To read this content please select one of the options below:

British Food Journal Volume 50 Issue 7 1948

British Food Journal

ISSN: 0007-070X

Article publication date: 1 July 1948



The year 1820 was a landmark in the story of adulteration for in that year was published “A Treatise on the Adulteration of Food, and Culinary Poisons, etc., etc.” by Dr. F. Accum. The first edition of 1,000 copies was sold in a month and a second edition was at once printed. The preface to this second edition says that the author had received a number of anonymous communications containing maledictions and menaces. The book says, “it would be difficult to mention a single article of food which is not to be met with in an adulterated state ; and there are some substances which are, scarcely ever to be procured genuine.” He records that butchers meat and fish were blown by means of a quill or the stem of a tobacco pipe to make the flesh appear firm and glistening. The water used in London came from the Thames which received all the contents of the sewers, drains and water‐courses. He says that no water becomes putrid sooner than that of the Thames, smelling of carburetted and sulphuretted hydrogen gases. Sawdust was used for increasing the stringency of wine and this was supplied by wholesalers to the brewers' druggist as an ordinary article of commerce. Old and stale beer which had gone acid was converted to mild by using oyster shells to neutralise the acid. He states that the detection of adulteration of beer with deleterious vegetable substances is beyond the scope of chemical science ; but within about 20 years methods were available for them. Most lozenges were kept in two grades, the cheaper at half the price being “reduced,” as it was called, with clay, sugar, pepper or other spices. With regard to wine‐brewers he quotes from “The Tatler” of 1797: “There is in this city a certain fraternity of chemical operators who work in underground holes, caverns and dark retired spots to conceal their mysteries from the eyes and observations of mankind. These subterranean philosophers are daily employed in the transmutation of liquors and of the power of magical drugs and incantations, raising under the streets of London the choicest products of the hills and valleys of France. They can squeeze Bordeaux out of the sloe and draw Champagne from an apple.” He records how bottles were “Crusted,” i.e. the interior of empty wine bottles were lined with a red crust to imitate the deposit from wine ; a factitious product was added and the bottles closed with corks having the lower part dyed a fine red as if they had long been in contact with wine. With regard to tea he records how different varieties of leaves from trees and shrubs were first boiled and then baked on an iron plate. When dry they were coloured and rubbed in the hand to produce a curl resembling that of genuine tea. To obtain a green variety, the leaves were coloured with verdigris. Usually the sloe leaf was used. Accum suggested that the housewife could take her part in detecting false teas and said “Our ladies are our teamakers ; let them study the leaf as well as the liquor ; let them become familiar with both vegetables, with their forms, colours, flavours and scents ; let us drink our tea upon the responsibility of our wives, daughters and sisters, and not upon that of our grocers. Let every female distinguish tea leaves from sloe‐leaves, as well as if she had served an apprenticeship in the warehouse in Leadenhall Street.” The reason for the prevalent adulteration of tea was the heavy revenue duties. Spices were also heavily dutied and expensive, and nearly all were adulterated. The pepper duty was 2s. 6d. a lb. and factitious pepper berries were made from linseed cake, clay and cayenne pepper. Accum wrote several books on food technology and did a lot of useful work by lecturing on adulteration ; but probably his greatest service was drawing attention to the dangers from poisoning by metallic compounds either added as colouring matters or introduced accidentally by the use of unsuitable metal containers. These hazards were generally caused through ignorance. For example in “The Falsification of Food” by Mitchell there is an account of an investigation of poisoning by Gloucester cheese. A man was taken seriously ill at an inn and some observant person noticed that a cat became violently ill after eating the rind of the Gloucester cheese which the man had left. The cheese was examined and found to contain large quantities of lead. The manufacturer of the cheese was unable to account for it as he was certain of the purity of his own materials and had purchased the annatto, with which it was coloured, from a reputable firm. This firm was certain that the annatto supplied consisted solely of genuine annatto, improved in colour with vermilion, a normal practice in the trade. On further enquiry it was found that the druggist who had sold the vermilion had