Horsemeat, Sloe Leaves and Arsenic: Food Adulteration Past and Present

It can’t have failed to escape your notice in recent months that most of the major supermarkets have been pulling beef products off the shelves at a rapid rate of knots due to the fact that it has been discovered that they have been adulterated with horsemeat.

Unlike many other cases of food adulteration, this isn’t necessarily a public health issue. In Britain, at least, the decision not to consume horsemeat is a cultural choice (although this hasn’t always been the case); however, this is more a case of whether we can assume honesty and are able to trust the products that we buy – or not. If our microwave meal claims to contain beef, for example, then beef is exactly what it should contain.

What is in our food is actually regulated by law, but that hasn’t always been the case either – and the horsemeat scandal shows how ineffective even these modern laws can be against those determined to make a fat profit out of the food we eat, whatever the consequences. However, a horsemeat lasagne is really nothing compared to some of the highly disturbing things that have been found in foodstuffs in the past.

I’ve recently been reading Bee Wilson’s eye-opening book Swindled: From Poisoned Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee – The Dark History of the Food Cheats (John Murray, 2008), which looks at the way manufacturers and retailers of the past (and present) put profit before consumer safety by adulterating the products they sold. In particular, Wilson shows how some of 18th and 19th century Britain’s most commonly used foodstuffs were frequently faked or adulterated with decidedly toxic additives.

What often passed for tea in the early 19th century, for example – then as now a staple of the British diet – was pretty horrible. In fact, even when purchased from an apparently ‘trustworthy’ retailer, what you bought might not be tea at all. Instead of a nice refreshing brew, you might find yourself filling your teapot with a revolting concoction of elder leaves, ash leaves or sloe leaves, dried and coloured to resemble tea.

Even worse, these so-called ‘tea leaves’ were often dyed with toxic substances such as logwood, verdigris (copper acetate) and ‘Dutch pink’, all of which could make the regular tea drinker very ill indeed. Other staple foodstuffs also frequently contained toxic substances that could damage the health of the consumer, including bread (which would make up most of a day’s calorific intake for many of the poorest in society).

However, the adulteration of bread is a classic example not only of what a producer could get away with but also of what the public demanded over the centuries – and what they had demanded over those centuries was white bread. Even as late as the 18th century, and compared to brown bread (which was associated by many with poverty), white bread was very expensive to make and buy, particularly since the weight and price of a loaf had long been controlled by the government (on pain of punishment for the dishonest baker).

The only way to make a real profit out of this huge mass demand for white bread was to bake it with poor-quality flour – but that produced a nasty looking, grey bread which certainly didn’t resemble the high-quality white loaf held in prestige by so many. So, for centuries, bakers had added alum to their dough in order to whiten their bread.

Alum has countless positive uses, but ingesting it can make an individual very sick (and large quantities of it can kill). Eventually, in the 1750s, the British government banned the use of alum in bread, but tests conducted as late as the 1850s showed that a large number of bakers were still using this toxic adulterant in their loaves – presumably, the demand for white bread was still strong.

Even luxury products were not immune to adulteration. Disturbingly, many 19th century sweets were coloured with dyes based on highly toxic metals such as copper, lead or mercury. There are a number of cases of poisonings from such sweets – and even a few deaths – on record. And, rather revoltingly, chocolate was also adulterated – although the use of flour, potato starch and clarified mutton suet in making everyone’s favourite sweet treat was more unpleasant than toxic!

Wine makers and sellers of the 18th and 19th centuries were notorious for adulterating their products, often adding lead, chalk or arsenic based substances to bulk up and ‘improve’ otherwise undrinkable and unsellable wine. And, on the subject of alcohol, even worse were the adulterants added to gin in order to make it go further (and thus make more profit out of it) during the 18th century ‘gin craze’ – I’m not sure I’d want a gin and tonic if the gin was cut with turpentine or sulphuric acid…

It wasn’t until 1875 and the passing of the Sale of Food and Drugs Act (which was the basis of modern British food laws until the mid twentieth century) that things began to improve. By the 1880s, the adulteration of staple foodstuffs like bread and tea had become the rare exception rather than the rule in the British food market. But why had this change taken so long to implement? After all, edible, nutritious food is a basic human right – if we don’t eat, or don’t eat the right sort of food, we die.

The answer to this lies mainly in politics, as it still does today. The laissez-faire economic policies and the prioritising of corporate interests over those of the consumer that were the hallmarks of both 19th century and modern governments have a great deal to do with why nothing was done about the adulteration of food (or why nothing was done sooner – even now, we don’t know how long horsemeat was being passed off as beef, or what other food scandals have yet to be uncovered).

With something as crucial to our very existence as food, it seems obvious (to me, anyway) that the consumer – not the corporate market – should be central to the way what we eat is made and distributed. After all, as we have seen, the adulteration of food can make people extremely sick and even kill.

And, as usual, the people who always suffer the most are the poor – the effects of food adulteration are obviously exacerbated by the poor diet and bad general health that have long been closely associated with poverty, especially in those pre-NHS days of prohibitively expensive medical treatment.

The way that successive 18th and 19th century British governments basically refused to respond to a problem like food adulteration was really a prime example of a political false economy. Bad food damages people, and thus, by definition, damages the workforce. And that, by definition, will also damage the economy. The belief that the market would right itself if left alone has been shown many times over not to work, and, quite clearly, should never apply when people’s lives are at stake – although politicians, then and now, seem incapable of grasping this fact.

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