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Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee Hardcover – September 8, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Columnist and food writer Wilson takes readers to the beginning of the 19th century to document the history of food adulteration--at heart "two very simple principles: poisoning and cheating." concentrating on Britain and the U.S. (other countries, especially France, navigated food supply industrialization with wiser government policy), Wilson finds the first food crusader in Frederick Accum, a German immigrant who used chemistry to expose the dishonesty of London food purveyors in his treatise on adulterations of food and culinary poisons; she finds the first ineffective government response in Parliament's commitment to laissez faire economic policies over citizen safety. In the U.S., New York's 1850s "swill milk" epidemic and Chicago's meat packing industry would eventually lead to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug act--which probably wouldn't have passed without the popularity of Upton Sinclair's meat packing expose The Jungle, and couldn't stop the most nefarious and prevalent of food frauds, the development of fake foods: margarine, baby formula and thousands more. Wilson follows the economic, cultural and political threads skillfully, reporting on developments as recent as the China baby formula scandal. Prescribing more awareness and regulation, Wilson contends that consumers and governments must recognize the continuous pressure on companies to make money by substituting nutritious, genuine ingredients with adulterants. Timely, witty and purposeful, this thorough history should open a lot of eyes, and close some mouths.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From The New Yorker
With the revelations in recent months of tainted food�salmonella-infected jalape�os, melamine-laced milk�Wilson�s latest treatise, on contaminated, adulterated, and fake foods in the modern era, feels almost prophetic. If there�s a whiff of pedantry to the enterprise, Wilson overwhelms it with sheer detail: the flavor of lead salts, so delicious that they were used to sweeten wine; the fad for mock food in wartime Britain (mock chops made of flour, potato, and onion); the fact that Campbell�s concealed marbles in the soup photographed for advertisements, to make it look thicker; Donald Rumsfeld�s role as a champion of aspartame. No government intervention can solve the problem, Wilson concludes, without consumer re�ducation in how real food tastes. �Buy food fresh, in whole form,� she writes. �Cook it yourself and familiarize yourself with the ingredients that go into proper food, so that when you are served a fake you will know the difference, and have the confidence to complain.�
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Top customer reviews
Reviewer: Dr W. P. Palmer
I very much enjoyed this book, which I purchased to see what it added to the story of Frederick Accum, whose life I was researching at the time. I found that the writing combined genuine scholarship and the telling of fascinating stories of the various people who in different ways have contributed towards the safety of our food. I always fear that books on food may be written by `food cranks' based on their own `crackpot' theories. This book is NOT like that and gives a true and accurate account the very considerable progress that has been made in the safe preparation of common foods which in the early Nineteenth Century could contain poisonous chemicals.
The first portion of the book mainly concerns the life of Frederick Accum. Accum was born on March 29th, 1769 in Bückeburg, Germany. He moved to Britain in 1793 and five years later he started his own business as a chemical analyst and vendor of chemical equipment. He had several other chemically related positions, for example as a lecturer, an expert witness, an author and as a researcher. In 1820 he wrote a book, entitled A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisonsin which he described many food staples including cream, confectionary, pepper, tea, coffee, spirituous liquors, milk, meat, vegetables as being deliberately adulterated and he named those responsible. Within a few months, he was forced to return to Germany as he was observed tearing out pages from books he read at the Royal Institution and he was prosecuted for this. He died in Berlin on 28th June 1838 aged 69 years.
The story of food safety continued some forty years later with the work of Arthur Hill Hassall, who actually succeeded in persuading the British Government to take some action for the first time. Mention is made of many activists who helped improve food safety including Harvey Washington Wiley and Upton Sinclair (author of The Jungle (Dover Thrift Editions). The story is brought up to date with information about some of the many food scandals that have occurred in developing countries.
An excellent book! Well worth your attention!
But this book was both entertaining (with the information around early food adulteration) and scary (with the information on current adulteration) and even more so, how we got to now, a place that we all know about, and yet accept because that is all we know.
The story jumps across a range of aspects, which keeps what could be a pretty heavy topic moving.
