Karl Marx in his famous work Capital referred to “the incredible adulteration of bread” in 19th century Britain.
Adulterants included alum—that’s potassium aluminium sulphate—and sand.
Protests by London bakers and petitions pushed the government to act. The Food Adulteration Act was passed in 1860 to prevent “the adulteration of articles of food and drink”.
Yet in Marx’s words this was “an inoperative law, as it naturally shows the tenderest consideration for every ‘freetrader’ who decides to ‘turn an honest penny’ by buying and selling adulterated commodities.”
Health and safety laws that interfered with profit were ineffective in Marx’s day. It seems little has changed since.
Today those wishing to “turn an honest penny” have found other ways to cut costs.
The recent discovery of horse meat in beef burgers, which is cheaper than beef, is just the latest example.
Chalk has replaced alum in bread, while fat and protein are now adulterated with water.
Margaret Thatcher’s claim to scientific fame—the addition of air to ice cream—has paved the way for the cheapest adulterant of all, empty space.
A spokesman for the soft drinks industry claimed that “61 percent of soft drinks now contain no added sugar” on Channel 4 news last month. Yet he had included bottled water in his definition of soft drinks.
The industry, in its pursuit of profit, has convinced millions of people that they need to buy expensive drinks. Yet most of the water we need is consumed through the food that we eat.
And there is mounting evidence that using sweeteners instead of sugar just encourages people to seek sugar elsewhere.
The food industry as a whole has an interest in keeping its customers alive.
But this is not the case for individual producers.
When bird flu was discovered at a Bernard Matthews farm in Suffolk in 2007 it was linked to the importing of turkey meat from Hungary.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, had also produced a highly critical report of the plant highlighting a series of biosecurity failings. These included holes in the turkey houses that could have allowed birds or rodents inside.
Yet the pursuit of profit transcended consideration of public health and hygiene.
Nutritional value is measured in terms of calorific value, and its protein and fat content. So adulterers can replace expensive milk protein with cheap but poisonous melamine. This shows up as protein in standard tests.
Tests need to be able to detect serious and sophisticated adulteration. Yet government cuts have slashed laboratories to the bone. And the global nature of the food industry makes it harder to maintain standards.
Meanwhile sections of the food industry present some adulteration as “healthy”.
Twenty years ago most people ate margarine. This was a major source of fat in our diets, essential to health. The law guaranteed that at least 80 percent of the spread was fat.
Today a typical fatty spread may contain more than 40 percent water. People then spread it more thickly to consume enough fat.
As Marx observed over 150 years ago, workers don’t have time to prepare meals and so they eat mass produced “convenience” foods.
Those out of work can’t afford to buy and cook decent meals.
These things are causing a massive public health crisis in richer countries. As long as food production is driven by profit, the battle for nutritional, safe food will continue.