If the father of the FDA could return today, what would he say?

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October 18, 2011

Newspaper cartoon from 1912 when Dr. Wiley left government service.

If it sometimes seems that the campaign to keep our food safe to eat is an uphill battle, imagine what it must have been like at the beginning of the last century.

The fact that we now have a set of legal standards regarding food safety, no matter how imperfect it might be, is due to the efforts of one man who was born 167 years ago today, Oct. 18. That man was Harvey Washington Wiley, known as the “father of the FDA,” a chemist who did not suffer food adulteration gladly.

It was Dr. Wiley who first put a stop to some of the more rampant abuses in U.S. food production. As chief of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry (which in 1930 evolved into the  U.S. Food and Drug Administration) for nearly 30 years, from 1883 to 1912, Wiley led the crusade that spurred Congress to legislate on behalf of America’s consumers, and through his  knowledge, newsworthiness and persistence, maneuvered the Pure Food and Drug Act into becoming law in June of 1906. This landmark legislation marked the first time the federal government officially became the watchdog for the American consumer.

Wiley based many of his findings on experiments that were perhaps a bit more germane than today’s reliance on laboratory rats. His test animals were humans – Department of Agriculture volunteers who agreed to let Wiley monitor their consumption of a variety of additives over a five-year period. What Wiley concluded after carefully observing the reactions among those who became known as his “Poison Squad” was that many of the components of the American diet were downright dangerous. Possessing considerable skill as both writer and orator, Wiley was then able to use the results of his research as a springboard for political action by arousing public sentiment against the makers of adulterated food.

A law, of course, is only as good as its enforcement. Like so many other legislative victories, the passage of the Pure Food Law of 1906 was only a beginning. It wasn’t long before Wiley and its other supporters found themselves engaged in a uphill battle with those intent on weakening this particular law’s clout.

He chronicled this battle in 1930, by authoring The history of a crime against the food law; the amazing story of the national food and drugs law intended to protect the health of the people perverted to protect adulteration of foods and drugs.

I wonder what Wiley would think of today’s FDA and a marketplace filled with test-tube additives or altered forms of food that he probably could never have even imagined.

Some of Wiley’s earliest work involved  honey adulteration and syrup mislabeling. And of the many food and drug items that have come out of the laboratory ‘after his time,’ I have a feeling one which would  both intrigue and concern him would be high fructose corn syrup (HFCS),  a laboratory concoction conjured out of corn starch, and the sneaky and expensive $50 million campaign being run by the Corn Refiners Association to change its name and have the public think it’s “corn sugar.

So in honor of Dr. Wiley’s birthday, take a few moments today and send your comments to the FDA about this name change scam for HFCS. We consumers are not “confused” at all by calling it HFCS. That’s what it’s been called since its invention, and that’s what it should stay named.

Let’s tell the FDA , as Dr. Wiley put it more than a century ago, that “the right of the consumer is the first thing to be considered.”