The man who robs a fellow subject of a few shillings on the highway is sentenced to death but he who distributes a slow poison to the whole community escapes unpunished, Frederick Accum, 1820.
The very earliest laws designed to curtail the adulteration of food typically (though not exclusively) focused on just a handful of foodstuffs: meat, bread, wine and beer. Other food stuffs were not so extensively regulated for the simple reason that bread, wine and beer were one of the few foodstuffs that, even in ancient times, could be mass produced or prepared by persons outside of the home and were therefore vulnerable to abuse.
There was no need to regulate other foods for the simple reason most of the food consumed by traditional populations was either grown or purchased locally and traditional European societies – like all global traditional societies – relied on their senses and the wisdom of their forbearers (not labels) to decide what food was fit for consumption. Food quality was tested by “looking at it, feeling it, smelling it and poking at it”. Then the food was transformed into a dish over the kitchen hearth.
The industrial revolution changed all of that.
The factory took the place of the kitchen hearth and the potential for malpractice spread from the butcher, the baker and the brewer into the realms of every conceivable dish – condiments, relishes, sauces, cakes, gravies, cookies, boiled eggs, candies – even traditional home-made dishes such as beef stew and roast potatoes could and still are made by an industrial cook behind closed doors, in cavernous chambers and speeding production lines.
With the rise in mass manufactured, factory prepared and imported food European societies saw a steep and unprecedented rise in unscrupulous trading practices relating to an ever expanding range of foodstuffs. For the very first time in human history people no longer looked, smelled, felt or poked their food to assess quality – they had to put their faith in the industrial cook to do that for them.
A misplaced faith so it would seem.
In 1820 the chemist Frederick Accum wrote “A Treatise on adulterations of food and culinary poisons,” in which he pointed out that the industrial cook rarely took food quality into account when preparing food for the masses. Accum’s book recorded nefarious practices such as adding Prussian blue, (a mixture of ferric ferrocyanide, lime sulphate and turmeric) to tea; red lead and mercury to red cheeses, lead and vermillion to coat candies; copper compounds to make pickles look greener; and alum, plaster of Paris and chalk to whiten bread.
It was to scientist and chemists that European governments turned in the 19th century to establish proof of food adulteration. The new and emerging science of chemistry was able to prove, beyond doubt, that tea was laced with Prussian blue, that candies were lined with lead and that white bread was laced with alum. Indeed, it was around this time that scientists began to discover, record and catalogue the names of the nutrients in food: vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, amino acids, proteins, enzymes to name but a few. It is little wonder, then, that as the new food regulations began to emerge and develop it was to food scientists that governments turned for advice.
Thankfully the practices of the 19th century are now a thing of the past and we have a whole body of food safety regulations and agencies looking out for our best interests ensuring that food is no longer adulterated by unscrupulous traders. Frederick Accum’s sorry tale of dastardly deeds is now at an end and happily for us we live in a new era of safe, unadulterated food.
Or do we?
Fast forward to the twenty first century and the question we should be asking ourselves is whether the guardians of our food safety organisations have been subtly – but surely – dethroned by the adulterer? Has the unscrupulous trader cannily exploited our faith in science to stitch-up the regulation of the food sector to suit their economic purposes not necessarily our nutritional needs? It could be argued that state sanctioned food safety regulations are the biggest con of the twentieth and twenty first century. There is compelling evidence to suggest that long term exposure to convenience foods, which are laced with state sanctioned artificial and novel ingredients and upon which modern European societies increasingly rely are as chronically toxic to the human physiology as lead, alum and ferric ferrocyanide were to earlier generations.
Recently the head of the European Food Safety Agency criticised civil organisations of engaging in “Facebook Science” – but what if the EFSA and many other food agencies are culpable of something far worse than FB science? What if they are heading up an organisation that is either intentionally or unintentionally responsible for the modern adulteration of the foodstuffs the vast majority of Europeans are turning to as they abandon their traditional diet and embrace the convenience of industrial, novel foods?
