100,000 Guinea Pigs & the FDA
In 1925, a family of four in London fell ill with what would be diagnosed as arsenic poisoning. The poison came from apples from western United States that had not been properly washed by the grower. The British government was thinking of banning U.S. fruit.
In the 1930s, the concern reached across the Atlantic and became a crusade by reformers against arsenic insecticides. And while the most visible symbol for the crusaders was arsenic on a child’s red apple, farmers all across the country were using these insecticides and became targets of the crusade.
Arsenic was an easy target because everyone knew it was an ancient poison. In 1933, Arthur Kallett and F. J. Schlink wrote 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs and charged that foods, drugs and cosmetics contained dangerous chemical additives or residues that were being “tested” on the entire population of the U.S. The book went through 33 printing runs and was a best seller.
The Food and Drug Administration had been first set up in 1906, but by the 30s the reformers argued that science and commerce had overtaken the agency. Rexford Tugwell, FDR’s Assistant Secretary of Agriculture, became involved in the issue because the FDA was housed in the Agriculture Department. One morning, the head of the FDA suggested that the original FDA law hadn’t anticipated the actions Tugwell was proposing, Tugwell agreed. By that afternoon, he told the agency chief that the President said it was time to revise the FDA law, and the agency chief should get to work drafting a new law. Five years later, the new provisions passed.
It was clear from the public concern and new regulatory measures that arsenic insecticides needed to be replaced. And these developments set the stage for a remarkable explosion in science and a fight over the environmental impact of agricultural chemicals that continues today.
Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.