Deborah Blum, Director of the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT and the Publisher of Undark magazine, is a Pulitzer-Prize winning science journalist, columnist and author of six books, most recently, The Poison Squad, a 2018 New York Times Notable Book. That book, as with all her recent books, focuses on influential moments in the history of science. She has worked as a science columnist for The New York Times, a blogger for Wired, and has written for other publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Mother Jones, The Guardian to Lapham’s Quarterly. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Science Writing, Best American Nature Writing, and Best Science On-Line.
Before joining MIT in the summer of 2015, she was the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a position she held for 18 years. Previously, she worked at five different newspapers, including as a staff science writer for The Sacramento Bee, where she won the Pulitzer in 1992 for her reporting on ethical issues in primate research. She received her A.B.J. from the University of Georgia in 1976 and her M.A. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Journalism in Mass Communication in 1982.
Deborah is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers and a former board member of the World Federation of Science Journalists. She serves on the advisory boards of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, Chemical and Engineering News, Spectrum, The Scientist and the MIT Museum. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a lifetime associate of the National Academy of Sciences, both in recognition of her work in public understanding of science.
Larry Keener, C.F.S., P.A., P.C.Q.I., is President and CEO of International Product Safety Consultants Inc. (IPSC), based in Seattle, Washington. IPSC is a global leader in providing food safety and food technology solutions to the food processing industry for a broad client base of Fortune 500 food companies, academic research institutes, and government agencies. IPSC is engaged in the conformity, risk assessment, and food safety verification business.
Larry is an internationally regarded microbiologist and process authority in the food industry. His areas of expertise range from applied food microbiology to the development and application of novel preservation technologies including: high pressure processing (HPP), microwave, pulsed electric field (PEF), high-powered ultrasound, atmospheric plasma, and low-energy electron beam technology. He is a past president of IFT's Nonthermal Processing Division.
Larry is a 2013 Fellow of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a board-certified food scientist (International Food Science Certification Commission), and a 2018 recipient of an International Union of Food Science and Technology's (IUFoST) lifetime achievement award for his work in microbiology and food safety. He is a two-term past president of Tuskegee University's Food and Nutrition Sciences Advisory Board. Larry is also a 2022 inductee into the George Washington Carver Society. He has received numerous other awards and honors, and he has published more than 100 papers on subjects related to food production and food safety science.
Larry is a frequently invited speaker to food industry, business, and scientific conferences, workshops, and seminars. He is also a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Food Safety Magazine.
In this episode of Food Safety Matters, we speak with Deborah [04:18] about:
- The shocking discoveries Deborah made about food safety in the 19th century while writing her book, The Poison Squad, which chronicles the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act
- How the unregulated food industry’s prioritization of profits over public health led to food being one of the top ten causes of death during the latter half of the 19th century, which is also sometimes referred to as the period of the “Great American Stomachache”
- The different kinds of risk associated with food in urban versus rural environments
- The issues of adulteration and the lack of labeling requirements in the 19th century
- The questionable ethics of the Hygienic Table Trials that were conducted by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Chief Chemist Dr. Harvey Wiley, in an effort to convince industry, regulators, and the public that the compounds being added to foods were harmful to human health
- The impacts that Dr. Wiley’s experiments had on public perceptions of food safety and the progression of U.S. food regulation, and the role that media played in disseminating Dr. Wiley's findings
- How behind-the-scenes relationships between food industry regulators, politicians, and the scientific community may weaken the law, both in present day and the 19th century
- Deborah’s biggest revelation from researching and writing The Poison Squad—a grim case of formaldehyde in milk.
We also speak with Larry [59:42] about The Poison Squad from industry’s point of view, including conversations about:
- Possible reasons why the food industry neglected to ensure the safety of substances it was adding to food products in the 19th century, including a lack of technical capability and regulation
- Changes in regulations and public sentiment around food safety over the last century, and how the general approach to food safety has been guided by discordant views among different stakeholder groups
- How the antagonism that occurred at the highest levels of the federal government during the events chronicled in The Poison Squad set in motion a series of events that gave passage to future food safety legislation
- The successes that scientifically minded food safety advocates in the U.S. have made since the enactment of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, and improvements that need to be made regarding international harmonization
- Results that can arise from the friction between industry’s need to turn a profit versus the drive to do right by consumers, as well as the economic value of ensuring food safety versus cutting corners.
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