It helps to understand at the outset the aims and objectives of food law, which have remained fairly consistent over time, and how we came to have the system that today regulates the production, distribution and sale of food.
Since time immemorial food has been exploited and adulterated. The Assize of Bread 1266 is generally regarded as being the earliest attempts at legislative control, it aimed at regulating the price, weight and quality of bread and beer. While the means had developed which enabled the size and weight of foods to be determined objectively, quality was a subjective judgement based on appearance, smell and taste. Early attempts were ineffective in protecting the consumer and the guilds which followed in the Middle Ages were concerned the protection of the market, any reassurance offered to the consumer was entirely incidental.
All this changed with the advent of the nineteenth when science had begun to develop to the point where adulterants in food and drink were capable of detection.
… to look back nostalgically and assume, for example, that the bread which formed the staff of life was home-baked, or, if bought, was wholesome and nutritional, is romantic nonsense. By the 1840s home baked bread had died out among the rural poor; in the small tenements of the urban masses, unequipped as these were with ovens, it never existed. In 1872 Dr. Hassall, the pioneer investigator into food adulteration and the principal reformer in this vital area of health, demonstrated that half of the bread he examined had considerable quantities of alum. Alum, while not itself poisonous, by inhibiting the digestion could lower the nutritional value of other foods.
The list of poisonous additives reads like the stock list of some mad and malevolent chemist: strychnine, cocculus inculus (both are hallucinogens) and copperas in rum and beer; sulphate of copper in pickles, bottled fruit, wine, and preserves; lead chromate in mustard and snuff; sulphate of iron in tea and beer; ferric ferrocynanide, lime sulphate, and turmeric in chinese tea; copper carbonate, lead sulphate, bisulphate of mercury, and Venetian lead in sugar confectionery and chocolate; lead in wine and cider; all were extensively used and were accumulative in effect, resulting, over a long period, in chronic gastritis, and, indeed, often fatal food poisoning. Red lead gave Gloucester cheese its 'healthy' red hue, flour and arrowroot a rich thickness to cream, and tea leaves were 'dried, dyed, and recycled again.'
As late as 1877 the Local Government Board found that approximately a quarter of the milk it examined contained excessive water, or chalk, and ten per cent of all the butter, over eight per cent of the bread, and 50 per cent of the gin had copper in them to heighten the color.1
So it is not in the least surprising that at the start of the nineteenth century the adulteration of food was common place. Throughout the early part of the century the systematic adulteration of food took hold:
Food adulteration is essentially a phenomenon of urban life, and its historical origins cannot be traced back earlier than the city states of the classical world. As soon as there emerged a consuming public, distinct and separated from the producers of food, opportunities for organised commercial fraud arose.2
The loss of connection between people and the source of their food is not of recent origin as we these days tend to think. The result for early Victorians was that there was hardly a food to be had that was not in some way adulterated. Bread, wine, beer, spirits, olive oil,3 cheese, pickles, anchovies, mustard, confectionery, and the list goes on, were all found to be adulterated often in ways having a serious adverse impact on health. The use, for example, of copper was widespread and anchovies were dyed red with lead oxide. A 12 year study published in 1848 concerning the adulteration of food found not a single loaf of bread subjected to analysis that was unadulterated.4 There was also a good chance that what was not adulterated was quite likely counterfeit, in particular tea, coffee and pepper.
Occasionally an adulterant may have been relatively harmless; the use of potatoes in bread reduces the nutritional value but is otherwise a case in point. This was all driven by the profit motive, either to sell a premium product with a lower cost of production, or a lower cost product in the wider market provided by a growing working class that could not afford high prices.
It is generally accepted that 1820 marked a turning point in progress towards the statutory regulation of the quality of food offered for sale. This was the year in which Frederick Accum, a celebrated German chemist resident in London at the time, published his Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons.5 Accum catalogued the adulteration of virtually all food and drink on sale.
The fact that food, particularly in the cities, was commonly adulterated with a wide range of substances, some at best benign while others were deadly poisonous, came as no real surprise. Bee Wilson, who chronicled 200 years of food swindles, put her finger on the reason why Accum’s Treatise made such an impact:
Accum’s genius was to make readers see that ‘swallowing swindling’ really was ‘too serious for a joke’. That he managed this was due in part to the times in which he lived – times when the possibilities for adulterating food multiplied as science and industry grew – and in part to his own outstanding talents as a publicist. Accum was the perfect commentator on this new rash of skulduggery, since he was a man whose passion was the science and industry of modern Britain, who nevertheless saw that science and industry could be used to do damaging things to food.6
The rise of the nineteenth century chemist made the detection of the adulteration of food a practical possibility and the clear demonstration that the presence of adulterants was widespread in food gave rise to pressure for legislative action.
