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Sweets dyed with lead: The spectre of food adulteration

The history of food fraud is the history of the modern world

A spectre haunts us, of adulteration. I had thought food adulteration is a thing of the past. But it continues to trouble us. Several years ago, mustard oil was being mixed with potentially dangerous substances. Then we heard about milk being thickened with urea, detergent powder and other such appetising stuff. In the last few years, I have been reading about fruits and vegetables being artificially coloured to attract buyers. Clearly, there is always somebody willing to inject some chemicals into food for profit.

And it seems that they have been doing it for ages.

“Adulteration is an ungainly word, and it can seem hard to pin down at times,” writes Bee Wilson in her book, Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. The history of food fraud is the history of the modern world, she writes in the 2008 book.

Kicking up a storm

There are several interesting chapters in this very well-researched book, but I cannot seem to get over Friedrich Accum (1769-1838), his abiding interest in exposing food adulteration, and his subsequent fall from grace. A German by birth, the London-based chemist who was quite a celebrity in 19th-century England, published a book called A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons in 1820.

He was, by all accounts, a very interesting man. Accum, one learns, liked his food — his bread, smoked ham, jams and conserves prepared with peaches, cherries, pineapples, quinces, plums or apricots.

But he didn’t just like food, he was a passionate chemist as well. And this dual interest led to his book that Wilson focuses on in a chapter called ‘German Ham and English Pickles’.

Accum exposed common adulteration practices in England and kicked up quite a storm. He wrote about cream thickened with rice powder or arrowroot (they hadn’t discovered the power of urea or detergent then!) and pickles being made green with copper and vinegar sharpened by sulfuric acid. Children’s custards were being poisoned with laurel leaves, sweets dyed red with lead and lozenges made from pipe clay. Tea was mixed with sloe leaves and pepper combined with floor sweepings.

“We turned pale in the act of eating a custard,” a reader of the book later wrote in anguish.

It is not really surprising, Wilson argues in the book. “Food has always had the power to kill as well as cure. ‘All things are poisons; nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous,’ said the alchemist Paracelsus in the sixteenth century,” she writes.

Caught in the act

Accum’s book was an indictment of what he called “respectable” criminals tampering with food to make money. Yet, he got caught — and lost his name and prestige — after committing a fraud himself. Months after he had published his work, it was found that he had been tearing out pages and plates from books at the Royal Institution.

A librarian suspected that he was up to no good. To catch him in the act, the door of a cupboard in the library was riddled with holes. The poor librarian stood inside the closed closet one day, peering out of the holes. Sure enough, Accum came in and started mutilating books.

That was the end of his published work on food and adulteration. He was prosecuted, and Accum later left England for Germany.

A poem called ‘Death in the Pot’ was carried by newspapers and caught the fancy of the people.

What is his crime?

A trick at most,

A thing not worth debating.

’Tis only what the Morning Post would call Accum-ulating.

The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 9:09:02 AM |

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