assumed it would only be used as a pigment for house painting and had mixed it with red lead to increase his profit and without any suspicion that harm could come of it. The investigator says “Thus through the circuitous and diversified operations of commerce a portion of deadly poison may find admixture into the necessities of life in a way which can attach no criminality to the parties through whose hands it has successively passed.” Although it has been known for over 2,000 years that lead salts were violent poisons, it was for long assumed that metallic lead was insoluble in water and fruit juices. It was a common practice for proprietors of wells to instruct plumbers to use double the thickness of lead because it was known that the local water corroded the lead very quickly. No one had troubled to wonder what became of the corroded metal. A gentleman had 21 children of whom eight died in early infancy. Both parents and the remaining children were remarkably unhealthy, being particularly subject to stomach disorders. The father became paralytic and the mother was continuously subject to colic. When the parents died the house was sold and the children moved ; they immediately improved in health. The purchaser of the house found it necessary to repair the pump and found it so corroded that the cylinder was perforated in several places and the cistern was reduced in thickness to that of brown paper. Too late the cause of years of trouble was discovered. Accum's treatise aroused attention in scientific circles and several other workers investigated food, among whom may be mentioned Mitchell, Normandy, Chevalier, Garner and Harel. But the general public did not read their scientific books. Shortly afterwards there appeared anonymously a small brochure under a long title but generally referred to as “Death in the Pot.” This was written in popular style, had a large sale and a great influence on the public. The immediate result was a wide circulation of knowledge of adulteration and contamination of food and both were generally condemned. A writer expressed the opinion that the life of man would generally be extended to 100 years were it not for his excesses and the adulteration of his food. As regards adulteration the public could do little to prevent it; but the effects of contaminated food being rapid, the people could complain to the sellers and for their own sakes manufacturers were compelled to scrutinise the materials used and to discard colouring matters and metallic utensils which they knew to be dangerous. It has previously been mentioned that Excise Officers were concerned with adulteration in connexion with articles subject to a revenue duty. Tobacco was a source of considerable revenue and the Excise were ever on the watch against adulteration. An Act of 1840 had prohibited the mixing of tobacco with a number of substances but the effect was to increase adulteration with others. One of the Excise Officers, George Phillips, had in his spare time become proficient in chemistry and in the use of the microscope, and he offered his services to the Commissioners of Excise for the particular purpose of examining tobacco for purity. This was eventually agreed to and in 1842 Phillips was given a room for his purpose. His success was immediate and his activities were soon extended to other excisable materials including a variety of foods. This one man and one room eventually became the Inland Revenue Laboratory, Somerset House, which was subsequently constituted into a separate Department known as the Department of the Government Chemist. Its activities now extend to work for all Government Departments, but the original objects for which it was founded over 100 years ago still form an important part of its work. By 1850 the public had become hygiene‐conscious, largely due to the pioneer work of such men as Chadwick, who had been calling attention to unsound and unhealthy conditions in all forms of sanitary services. In that year the “Lancet” established “The Lancet Sanitary Commission” to institute an extensive series of investigations into the condition of various articles of diet supplied to the people. A leading spirit of the Commission was Dr. Hassall who did much experimental work in the examination of commercial foods sold to the public and reported his findings in the “Lancet.” In 1855 he published “Food and its Adulterations, comprising the reports of the Analytical Sanitary Commission of the Lancet for the years 1851–1854.” Hassall exploited the microscope in the detection of adulteration and recorded many pictures of the microscopic characteristics of vegetable foods and adulterants. Without the more refined methods of today he was able to detect adulteration in a very large proportion of the samples examined. For example:—


(1948), "British Food Journal Volume 50 Issue 7 1948", British Food Journal, Vol. 50 No. 7, pp. 71-80.




Copyright © 1948, MCB UP Limited

Related articles