By the mid-19th century the population had risen to 18m, roughly evenly distributed between town and country. Feeding the cities was a challenge and provided opportunities for the unscrupulous. The continuing adulteration of food was convincingly demonstrated by Arthur Hill Hassall in research published in The Lancet throughout 1851-54.7 Hassall’s work led Parliament to appoint a Select Committee on the whole question of the adulteration of food, drink and medicines in 1855.8
In 1858, in what became known as the ‘Bradford lozenge scandal’ 200 people were poisoned and 20 died after swallowing lozenges which the manufacturer intended to adulterate with plaster of Paris but mistakenly used arsenic.9 The resulting public uproar provided the impetus needed for Parliament to legislate.
The objectives of food law became two-fold: protecting the health of the consumer and the protection of honest traders.
Early attempts in 1860 and 1872 proved not very effective. The latter Act made provision for the appointment of public analysts and in 1874 the Society of Public Analysts was founded. It became clear, however, to the Government of the day that Britain’s growing reputation for adulterated food and being a nation of swindlers threatened its export market.10 This provided the further impetus needed for more significant legislative progress. The Sale of Food and Drugs Act 187511 followed which established important principles and became the foundation of modern food law. The meaning of ‘food’ was defined:
The term "food" shall include every article used for food or drink by man, other than drugs or water.12
The 1875 Act further provided that:
No person shall sell to the prejudice of the purchaser any article of food or any drug which is not of the nature, substance, and quality of the article demanded by such purchaser.13
The definition of ‘food’ and other provisions of the 1875 Act were not without their problems, but, importantly, offences under the 1875 Act were of strict liability, meaning the proof of a guilty knowledge or intent was not required to secure a conviction. Attempts were made in amending legislation shortly afterwards to address some of the early problems encountered.14
A decade later adulterated tea and bread had all but disappeared. Adulterated bread in samples analysed fell from 7.4% to 0.6% in 1888 and there were significant improvements in all foods.15
The Sale of Food and Drugs Act 1875 was a legislative milestone. It defined ‘food’, required that it be of a standard demanded by purchasers and confirmed strict liability for food related offences. Moreover, the quality of food available improved dramatically. The Act became the “foundation of modern food legislation”16 and the offences it created have stood the test of time.17 It established an approach to food law which can be traced to the present day Food Safety Act 1990.18
While the 1875 Act sought to address the chemical contamination of food, the Public Health Act 1875, passed in the same year, introduced basic controls concerned with the biological contamination of food, including the inspection, seizure and destruction of unfit food.19
1 Anthony S. Wohl, Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain, Harvard UP, 1983
2 John Burnett, Plenty and Want: A Social History of Food in England from 1815 to the Present Day, 3rd edition, Routledge, 1989, p86
3 The adulteration of olive oil has proved to be intractable to this day as clearly documented by Tom Mueller, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, Atlantic Books, 2012
4 John Mitchell, Treatise on the Falsification of Food, and the Chemical Means Employed to Detect Them, Hippolyte Bailliere, 1848, p61
6 Bee Wilson, Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee – The Dark History of the Food Cheats, John Murray, 2008, p5
7 Arthur Hill Hassall, Food and its Adulterations, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1855, the consolidated, revised and extended version of the articles is available from http://books.google.co.ukwhich requires a free Google account, accessed 3 January 2013
8 John Burnett, Plenty & Want: A Social History of Food in England from 1815 to the Present Day, 3rd edition, Routledge, 1989, p221
9 Bee Wilson, 2008, p138
10 Bee Wilson, 2008, p144
11 The link is provided only as an historical reference point, the 1875 Act having long since been repealed and replaced.
14 Sale of Food and Drugs Act Amendment Act 1879
15 John Burnett, 1989, pp232-234
16 Katharine Thompson, 1996, p6
17 S Sumar and H Ismail, ‘Adulteration of Foods – Past and Present’, Nutrition & Food Science, 1995, Number 4, pp11-15
18 See, for example, section 14(1) of the Food Safety Act 1990