crusade for better labels to protect american citizens so we
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can make these kind of decisions and the other one i rant about this natural flavorings which is completely meaningless and you will see this was a natural flavorings or essence or flavor of fruit but what is in essence" is a natural flavoring and does anyone believe natural is always safe because we all know it isn't and so i would like to push these forward in a way that if we know we are not going to do good protective regulations we are in a position right now seeing some of the 1938 measures rolled back that we can make the decisions that protect ourselves and i think that harvey wiley the hero of my book would feel the same, so thank you. [applause]
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i'm just wondering how long did harvey wiley continued to work for the government come into the 20s and 30s or no? >> that is a great question. it's a bureaucracy from congress -- >> i'm glad you asked me that. he started in 83 and left government service in 1912. he'he left government service because there was an enormous pushback by business and also business friendly interests in government and the secretary of agriculture who came to believe that while he was and sympathetic enough to business interests and was rigid on insisting on the consumer
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protection he and some of the people who worked in the department faked a scandal that went all the way to president taft accusing him of misusing government funds. when he looked, he realized it was in fact just fake and that was in the summer of 1911. and he resigned from the government about six or eight months later in the spring of 1912. i think that he decided by then he didn't have enough clout in government to make a difference anymore and he wanted to crusade unfettered for what he did as he went to good housekeeping and at that time they were hugely crusading magazines and so good housekeeping hired him and they started their testing laboratories and started the good housekeeping seal of approval.
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and he actually would test products that they thought to advertise if they were fraudulent he kept them out of the magazine, which was a risky step by the magazine and he continued to crusade for a better law and safer food and he occasionally would actually lobby and talk to members of congress when he thought there was a problem. this was from the corn syrup industry we've had that site recently and they made a move to say all corn sweeteners can only be called sugar and should never be investigated again. they took such a strong stance against that in good housekeeping there was a
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congressman that used a filibuster for two days until the bill died, so he continued to do that but that is when he left government and it was a smart move for him at this time. so doctor wiley and theodore roosevelt have three times as many chemicals allowed in europe many of which are considered poisonous and we have to genetically modified food that isn't labeled and causes cancer and we have no precautionary principles responsible for that and we have these companies that have no fda with no say in the safety they determine the safety and do the short term studies and rush the products on the
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market. how are we any better off today than when doctor wiley was making all these changes. we are a lot better off than we were when there was no safety test. there is no requirement to safety testing for the labels and people could put things like formaldehyde into the food with impunity and people would die and not be prosecuted. we have moved forward from that. you heard me rant about labels, but at least we have them. we have a much safer food supply and indeed if you look at then i'm going to talk about additives into some of the other things, but if you look at this something like bad food
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manufacturing that killed people in recent years, an example of where we have performed a much higher level would be the peanut corporation of america scandal which i want to say was six or seven years ago and this was the case if you don't know he was manufacturing commercial grade peanut butter and he had really awful manufacturing conditions. it would be like a 19th century factory in a way that government inspectors didn't always know where their. they ha had bold and rat droppig and peanut butter that was contaminated and was poisonous and dozens of people died. we did, epidemiologists both federal and state were able to figure out what it was, track it
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down to the source and that guy is in prison. so epidemiologists figured out who he was and tracked it down to the source did the president of th that company is now in prison. we do investigations and does all kinds of things we do in which we are better off. second part of that oil be as good as we could become absolutely not and we have a long history that doesn't only involve food involves pesticide in the way we regulate pesticide and compounds and cosmetics in which we don't follow the european model in which if there is evidence of danger a lot of times they will pull it out of the supply. we followed the opposite model it has to be proved opposite debate could danger t dangerouse pull it and we don't study of these compounds.
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you can find this on the website that generally recognized as safe. it's been around a lot and if people haven't started dropping on thdown the street and we areg to generate recognize that as safe and a good example of this titanium dioxide. it is the base for sunscreen and toothpaste and it's never been tested for safety and foods because it didn't kill people and cosmetics and so it is generally recognized as safe. is it better than it used to be and do i like the european model better, yes.
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>> in california in august but was in $89 million award given to this guy that had non-hodgkin's lymphoma. they got a 299 million-dollar judgment and they are continuing to sell this food. it is a complicated science and i will tell you monsanto is also
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in this book making saccharine and it was the number one provider to the early 20th century. talking about federal and the time a little bit smaller scale
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and the other thing did they put stuff on that i forgot? >> that's a really excellent question because there were states that were ahead of the federal government. i lived in massachusetts in the past the first floor in 1880 so you actually see when they are giving the report they say we don't have that much information but we have tested things and found this particularly bad stuff and what is interesting to me i was mentioning kansas as a hotbed of socialism.
