With “Poison on the Plate”, Arte is showing an unexpectedly exciting documentary about the history of US food control.
The ninety-minute documentary “Poison on the Plate” was produced under the original title “The Poison Squad” in a thirty-minute longer version for the US non-profit WGBH Educational Foundation. An educational program, more precisely: a history lesson. And like so many history lessons, rich in knowledge for the present.
The film author John Maggio takes an excursion into the decades around 1900, the phase of the second industrial revolution. In the USA, the population is moving into the cities where new and permanent jobs are waiting. This development gives rise to previously unknown challenges: People have to be supplied with food. The farmer’s market is no longer sufficient – the birth of the large food companies. They were able to produce as they saw fit during these years. There were no government regulations, no controls. Changing this was for Dr. Harvey Wiley on life’s work.
“Poison on the Plate” film about the history of the food industry follows food investigators
Wiley was a war veteran, had studied medicine and chemistry, taught at various colleges and Perdue University, and was called to the Indiana civil service. In 1878 he went on a study trip to Europe, heard lectures from August Wilhelm von Hofmann in Germany and worked in the Imperial Health Department alongside Eugen Sell.
The knowledge he gained there and the modern equipment he had brought with him were useful when, on his return, the state commissioned him to examine the quality of the honeys and syrups. Almost all of them were adulterated, as was the milk, one of his next objects to be examined, beans, tinned meat, coffee. In detailed detective work, he discovered poisonous additives such as formaldehyde, sodium benzoate, borax, and aluminum. Canned beans were re-colored, spoiled meat chemically processed. The laboratory technicians found plaster of paris and chalk in the milk to hide the fact that the product had been diluted with water. Some dairies used pureed calf brain to create artificial foam. There was also that: live worms in milk bottles, human limbs in canned meat.
Deadly crimes in the US food industry: “Poison on the plate” reveals scandals
Not just a deliberate fraud of buyers, but a deadly crime. There have been deaths, mostly among children. Harvey Wiley began a campaign against these machinations. Among other things, he specifically used the press to educate the public. The food companies, including Coca-Cola, whose drink was classified as hazardous to health in its composition at the time, turned out to be powerful opponents, with a strong lobby and political contacts right up to the White House. For Wiley it was a long battle with many setbacks. He was handicapped, publicly pilloried and defamed, but also found allies, including in the emerging women’s rights movement.
The fabric has all the characteristics of a hero’s journey. David versus Goliath, one versus all. Wiley’s steadfastness and perseverance are impressive, many would have given up along the way. John Maggio, who was able to orientate himself on a non-fiction book by Deborah Blum, arranges his material accordingly with tension. He assembles re-enacted scenes, documentary photos and film clips into a catchy narrative. The now highly honored Harvey Wiley himself can be seen at the end in a documentary film from 1929.
Lessons from history: “Poison on the plate” as documentation with a reference to the present
The manner of re-enacting historical events is sometimes criticized. It should be remembered that archive material, which has only been available since the invention of the film and only to a limited extent, is seldom authentic and hardly provides reliable information. John Maggio uses contemporary film material, which is rarely directly related to the narration, but only has an illustrative function. In terms of authenticity, there is no big difference to staged passages. On the contrary. If they are carefully made, they can be more accurate than archive images, for example from sensational newsreels or interest-based order documentation. Often enough during research – and sometimes only by pure chance – it was found that supposed documentary recordings from ancient times had in reality been modeled on.
As far as this film, bought by ZDF for Arte, goes back in time, the reference to the present is obvious. American experience shows that when such an important industrial sector is given a free hand, the pursuit of profit triumphs over responsibility for the community. Since Harvey Wiley’s death in 1930, food processing methods have been greatly refined and research continues. The lesson from Wiley’s work: the laboratories of the food industry must be able to meet the responsible health authorities on an equal footing. However, one must also acknowledge that the public broadcasters in this country regularly provide educational work on this issue.
Arte will be showing the documentary “Poison on the Plate” on Tuesday, June 22nd at 9:40 pm. This is preceded, thematically appropriate, by a critical contribution about modern bread production, also contributed by ZDF. (Harald Keller)