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Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee the Dark History of the Food Cheats by Bee Wilson

Swindled opens with the claim that "in many ways, the history of food fraud is the history of the modern world". It is a big claim and, if the book does not quite justify it, it certainly proves that the study of food, its manufacture, supply and exploitation, provides a vital barometer for social historians. Bee Wilson is not only an able historian but a food writer with a passion rooted very much in the present. She wants to shake us awake, to make us look afresh at the food we eat. She does so triumphantly.

The starting point for her erudite and entertaining book is Frederick Accum, a German-born chemist who, as well as being responsible for the installation of gas lighting in Westminster in 1814, was the first scientist to leverage his exper-tise to expose the extent of food adulteration in early 19th-century London. For all his efforts he was to have little effect. The Victorian period in England was the golden age of the food cheats, the high point of the "demon grocer" with his limitless tricks for fakery and selling short. It was the era of meat painting and food "polishing" (hiding the likes of rancid butter and cheese beneath a thin layer of the fresh stuff), of vegetables coloured with copper and sweets with lead and mercury, of milk diluted with dirty water and thickened with flour, and of coffee padded with chicory or even with powdered horse liver.

Food adulteration is nothing new. The Romans sweetened poor wine with lead, unaware that it was a toxin, possibly the reason why so many wealthy Romans were sterile. But, as Wilson convincingly demonstrates, the Victorian city provided the ideal conditions for corruption to flourish. Rapid industrialisation had led to the separation of the origins of food and its consumption, allowing for adulteration both deliberate and accidental. At the same time, the medieval guild system of protectionism and strict quality control had collapsed, replaced by a laissez-faire government in thrall to the free market. State interven-tionism of any kind was frowned upon. The burden to detect swindles fell to the buyer, except in those areas such as sugar, tea and coffee where Treasury revenue was affected. "There is not a country in the world where commercial roguery is so generally and successfully practised as in Great Britain," complained an anonymous Englishman in 1855.

It was only when 20 people died in Bradford in 1858 from poison-laced lozenges that the government was finally forced to legislate against the adulterators. In America, too, a series of scandals forced a reluctant state to take action. The story of the 20th century is the story of the increasing commercialisation of food and the legislation to regulate it. Food laws are now legion. The fake-formula scandal that convulsed China in 2004, where 141 factories were discovered to be manufacturing a baby food made only of sugar and starch, could never happen here in the West.

And yet Wilson forbids our complacency. Technology has brought with it new ways of tampering with food, and new and powerful markets in which to sell it: crispers for flabby foods, softeners for hard food, all manner of dyes and flavours and deodorants. "Today we don't have anything as crude as adulterants," she quotes Elizabeth David as saying. "We have additives and improvers and nutrients."

Wilson argues compellingly that "the battle is still the same. The two sides, the goodies and the bad-dies, still progress at roughly the same rate as regards what science can either reveal or conceal in food". Swindles continue. Basmati rice is routinely padded with cheaper varieties; chicken and sea-food are injected with water to increase their weight. Every year, 120 tonnes of Perigord truffles are gathered and 300 tonnes sold. Many frauds are legal. We happily consume "raspberry flavour" trifle that does not contain a single raspberry. Cheap bread is full of emul-sifiers, flour-treatment agents, bleach, flavourings and unacceptably high volumes of water and grease. Like the Victorians, we have pushed the price of staple foods to their lowest possible level and, where there is greed, there will always be adulteration.

Wilson is a fervent lover of food but Swindled is no blind polemic. The author is careful to point out that every apparent improvement in food quality brings with it its own problems and its own kind of nutty extremism. Some additives, such as iodine in salt, have had significant health benefits while the push for food purity, theoretically a positive development, was largely responsible for the explosion in pesticide usage. She berates the media that drive consumer response on food issues from apathy to hysteria and back again without ever creating a sensible appreciation of authentic food.

It is her considered and often humorous approach that makes this book so successful and so alarming. We still do not really know what we eat. It is not just processed foods we have to worry about. New intensive-farming methods are changing the basic composition of foodstuffs. Battery chicken contains three times more fat than it did in 1970, while tomatoes have a quarter less calcium. There is little we can do about it. Wilson's only answer is vigilance and a return, where possible, to finding whole foods from trusted suppliers. Her conclusions carry the sombre understanding that, in the fight against the commercial giants of food production, such actions will always be pitifully inadequate. History teaches us that food has always been adulterated, for profit, for expedience, because consumers prefer it that way. Our times are no different.

Animal, vegetable, mineral?

We owe much of the impetus for the passing of the Food Adulteration Act of 1860 the first of its kind in Britain to two intrepid scientific pioneers. Arthur Hassall, a young physician, had already caused a stir in 1850 by literally putting food under a microscope; his paper on the "spurious admixtures" in coffee caused a sensation. But it was when he teamed up with Thomas Wakley, a surgeon and MP, and the founding editor of The Lancet, that events really moved forward. With Wakley guaranteeing to bear the legal risks of any attempts to sue, Hassall wrote a regular series of articles in The Lancet naming and shaming rogue retailers of adulterated food. Eventually, a parliamentary committee confirmed the accuracy of Hassall's reports.

Source: Times Online

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