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British Food Journal Volume 30 Issue 11 1928

British Food Journal

ISSN: 0007-070X

Article publication date: 1 November 1928


An interesting address entitled “Food Poisoning, Facts and Fallacies,” was given by Dr. Andrew Rutherford, M.B., F.R.C.P., Lecturer in Pathology, Edinburgh Medical School, before the Edinburgh Rotary Club on September 27th. Dr. Rutherford observed that illness arising from alleged food poisoning had been attracting much notice in the Press, and to judge from current comment there was much confusion as to the facts. Newspaper writers in the last week or two had suggested that these outbreaks were too frequent, had asked the reason why, and had even thrown doubt on the policy of the Ministry of Health in relation to the recent outburst of paratyphoid fever in London. Not only that, but a distinguished chemist had apparently voiced, on this matter, the opinion that the prohibition of boric acid as a food preservative had brought “a definite risk to the community, because it limited the period during which food could be kept free from contamination.” All that was very disquieting, and demanded a clear statement of facts. Certain propositions could be stated straightaway, Dr. Rutherford said, which in his opinion were unassailable. Food poisoning attacks had not been more frequent of late than in former years. There had been actually fewer outbreaks this year than previously, and none at all in Scotland, but they had had more Press publicity. The causes were known and had been known for many years; they were specific disease producing germs which became implanted on food, fresh or stale. The illnesses brought about were neither new nor mysterious to pathologists in general or to the medical advisers of the Government. They had nothing whatsoever to do with the presence or absence of weak chemicals like boric acid as preservatives in food. And no chemist, however distinguished, could competently express an opinion on the broad question of food and food preservatives in relation to disease. That was the domain of physicians, pathologists, and public health experts, not of pure chemists. Referring in a few words to the subject of boric acid and its effect on the system, Dr. Rutherford said that boric acid, after being swallowed was passed out of the body through the kidneys Speaking as a practising physician and pathologist he was not at all sure that the continued swallowing of boric acid in small doses by human beings throughout a lifetime might not have something to do with those kidney breakdowns in middle life which were so damaging to individual health, and which they saw so much of both in hospital and in private practice. This point was not settled yet scientifically. He mentioned it as a caveat. It was known as a scientific medical fact that the prolonged use of food preserved with boric acid might lessen the weight of the body, by interfering with the digestion of the fats that were eaten in the food. The United States and Germany prohibited its use some years ago, following careful studies by medical scientists of its effects on the tissues and organs of the body. After discussing some of the common symptoms of illness caused through food poisoning, Dr. Rutherford said that the accepted idea was that the symptoms were caused by ptomaines—chemical substances produced in the decomposition of foods. They knew now that that notion was erroneous. Actual ptomaine poisoning in man was in fact exceedingly rare, and the vast majority of cases of so‐called food poisoning were due to living specific microbes—not chemical poisons—which in various ways might become implanted on food or drink. Small quantities of boric acid would neither prevent the access of these germs nor kill them if they were present. Intestinal bacteria, and their dwelling‐places, and their disease‐producing properties were then discussed at some length by the speaker. The Aertrycke bacillus was the organism, he said, most frequently met with in food poisoning cases in this country. Aertrycke struck down 703 persons in a British city in 1924. Mostly adult women, they had all eaten cream cakes distributed over the town from a large bakery. The evidence strongly suggested that cream left exposed in the bakehouse over a weekend had been contaminated by mice. The sources and habitats of these food poisoning organisms being understood, it could at once be grasped that infection might be spread in diverse ways without human intervention at all. It was easy to see how meat, veal, or milk might be inoculated with bacillus. It was equally clear that mice or rats might implant the Aertrycke germ on any food they might reach. But that was not all. The healthy human “carrier” was a most important factor in disseminations. Outbreaks of typhoid and paratyphoid—under natural conditions human diseases—were in this country nearly always traceable to “ carriers.” The recent paratyphoid in London was said to be due to cream. That meant in all likelihood that the cream (or milk) at some stage had been grossly contaminated by a human carrier of paratyphoid bacilli. The common house fly played an active part in hot weather in scattering intestinal bacteria about. He also was a “carrier,” but in a different sense. The “filthy feet of faecal feeding flies” were to blame for much illness of a gastroenteritis kind, and one fly could carry enough filth to poison a dozen or two people if it planted it in meat or milk. The position then was that many meats, fresh or not fresh, cooked or not, and drinks, might become charged with poisonous germs, and if the weather were hot, they would multiply exceedingly, cooking of course, was a great safeguard, except perhaps in Gaertner infection, whose poisons were heat resisting. Cold cooked food, of course, might be contaminated. Foods containing preservatives (e.g., sausages, pork pies, etc.), had often been associated with acute gastroenteritis. A preservative might keep food looking fresh and smelling fresh when it really was not. All the time dangerous microbes might be growing in it. Certainly boric acid would keep it “ free from taint,” but in doing so might mask a far greater danger than mere taint and staleness. Generally speaking, food was handled in this country with far too little regard to the possibilities of contamination by poisonous intestinal germs. Much stricter cleanliness than obtains at present was certainly necessary in the handling, storage, and cooking of food. The recent regulations dealing with preservatives tended to lessen and not to increase food poisoning outbreaks. The Meat Inspection Regulations and the Milk and Dairies Acts—irksome at times no doubt to traders—served a similar purpose. Whenever food was kept or cooked the utmost efforts should be made to prevent the access of flies, mice, or rats. Milk should be pasteurised, and cold storage taken advantage of. Employees who handled or cooked in large concerns like bakeries, hotels, restaurants, and clubs should be proved not to be carriers of the typhoid or food poisoning germs before they were taken on. Facilities for the thorough washing of hands—preferably with antiseptic soaps—before handling food, should be ample in all large kitchens. Much, of course, might be provided for in future public health legislation, but it was not his purpose to forecast that. Suffice it to say that the prohibition by the Government of preservatives in food— so far from being wrong or brought about too quickly— was a step in the right direction, and in that they had lagged far behind the U.S.A.—unusual for Britain. It was the sheerest nonsense to suggest that because boric acid or such like was absent food became tainted, and so caused poisoning. Weak boric acid never did and never would prevent infection by virulent germs present in food. If all the food not quite fresh which was daily consumed in the British Isles were poisonous the population would be decimated in one week of hot weather : for warm weather certainly favoured the breeding and spread of the food poisoning bacilli. It was to his mind almost monstrous to insinuate, as had been done widely in some sections of the Press, that the Ministry of Health had done wrong in putting a stop to the doctoring of food by chemicals. It made a detached observer conclude that misguided busybodies had been allowed far too much scope to spread an erroneous notion. For it was tantamount to saying that the scientific advisers of the Government had collectively been either in gross error or over‐enthusiastic; a proposition which was unthinkable.


(1928), "British Food Journal Volume 30 Issue 11 1928", British Food Journal, Vol. 30 No. 11, pp. 101-110.




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