| Tudor Room set for a sugar banquet |
© Minneapolis Institute of the Arts
Yes arsenic, just one of the jolly compounds accidentally or intentionally used in food manufacturing in nineteenth century Britain. Fancy some more? What about copper sulphate used in bottled fruits and pickles or red lead for colouring Gloucester cheese or perhaps a tasty drop of strychnine in your rum or beer? If you're not in the mood for those, how about setting the breakfast table with a jug of chalk-filled milk, a nice loaf of bread with added plaster of Paris and a pat of butter brightened up with copper. Pop Tarts suddenly don't sound quite so bad after all.
Adulteration in food is nothing new. In the middle ages, costly spices were often bulked out with ground nutshells or pits or even stones and dust and bread flour was regularly mixed with sand and sawdust. Laws to try and regulate price, weight and quality of foodstuffs such as bread and beer began in 1266 and were heavily enforced by trade guilds. These laws, however, were to protect the market not the consumer and were patchy in their application outside towns and cities. Fast forward to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the mass move towards urbanisation, and adulteration becomes the rule rather than the exception across pretty much all food and drink sectors and one of the worst offending culprits was the confectionery trade.
|Pharmacy Jars with sweetie ingredients|
|Caricature by John Leech, Punch 1858|
The Greenmarket in Bradford was home to a sweet stall owned by William Hardaker, who was known to locals as "Humbug Billy". He bought his humbugs from sweet maker Joseph Neal, who should have been making his lozenges from peppermint oil, sugar and gum. Neal, however, preferred the profit margin obtained by replacing part of the sugar with gypsum, a kind of plaster known in the trade as "daff". So far so every day but, in what must have been the one of the worst examples of "you really can't get the staff," Neal sent his assistant to the pharmacy for his dodgy supplies where that assistant was served by another assistant and the resulting purchase was not 12 pounds of daff but 12 pounds of arsenic. The sweets were made - apparently they looked a bit odd and the sweet maker (James Appleton) came down with vomiting and pains in his hands during the process but that didn't stop Neal selling 40 pounds of the luscious lozenges to Hardaker. Within 24 hours of the first batch being sold, 200 people had arsenic poisoning and 21 died.
Bradford was lucky: the resulting trial (at which all were acquitted) estimated each humbug contained 9 grams of arsenic, twice the lethal dose, and enough had been distributed to kill 2000 people. And this was not an isolated case. The following year, 6 pupils at a school in Bristol plus a publican and his brother became violently ill after eating Bath buns purchased from a local bakers. When the buns were analysed, each was found to contain 7 grains of the paint pigment lead chromate which the baker had used rather than eggs to colour the buns bright yellow. Apparently he did it all the time but had somehow used too heavy a dose on this occasion. As with Bradford, no one was prosecuted because no laws had actually been broken. There was an outcry and laws were finally introduced (The Pharmacy Act, 1868 and the Adulteration of Food and Drugs Act 1872) which led to an ongoing recognition of food-borne illnesses and a programme of regulations to combat malpractices.
The chilling bit, of course, is the detection. In the middle ages, awareness of adulteration came through noticing changes to weight and smell and taste. As technology progressed, it became easier to detect the undetectable but that doesn't mean the threat went away - the adulterers just got cleverer and technology and malpractice always seem to have a lag, especially when profits are involved. A study produced in 2013 listed 10 common products still regularly picked up in tests as being adulterated, including maple syrup, wine and coffee and milk in China where it has been contaminated with melamine to make it appear more rich in protein. Kale anyone?