Saturday 16 March 2013

Shopping Saturday - 'Death in the pot'

There has been a lot in the news lately about horse meat being found in processed meat products. There is absolutely no excuse for this, and while I have no great problem with eating horse, I object to being sold (cheap) horse meat at (expensive) beef prices, and labelled as beef. A great fuss has been made, quite rightly, and the food industry is making a great show of smartening up its act. Good. But compared to some of the food scandals of the past, the horse meat episode pales to insignificance. A few years ago I attended a summer school run by the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education at Rewley House, on the social history of food. The subject I chose to write about for my course work essay was Adulteration of food in Britain in the 19th Century and I'm getting some extra mileage out of it by repeating it here:

‘…the preparation of food has been gradually banished from the cottage and the kitchen to the shop and the contractor’
H W Rumsey, in ‘Essays on State Medicine’ 1856

For as long as food has been processed in any way, there has been the potential for adulteration, either accidentally or deliberately. It is human nature to hark back to a perceived Golden Age when food was pure, wholesome, tasty and plentiful, but which never existed.

In 19th Century Britain there was a great deal of concern about the adulteration of food, drink and medicines. Much was written in the press, there were official reports, and eventually Acts of Parliament. The practice was by no means new, but excited particular public interest in that century. Rumsey’s quote above makes the point that no-one will knowingly contaminate their own food supply, but when an intermediary is involved both the means and the motive for adulteration can appear. The greater the distance between producer and consumer, the less control the latter has over the food they consume, and this is often accompanied by a decrease in knowledge of what good wholesome food should be. Even those who bought most of their food from shops in a small community were less likely to suffer at the hands of someone who was a neighbour, and who had a reputation to lose. A large and faceless manufacturer selling to a distant customer base, through one or more intermediaries, was in a different position altogether. The increasing industrialization and urbanization of British society meant that more and more people were in no position to produce even part of their own food, and by 1851 the urban population was now the majority. Another feature was the development of food processing on an industrial scale, partly because the technical means existed, and partly because of the size of the market where the products could be sold.

The Victorian age was also one that became increasingly preoccupied with gathering statistics, especially in the matter of public health. This was not the reason for the establishment of the General Register Office in 1836, but under George Graham and his deputy Dr William Farr from the 1840s to 1870s this became one of its major functions.  At around the same time Edwin Chadwick took up the cause of sanitary reform, and a number of public and semi-public bodies commissioned inquiries into aspects of public health.

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. As the length of the title suggests, he was nothing if not thorough. The frontispiece rather dramatically featured an illustration with the biblical quotation ‘There is Death in the Pot, and the book sold out in a month. Accum described in detail the systematic adulteration of many commodities included staples such as bread and milk. Some of the abuses were relatively harmless, such as the addition of chicory, which was cheap, to coffee, which was expensive. This was dishonest, but not a danger to health, even when the chicory itself was further adulterated with even cheaper roasted carrots or turnips and burnt sugar. Some people even preferred a coffee and chicory mixture to the real thing. Much more serious was the practice of using toxic lead, copper or mercury salts to make sweets and jellies more colourful to attract children. It was also common practice to add equally poisonous vegetable substances such as quassia and nux vomica to beer and porter to impart a bitter taste. These and others were actually recommended in ‘Every Man His Own Brewer’ published in 1790, although the sale of these poisons was illegal by the time Accum was writing, but the law was hard to enforce owing to the absence of reliable means of testing for them until the 1820s.

Accum’s writing provided actual evidence of practices that many people had long suspected, and demonstrated that abuse was also more widespread than they previously thought. Unfortunately, this did not lead to immediate action for a variety of reasons. Accum lost public support when he was accused of mutilating books in his care in the Library of the Royal Institution. He returned to his native Germany under a cloud of suspicion, and it was not until ten years later that a campaign was started by Thomas Wakley, editor of The Lancet when he commissioned an article on the poisons in coloured sweets, which had become even worse since Accum’s investigation. However 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. The Aerated Bread Company promoted their highly mechanized method of production by emphasizing its hygienic nature.

There was (and is) a long way to go to recreate the hypothetical Golden Age. There is the continual cycle of improvements and additives that subsequently turn out to be harmful, for one thing. In fairness to food manufacturers, they often believed that additives actually improved the quality of the food, and well as their profits, and did not realise that they might be harmful. They were probably telling the truth at least some of the time. Research by men like Accum and Hassall also showed up contamination that was accidental, ranging from ignorance or carelessness to gross negligence, such as lead leaking into the water supply from pipes, or into olive oil from the plates used to press the fruit. Not that it takes an analytical chemist to work out that it you leave dry goods uncovered in your shop or factory they will soon be augmented with insects, mouse droppings and the like.

Awareness of food adulteration increased in the 19th Century because of improved scientific methods, matched by concern about it and other public health issues. There was certainly a great deal to be concerned about, mainly as a result of industrialization and urbanization. Ironically, however, once public opinion was alerted to the dangers market forces proved effective in improving the situation. The power of advertising indeed.

There is an interesting, and much more scholarly, article on the Royal Society of Chemistry site.


Much more recently, I came across an intriguing story while on a open-top bus tour of Chicago; it was claimed that the cause of food safety owes a debt to none other than Al Capone! The story goes that a member of his family became ill after drinking milk that was past its best, and he used his power and influence in Chicago to enforce the use of 'sell-by' dates. I have seen this story, and variants of it, in a number of places, but I haven't been able to verify it. I do hope it's true, though.  


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