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a lot of those western states in particular because they were more vocal. it's about dumping things on the people of north dakota statehood commissioners were hugely active both fighting for the federal law because the states were inconsistent. several years ago i read a history and one of the things that stuck with me is that they have a 38 law because of the
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earlier law as well. just as you are describing the reason we think of drug companies today as being science based with huge amounts of research into the drug development is because they were forced to by the fda. a lot of our best regulations follow the scandal which could be no surprise to anyone.
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there was elixir sold from allied and it wa was a child ca- cough syrup flavored with antifreeze and there was no requirement for them to still do safety testing of the product. for 1906 puts all of the burden on the government did no requirements on the industry. and so, this cough syrup went out and killed well over 100 children in the caused a huge scandal and the head of the
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company was just arrogant about it. the only thing in the 1906 law that made it illegal he couldn't be prosecuted for killing these kids. that wall put in exactly what you are talking about and shifted burden and that is when we start to see the pharmaceutical companies investing in clinical trials. the government does its share of this with the burden to industry but that is why if we really haven't again. we still opt a play that assist him, but again it's better than it used to be.
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i was told that they can kill it once it gets to agriculture and so you could see there we would be moving back to the 19th century. we would take the regulation of food away from the fda and move it back to back her culture so we are seeing more of that going on right now. and i hope we are able to send most of it off. >> you were talking about wanting better labeling on food and i'd just curious there is a lot of phobia about things not
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understanding the scientific names on food and maybe there's more familiar names you are used to so i am just curious about increasing transparency on food products but also the challenges that come with a lot of it. >> for a long time i used to rant about the phrase that is actually an impossibility and if you ever see chemical free shampoo you should roll your eyes because it is nothing but chemicals. it's a problem because we are afraid and don't understand chemistry and i blame some of that on the way we teach chemistry. i talked to a guy who said to me
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k-12 science education is a filter for the preset and it is if you are not rising to the higher level of science potential and i stole that from my own kids but through high school. we have to get back to teaching people chemistry in their own everyday lives in a way that people are not afraid of it. use your common sense into them i would realize they don't have the information to actually apply the common sense so this is one of my other missions in life is to talk about chemistry in an accessible way. it's part of your life every day and if you understand the science that will giv it will ge tools to navigate this world we live and so that's par in so th. the other part we can still do a better job with labels.
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one of the conservativ conservae tried and failed still if you read labels don't the bottom you'll see it on salad dressing and condiments and a bottle of lemon juice. i don't think people know what it is. if we just have labels that make it clear what things were not just preservatives, people could feel like they at least understand the label instead of here is a list of things i don't even know what they are. i've advocated for the largest labels in history with this explanation but there's got to be a way to do this better. >> congratulations on your book. >> thank you.
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>> you said you would talk about the industry subversion can you say a little bit about that? >> one of the things that happened this is the first regulation of food in the country come the food -- food and drink. that would be onerous. as they work their way through congress, the industry persuaded different congressmen.
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the most stringent requirements for testing. by the time it passed it was gone and this is one example the representatives of the meat industry persuaded congress to underfund the actual inspectio inspections, so the law was there for the inspection and funding was weekend. he became so unyielding that different members of industry, they actually met with president roosevelt and he decided to appoint a shadow group of science advisers who could countermand whatever he did and they did. he would come forward and say it
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is dangerous and they would say no it's not and so all of the moves to regulate the compounds were frozen. i've been a long-time fan of lof teddy roosevelt is thoroughly irritated with him. i had to go back and study his work before i liked him again i was so ticked off with these games but he met with different industry leaders and they would say we don't want you to regulate this and he would say okay we won't do that we will just take that out. the other thing they did that turneturn out to be a big probls they persuaded the government as
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they put the law for word to handle and account so if anything was proven unsafe unless the government sees them in court. at the altar of the wall in a made it in possible for the government to say you have to take that out and this played out in some interesting ways. i won't tell you all of them to paper on their way to get bleach out of flour they didn't like the byproducts and thought it could be deceptive. you see these decisions and in
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the coca-cola wall case they held it in chattanooga tennessee where coca-cola had its largest bottling plant and the judge ruled in his favor. >> when you go out to eat how does this change your approach when you pick up food off the shelves or the menu? >> usually people won't go out to eat with me or come over to my house for dinner. [laughter]
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i will put stuff at back which has been interesting as i go forward. i was thinking about something that had lemon juice and i read the label because like i said i'm a crazy person who reads the labels. right at the bottom of said sodium benzoate. i thought he tried to get out of the food supply more than 100 years ago. i am just going to get fresh lemons and that's what i did. so it's made my life much more labor intensive but i hope he'll figure. [laughter] thank you. [applause] and i'm happy to answer any
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questions while you are still here. >> please form a line to the side of the table and fold up your chairs. ..

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