As this fascinating article written by Deborah Blum and published in the Lapham’s Quarterly illustrates one of the earliest causes célèbres for the creation of US food safety regulations in 1906 was the then industrial practice, which crept in during the course of the nineteenth century, of preserving meat in borax.
Harvey Washington Wile, a chemist working at the US Department of Agriculture, decided to conduct a series of toxicity trials to determine how safe borax was as a food preservative. A group of male volunteers agreed to take part and were colloquially referred to as the “Poison Squad”. In 1902 this, then, was the poison squad’s Christmas menu.
Apple Sauce. Borax. Soup. Borax. Turkey. Borax. Borax. Canned Stringed Beans. Sweet Potatoes. White Potatoes. Turnips. Borax. Chipped Beef. Cream Gravy. Cranberry Sauce. Celery. Pickles. Rice Pudding. Milk. Bread and Butter. Tea. Coffee. A Little Borax.
It may not surprise you to read that, “once the borax trials got under way, the squad members began losing weight, some complaining of stomach pains and severe nausea.” The ordinary consumer may be forgiven for thinking that the use of borax would never, ever again be used in any of our foodstuffs.
Only three years ago the EFSA approved borax as a food preservative to help preserve caviar. Admittedly the doses are considerably lower than the doses tested on Wiley’s volunteers and how many of us eat caviar ever, let alone on a regular basis? Not a lot but borax, ladies and gentleman, is back on the menu.
Will future generations look back on this generation and feel as much disgust at the idea that we permitted the use of erythrosine, approved for use by the EFSA in 2011 and described by the UK Food Guide as “A cherry-pink/red synthetic coal tar dye found in cocktail, glacé and tinned cherries, canned fruit, custard mix, sweets, bakery, snack foods, biscuits, chocolate, dressed crab, garlic sausage, luncheon meat, salmon spread, paté, scotch eggs, stuffed olives and packet trifle mix. It is also used to reveal plaque in dental disclosing tablets. It is banned in Norway and the US but not in the EU.”
The idea of coating children’s sweeties in lead to make them look a prettier “cherry pink” disgusts us but the idea of adding erythrosine to custard mixes, sweets, bakeries, snack foods, biscuits, chocolate, dressed crab, garlic sausage, luncheon meat, salmon spread, paté, scotch eggs, stuffed olives and packet trifle mix, obviously does not trouble our regulators.
Yet, in many respects the war on “E” number is slowly but surely being won. Consumers are becoming a lot more savvy about the implications of artificial colourings and flavourings, perusing the label carefully for signs of E number adulteration.
The sad reality is that the industrial cook will always cook up new ways to adulterate our food and then, in full compliance with existing laws and regulations, label their fakes “organic”, “natural” and “wholesome”. Modern food adulteration does not lie in lead, alum or even the doses of borax or erythrosine to be found in either preserved caviar or tinned fruit salad (thought the later is problematic).
Modern food adulteration takes the form of novel foods of which there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, swilling around in your morning breakfast cereal, your lunch bagel and evening supper sauces … and if innovative, enterprising biochemists have their way then many, many more are on their way. And by novel ingredients I do not refer to foods which have appeared on the market after 1997 (the EU definition) but all foods which have been patented; some of which go back fifty years or more.
Copper compounds, sulphur and turmeric sound almost benign when compared to the ingredients the industrial cook has a state approved licence to use and sprinkle into our convenience foods. Here is a list of just a few of them:
maltodextrin, soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate, soy lecithin, dysodium phosphate, rebaudioside A, sodium acid pyrophosphate, disodium dihydrogen pyrophosphate, the active substance cyhalofop (variant evaluated cyhalofop-butyl); the active substance pyraflufen-ethyl; Tricalcium Phosphate and the existing MRL for thiram in avocados
And this list does not include novel vegetable oils such as rapeseed (canola) oils, deodorised sunflower oils and margarines. Nor does it include novel sugars such as isoglucose, high fructose corn syrup, agave syrup or stevia. Europe is but a whisker away from having GMO products approved and licensed for use. The EU, to be fair, has fought a valiant battle against GMO’s but it can only hold out for so long before the force of industry sweeps our mistrust of GMO’s to one side declaring dissenters “FB scientists”, dullards and the food perfectly “safe” and fit for human consumption.
