We shop today in supermarkets, but many of us remember with fondness shopping from an earlier age; going to the local greengrocer, the butcher, the ironmonger and so on. Perhaps too much food now is processed and packaged. On reflection, drop the 'perhaps'. There is no doubt that much that is good has been lost as our shopping habits have changed. But the supposed good old days that our ancestors knew as they passed the time of day with cheery shopkeepers was not an entirely sunny picture.
Modern mass-produced processed food may be dull, but if you buy a packet of flour you can reasonably expect it to contain flour, not chalk, and that your tea will not be used leaves dried and re-sold as new. We take for granted all the consumer law that protects us from inferior or even harmful ingredients in our food, but this was not always so.
One of the first investigators to conduct a detailed study into the adulteration of food and drink was the chemist Friedrich Accum, who published ‘A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons Exhibiting the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spiritous Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Cream, Confectionery, Vinegar, Mustard, Pepper, Cheese, Olive Oil, Pickles, and Other Articles Employed in Domestic Economy and methods of detecting them’ in 1820. Snappy title. Although these practices were widespread, they were hard to detect since techniques of chemical analysis were not sufficiently developed. The next really significant contribution was the work of Arthur Hill Hassall, whose research in the 1850s continued what Accum had begun, starting with an examination of coffee samples. He also showed that the microscope was a serious research tool, particularly useful in identifying foreign vegetable matter, and insects, living and dead. Where Accum had published the names of vendors who were prosecuted for selling adulterated goods, Hassall went one stage further and published the names of everyone from whom he had bought samples, and whether or not they proved to be contaminated. It is interesting to note that none of the offenders succeeded in suing him.
As a result of Hassall’s work, a Parliamentary Commission of Enquiry was set up and the first Food Adulteration Act was passed in 1860. This was revised and greatly strengthened by a further Act in 1872. However, like Accum before him, Hassall did not have universal support; the publishers of ‘Enquire Within Upon Everything’ accused him of exaggerating and scaremongering, for example. Others agreed, and pointed out that most adulterants were not actually harmful in themselves, such as water and flour in milk. This is true enough, but the consequences could still be devastating if it was fed to babies. In 1856 Chambers’ Journal pointed out that some of the responsibility must lie with the consumer who demanded cheap and varied food, with no questions asked. In general, however, the tide of opinion was with him, and food became somewhat safer as a result. One of the best illustrations of this is that manufacturers began to appeal to the public desire for pure and wholesome food through their advertisements. Many claimed that their products were endorsed by Dr Hassall, which may or may not have been true, and emphasised the virtues of their uniform production and packaging, of the ‘None genuine without this signature’ variety.
There is a detailed article on the subject on the Royal Society of Chemistry site, and Accum's 1820 book can be downloaded from Google Books.