Not a new problem

April 16, 1997

By Allen Myers

Government inspection of foods arose from experience: as industrial capitalism developed, it became clear that only fear of the law could restrain some capitalists from selling adulterated and/or poisonous goods.

In his book The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1844-45, Friedrich Engels documented some of the common abuses. He quoted from the Manchester Guardian to demonstrate that it was quite common for butcher shops to sell tainted beef, pork and fowl — partly because of "the incomprehensibly small fines" to which they were subject when caught.

Engels then went on to quote from the Liverpool Mercury on other common adulterations and frauds:

"Salt butter is moulded into the form of pounds of fresh butter, and cased over with fresh ... Pounded rice and other cheap materials are mixed in sugar, and sold at full ... price. A chemical substance — the refuse of the soap manufactories — is also mixed with other substances and sold as sugar ... Chicory is mixed in good coffee .... Cocoa is extensively adulterated with fine brown earth, wrought up with mutton fat, so as to amalgamate with portions of the real article ... The leaves of tea are mingled with sloe leaves and other abominations. Used leaves are also re-dried, and re-coloured on hot copper plates, and sold as tea. Pepper is adulterated with dust from husks etc.; port wine is altogether manufactured [from spirits, dyes, etc.], it being notorious that more port wine is drunk in this country than is made in Portugal. Nasty things of all sorts are mixed with the weed tobacco in all its manufactured forms."

The situation was to grow worse before it got better. In 1855-56, the British parliament set up a committee "on the adulteration of the articles of food", and in 1860 it passed a largely ineffective law "for preventing the adulteration of articles of food and drink".

Karl Marx, in the first volume of Capital, commented ironically on the discoveries of an 1863 royal commission into baking:

"Englishmen, with their good command of the Bible, knew well enough that man, unless by elective grace a capitalist, or a landlord, or the holder of a sinecure, is destined to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow, but they did not know that he had to eat daily in his bread a certain quantity of human perspiration mixed with the discharge of abscesses, cobwebs, dead cockroaches and putrid German yeast, not to mention alum, sand and other agreeable mineral ingredients."

Marx noted the testimony to the 1855 parliamentary committee that, because of adulterations, "the poor men who lived on 2 lb. of bread a day did not take in one-fourth of that amount of nutrition".

A decade later, another parliamentary commission found that "the adulteration even of medicines is the rule, not the exception, in England", as Marx wrote in a later edition of Capital. He continued:

"For example, the examination of thirty-four specimens of opium, bought from the same number of different chemists in London, showed that thirty-one were adulterated with poppy heads, wheat-flour, gum, clay, sand, etc. Several specimens did not contain an atom of morphine."

As Marx and Engels pointed out, working people and the poor were most affected by adulterations, because they were under pressure to buy the cheapest goods and had the least opportunity to shop around.

That is something else — like the normal decision of a capitalist confronted with a choice between social responsibility and a quick profit — which hasn't changed.

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