We are shocked at the idea that Wiley used human volunteers to test the toxicity of borax in food. If we examine the facts, however, we see that not much has changed over the past 100 years. Neither industry nor the state would be so vulgar as to ever employ a name such as the “poison squad” when deciding on toxicity.
Rather, we, the general population act as the unwitting guinea pigs in testing the toxicity of new foods and have morphed, in all but name, into the world’s global “poison squad”. When the Victorian kid ate lead coated candies they didn’t choke and die on the spot. They became unwell, dying years later down the line as the lead began to accumulate in their bodies. Exact cause of death unknown. Prussian blue was not a toxin that poisoned the consumer within 24 hours. It acted as a chronic toxin that built up slowly in the body giving the consumer this and that complaint before the toxin finally polished them off some years after consumption. Exact cuase of death unknown. Mercury in red cheese only became problematic not after the first bite but after regular consumption thereof. Many ate and drank all of the corrupted foods at the same time.
Like the unwitting Victorian who ate adulterated food over a period of time and became unwell so we too eat and consume a little bit of novel foods here and a little bit there, regularly and over a long period of time causing us to become chronically unwell over a period of time. Trans-fats (formed when novel vegetable oil are partially hydrogenated with nickel) were ubiquitous and common in our modern diets for decades before they were banned only a few years ago. It is now accepted wisdom that regular exposure to these fats clog the arteries and led to an unaccounted number of cardio-vascular disease and potential deaths. The “exact” cause of the disease is always hard to pin-point. Industry would dispute, with vigour, the figures anyway.
High fructose corn syrup and other artificial sugars do not make children’s face turn blue and kill them instantly. It makes them, over time, gain weight which in many cases rapidly turns into obesity, which in turn leads to life threatening diseases such a never before heard of child-hood diabetes. Stevia is so untested on the human population few really know what long-term affect it could have on our health and the health of our children. In truth no one knows exactly what regular consumption thereof will have on the general population but the chances are that rebaudioside A is bound to have some unheard of effect. Our bodies have never metabolised rebaudioside A in such unnatural quantities before. Ever. We will have to wait twenty to years to see how the general population fares before action will be taken. Once again we will be the guinea pigs in this toxicity trial.
Experts are often, on average twenty years or so out of sink precisely because it takes that long for the chronic toxin to manifest itself, for someone to make a link between the chronic toxin and the disease and for the industrial naysayers to be proven wrong. Expensive law suits are fought, millions spent on lobbying campaigns and scientific studies based on a rat trial lasting six months “to prove safety” will be thrown in to muddy the waters before it can be proven that this or that novel ingredient is chronically toxic and adulterating our food. Even then the experts will bicker amongst themselves.
Future generations will look back on this era of food adulteration with as much amazement, puzzlement and disgust as we do when we look back at Victorian forms of food adulteration. It was law that affected change for the better at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is for this generation’s governments and regulators to change the law, now, to prevent the current abuse of our natural foods. They must accept that the European food chain from farm to table is just as corrupted and adulterted – if not more so – than the food chain was 100 years ago. Frederick Accume’s observation in 1820 is as apt today as it was when first written in 1820: The man who robs a fellow subject of a few shillings on the highway is sentenced to death but he who distributes a slow poison to the whole community escapes unpunished.
The only way to prevent and put a halt to the adulteration of our foods, once and for all, is to adopt a new general principle on the safety of food in Europe and to define once and fo