It's a book that should be essential reading (instead of people focusing on all the different diet books around). And will have you considering things twice next time you are at the supermarket.
Food in many nations is sold on a "buyer beware" basis. I personally can't afford to test rats over decades with elaborate chemistry sets at home, so I try to cook from scratch with whole grains, vegetables, fruit, etc.
Bakers used to adulterate bread with alum to make it whiter, because for millennia people have wanted white bread because it's more prestigious. Not because it tastes better or is better for you. Alum not only whitens, it adds to the profit margins by making loaves heavier since alum holds more water.
This probably has harmful health effects, in the 19th century a manual laborer might get 70% of their energy from bread, consuming 20 grams of alum daily from adulterated bread, which could potentially lead to health problems (M. Dunnigan. 2003. "John Snow and alum-induced rickets from adulterated London bread: an overlooked contribution to metabolic bone disease". International Journal of EpidemiologyVolume 32, Issue 3 Pp. 340-341)
Bee lists all the ways that bread is adulterated legally now with all kinds of "unsavoury ingredients: emulsifiers; flour treatment agents; soya flour; bleach and flavourings; hardened fat to give the crumb its requisite soft and springy texture; hidden enzymes not listed on the label".
Once upon a time, governments intervened to make sure that bread was high quality -after all, this was how most people got their calories. French police made sure loaves were of an exact weight, used non-bitter grain, and were baked properly.
In 1266 there were 7 kinds of bread. The rich ate the best bread from the best flour and corn, while the masses ate less-refined whole wheat bread, unless they were very poor, in which case they ate bread made from the miller's leftovers, which may not have tasted great, but at least no fraud was committed.
Preventing fraud was done by only allowing bakers to make one kind of bread, that way, if you made only the coarsest bread, there could be no temptation for a baker of the finest bread to substitute coarser breads for more profit.
The middle ages were the golden years of bread. Bakers had to mark their breads so that if there were any problems, they could be tracked down and held accountable. Middlemen weren't allowed to sell bread. Four times a year bakers and millers were inspected. As Miller puts it "People were harder on bakers than on other food-sellers because, while butter and cheese and wine might mean pleasure, bread meant life. Every ounce mattered....when the basic ingredients of bread were tampered with, this signaled not just disorder but famine".
For most of the past 6,000 years, if a baker tried to adulterate bread, the customers would know, because people knew what good bread tasted like. This is a point Wilson makes over and over in the book - if you don't know what good, fresh, unadulterated food tastes like, you won't know you've been duped.
The golden age of bread was from the 11th century to the 16th century, when guilds main goal was to keep the quality of their bread high. One bad baker ruined the integrity of all, so cheating wasn't tolerated. But the disincentives were so high this rarely happened. It was expensive to join a guild, and it gave you great status, so it wasn't worthwhile cheating someone of a few pennies and risk losing your bakery and standing in the community. Guilds had strict rules to preserve their honor. They worked hard to find the secrets to making their goods the best possible, policed themselves, and worked with government regulators to make sure all guild members were producing quality products.
When bread was "deregulated" in England in 1822, the effect was to transform baking into "one of the most depressed, overcrowded and unrenumerative trades of the day". Thousands of new bakers sprang up, all trying to undercut each other. They did this by reducing the quality of the ingredients to a minimum and cheating on the weight of the bread.
In France on the other hand, Napoleon ordered the police to maintain an active watch on bakeries. In "Six Thousand Years of Bread", Jacob writes that Napoleon believed wars would be won or lost based on how well the soldiers ate, and he made sure his soldiers had the best bread of any army.
Unlike bread, due to Robert Parker and others who've popularized wine tasting, great numbers of people are aware of how good wine should taste. Now, on average, wine is more pure and perhaps more delicious than it has ever been in the past.
To make cream or milk appear thicker and richer, rice flour, arrowroot, and other thickeners were added.
This section is quite funny. In Wisconsin in the 1950s you could only buy white margarine so that no one could mistake it for butter, but it came with yellow food coloring so that once you were home you could make it yellow. Rather than go to the trouble, many drove to Illinois to get yellow margarine. Bee says imagine "crossing the state line to get a genuinely fake version of a fake product so as not to be reduced to the indignity of having to fake it for yourself".
