Sunday, October 19, 2014

Food Fraud

I have just read Bee Wilson's book Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. Food adulteration with poisons (like lead-based or cancer-causing dyes), with unreasonable additives (like alum in bread), or with cheaper substances (like adding water to milk or injecting chickens with dilute broth) has been a problem for centuries, as documented throughout the book. Outright cheating by false labeling, false weighing, or overcharging customers is another fraud that's far from new.

"The rich can eat unadulterated food without much bother, whereas for most of the poor, it is a constant effort." (p. 101) Poor people have suffered more than those with the resources to purchase better quality foods and the time and energy to pay attention to what is happening. But money is far from an adequate protection against food frauds. "The motive to swindle -- greed -- is a constant in human history," Wilson writes. (p. 322)

Swindled is closely related to several other books I've read, but has an interesting approach to the topic of food safety and food regulation. Wilson profiles a number of crusading chemists, medical doctors, journalists, and others who have attempted to inform the public about major problems in the food supply. Their efforts were sometimes successful, sometimes not, but she uses their discoveries to illustrate exactly what frauds were common at several times in the past. Wilson also adds a number of other historic and ongoing frauds into her narrative, up through recent baby-milk scandals in China. Swindled was published in 2008: I wish it continued right up until the present.

Here are some of the most interesting people I learned about:
  • Frederick Accum (1769-1838) wrote A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons in 1820. Wilson says: "It would be an exaggeration to say that this book changed everything; after it was published, the swindlers carried on swindling, and more often than not they still got away with it; no food laws were changed on account of Accum... . But his treatise finally opened people’s eyes to the fact that almost everything sold as food and drink in modern industrial cities was not what it seemed; and by being not what it seemed, it could kill them." (p. 1)
  • Arthur Hill Hassall (1817-1894) discovered how to use a microscope to detect adulteration of food. He documented the widespread use of alum in falsifying white bread, adulteration of coffee, artificial substances in mustard, impure drinking water, and many other frauds.
    "Hassall analysed more than 2,500 samples of food embracing 'all the principle articles of consumption, both solids and liquids' and found that purity was the exception, adulteration the rule. Earlier writers might say vaguely that cinnamon was 'often' or 'sometimes' adulterated (with cassia, wheat, mustard husks, and colouring), whereas Hassall could state with absolute certainty that out of nineteen samples of ground cinnamon, only six were genuine; that three consisted of nothing but cassia; that ten were mixed up with bulking agents such as sago, flour, or arrowroot; and that these faked cinnamons were not always cheaper than the real thing, meaning that the public was being consistently cheated in the purchase of cinnamon.Unlike the scaremongers, Hassall was not afraid to say when a food was not adulterated." (p.127)  
  • Thomas Wakley (1795-1862) was founder and editor of The Lancet, dedicated to enlightening the public about medical affairs. The power of the free market was a given at the time in English politics -- and the idea was especially applied to food, for which there was no regulation.  "Wakley argued for public health in the widest sense—and this necessarily entailed a frontal assault on the evils of adulterated food." (p. 126) In disseminating the facts about food fraud in his day, Wakley particularly publicized the work of Arthur Hassall. Under their influence the first pure food act was passed in 1860, though it was weak.
  • Harvey Wiley (1844-1930) was a strong advocate for regulating food during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Eventually he was the author of the first food and drug laws in the US. His role in developing the FDA has come up in other books I've read. (See my recent post titled Food Safety and its History).
  • Caroline Walker (1950-1988) was an advocate for better food regulation in England in the 1980s. She wrote The Food Scandal with Geoffrey Cannon. 
  • Mark Woolfe at the time Wilson wrote was head of the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) and more recently has been a member of the RSC's Analytical Methods Committee. Woolfe's role in developing DNA tests to identify falsely labeled Basmati rice, as described in Swindled, is an interesting study in modern technology that just barely manages to stay ahead of the fraudsters!
Swindled is an enjoyable book despite the depressing subject matter, because it's engagingly written. I enjoyed the many anecdotes and factual discussions of food frauds in the past, including examples of recipes for "mock" dishes that playfully imitated real foods without including the "real" ingredients. The book also offers lots of amusing illustrations like this one (p. 98):


~~louise~~ said...

Sometimes I just have to stay away from books like this Mae. I could become anorexic. After I read books like these I have such a difficult time eating, seriously. I'm still having a time eating fresh, organic spinach! By the time I'm done washing it, and dousing it, it is no longer fresh spinach!

I give you credit for digesting it all. I do know the name Wiley, I did a post on him somewhere.

Thanks for sharing, Mae...

Jeanie said...

Hi Mae, getting back into the swing of things! This looks fascinating but extremely creepy and like louise said, I sometimes have to stay away from books like this. CNN is scary enough! But I do love those illustrations!