Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Scandal, Horseburgers, and Food adulteration in the Nineteenth Century

John Leech, Punch Magazine, 1858. 
We may think of food adulteration as a problem of our own time. After all, in recent weeks we have been bombarded with stories about horsemeat scandals hitting everything from frozen beefburgers to our beloved Ikea meatballs (say it isn’t so!). As the British public turn to Waitrose in desperation it is worth reflecting on the fact that for the average citizen of the nineteenth century a little horsemeat in their cottage pie was the least of their worries. In fact, food adulteration in the nineteenth century was rife, and was particularly disquieting as it was frequently revealed that staple foodstuffs such as bread, milk, tea and butter had been compromised as distributors tried to improve the appearance of their goods by adding chalk, alum, copper- or an incredible array of other unsavoury and downright dangerous items- during production.

The first official census, taken in 1801, revealed that England and Wales contained a total population of 8,900,000 people- barely more than one third the total of France- however within the next decade this figure increased by nearly another 1.5 million, and by 1851 the population reached eighteen million. Such a population explosion led to an inevitable distancing between producer and consumer. Rather than buying your milk from the farmer up the road who would be sure to lose custom if he sold a below par product, anonymity began to creep in, and it was harder to hold producers to a certain standard. Not only this, but urbanization meant that city dwellers working in factories or other industrial trades had not got the means, access to land, or time to grow and produce their own food.

Although complaints against bakers, millers, and grocers had been raised by the public during the eighteenth century, little notice was taken of reports which were considered exaggerated or biased. However, in 1820 Friedrich Accum published his Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons, and the subject was finally treated methodically, in a scientific manner, and by a highly rated analytical chemist. With the terrifying subtitle of “Exhibiting the fraudulent sophistications of bread, beer, wine, spirituous liquors, tea, coffee, cream, confectionery, vinegar, mustard, pepper, cheese, olive oil, pickles, and other articles employed in domestic economy, and methods of detecting them”, Accum left his readers in little doubt that adulteration was wide spread. In his introduction he writes that this “unprincipled and nefarious practice, increasing in degree as it has been found difficult of detection, is now applied to almost every commodity which can be classed among either the necessaries or the luxuries of life, and is carried on to a most alarming extent in every part of the United Kingdom.” (see Accum, 14) His book not only explains relatively simple experiments that can be done at home to discover the level of adulteration in the food you are about to place on the table, but lists extensively druggists, grocers, brewers, and publicans prosecuted and convicted of the adulteration of beer.
Accum’s book was a great success at the time of publication, the first edition sold out in less than a month, and within two years, it would go into its fourth reprint. However, In 1821 Accum’s career in England came to an abrupt end when he was involved in a scandal, accused of mutilating books in the Royal Institute’s library. Accum’s work fell out of favour and he left the country in disgrace. (I think this sounds like the makings of a James Bond film, and would love to find out more about this shady accusation of book mutilation, which came complete with search warrants and torn book pages.)

The imposition of food adulteration into the domestic sphere through the family dining table adds an extra element of the unsettling to the issue, and this added edge provided the press of the time with a hard-hitting image that they could sell to the public.  The idea that the mother nurturing her child through the provision of such wholesome cornerstones of nutrition as bread and butter could, in fact, be delivering little short of poison into their mouths was alarming enough to permeate the public consciousness, and food adulteration was widely discussed and feared.

Following Accum’s withdrawal from the country the furor surrounding food adulteration died down, but the issue remained in the public consciousness, and it was inevitable that it would evolve into a legislative concern at some point. The year 1850 marks a significant development in the history of food adulteration when Dr Arthur Hassall, physician and lecturer on medicine at the Royal Free Hospital lead an inquiry for the Lancet journal. Between 1851 and 1854 the journal printed weekly reports covering 2,400 analyses of major articles of food and drink. Hassall was the first investigator to make significant use of the microscope when searching for adulteration. The editor of the journal, Thomas Wakley, also published the names and addresses of those manufacturers whose wares were found to be adulterated. Only one accusation of adulteration was ever challenged and this was by a retailer whose goods had been adulterated without his knowledge. Hassall’s report meant that the public were now very much awake to the issue of adulteration, and in 1855 Tennyson makes cutting reference to the scandal in his poem ‘Maud’ as he decries the state of man’s “lust of gain”, asking “who but a fool would have faith in a tradesman’s ware or his word?” and citing not only the adulteration of wine and drugs, but that “chalk and alum and plaster are sold to the poor for bread,/And the spirit of murder works in the very means of life” However, it would be another five years before any legislation would be passed . In 1860 the first Adulteration of Foods Act was passed, and in this same year, Dr Edward Lankester demonstrated that the use of poisonous colouring matters in food were still common, citing recent cases in which three people had died after a public banquet at which they had eaten green blancmange containing arsenite of copper, and of yellow Bath buns which owed their colour to sulphide of arsenic. The reason for the bill’s failure was that the onus was placed on the individual, who had to pay for the privilege of information regarding the purity of the food and drink they were buying. The Bill as it stood could never work effectively, and in 1868 a series of aggressive amendments were proposed to parliament and modified versions of these were eventually passed into law in 1872 as the Adulteration of Food, Drink, and Drugs Act. After numerous complaints about the weaknesses that remained present in the amended Act, the government appointed a new Select Committee in 1874, the result of which was the passing of the Sale of Food and Drugs act in 1875 which – with many amendments- forms the basis of the legislation we are clinging to today.


If you are looking for further reading, and a lot more information on this fascinating topic I would definitely recommend looking at the following:

Friedrich Accum, A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, (London: Longman, 1822)
P. J. Atkins, ‘Sophistication Detected: Or, the Adulteration of the Milk Supply, 1850-1914’, Social History Vol. 16, No. 3 (Taylor & Francis, Ltd., Oct., 1991), pp. 317-339
John Burnett, Plenty and Want: A social history of food in England from 1815 to the present day, (London: Routledge, 1989)

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