Margarine was invented in France by Mege-Mouries in the 1860s by mixing suet, cattle stomachs and udders with bicarbonate of soda.
Food cheating in 19th century Britain
Bee explains how candies were poisoned, tea was faked, beer watered down, and how even cheap false peppercorns were made from floor sweepings, clay, and other material.
Even in 1920, when Accum published his groundbreaking book A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons Exhibiting the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spiritous Liquors, Tea, Coffee ..., the reaction of the government was that any kind of punishments or regulation would stifle the market. It would just have to remain caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, even though it was impossible for consumers to know that their food was being adulterated.
This is an interesting topic to me as Malthusian times are upon us with increasing population and decreasing energy, mineral, and natural resources such as topsoil, fisheries, fresh water, etc., all stirred into a deadly mix by unstable weather as climate change makes it harder and harder to grow crops before drought, floods, hail, etc destroy them.
In the past when famine struck, people ate animals they didn't wish to kill, like donkeys. Then they'd move on to poor quality grains, such as sprouted rotten grain. Then what were considered animal food, such as acorns or vetch. The last resort (before cannibalism) weren't really foods, but things like tree bark, twigs, leaves, roots, and leather, which could leave peole stupefied, since some had drugging effects. In Russia, people resorted to making bread made from straw, birch bark, buckwheat husks, pigweed and so on.
Super-size me: The Poison Squad
Long before the movie "Super-size Me" came out, there was a "poison squad" of 12 healthy young men who ate preservatives to see if they caused any harm.
Getting rid of food swindling
Bring back the guilds, where customers can be sure of high quality goods. Industrial food corporations have the opposite goal - use cheap ingredients to undercut the prices of their rivals. Factory food companies have the money to hire lobbyists to prevent regulation, or keep what regulations do exist from being enforced most of the time.
France has made a lot of money by ensuring their food and wine are high quality products. People travel there from all over the world for their cuisine. Their health and lifespan are better than most nations. I don't doubt that historians will see one of the many reasons for the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as the poor health of most of its citizens, much of it due to the chemical trans-fatty nasty processed factory food so many people eat.
So even if manufacturers complain to government the economy will be ruined, it appears that honesty costs much less.
The exact names of food swindlers needs to be printed for all to see.
If you're interested in this topic, Marion Nestle has many books out about food. "Food Safety" explains why you can't count on the FDA or USDA to do help you, mainly because they're under-funded and have been captured by industry.
Bee doesn't go into this much, but I find it ironic that despite all our "progress", since 1870, we've been eating the worst bread for the past 6,000 years - a giant step backwards and probably a good part of why Americans have a shorter lifespan than 50 other nations and are far less healthy as well. It all began when roller mills were invented in 1870 to separate bran and germ from the endosperm, the latter of which is made into white flour. Meanwhile, the bran and germ, , where most of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, essential oils, and phytochemicals are is fed to animals. What we eat is basically starch, which converts to sugar quickly, leaving you less full, more likely to become obese and get diabetes (and heart disease, strokes, cancer, etc), plus it no longer behaves like flour - so a great many chemicals are added, some of them to keep the bread "fresh" for a month on the shelf.
Why aren't millers and bakers in jail? How can you steal nearly all the nutrition and get away with that?
I was so outraged that the nutrition had been stolen that I started milling my own flour, and for centuries others have done the same, since the only way to know you're getting good bread is to buy the wheat (and other grains), mill them, and bake your own bread. This is actually quite fast and easy, paying for itself in a year, or even less if you also make your own granola and other bread products.
I don't think people know anymore what real bread tastes like, and many brought up on factory bread might not like real bread if they had the chance to try it. But very few have - even the expensive bakeries in the San Francisco Bay Area label breads as "whole wheat" when white flour is the main ingredient most of the time.
Find out more at Wholegrainalice dot com which I've started to alert people to the harm white flour does and what they can do about it