Wednesday, 20 February 2013

What on earth are you eating?

Butcher's Recipe book

In response to the current horsemeat scandal Carlo Petrini, Slow Food President, asks  "How have we, as humanity, become so despicable that we can betray our brothers and sisters, jeopardize their health and neglect their rights, all for the sake of money."

Food adulteration is nothing new.  It is a universal truth that if there's money to be made from messing with food, someone will do it.  These days, rather than the opportunistic entrepreneur, we've come to expect big business to be stirring the processed food pot.

In London, adulterations reached a peak in the 19th century.  The rich kept their fine teas under lock and key but what the poor drank was sometimes laced with poisonous black lead or iron filings; coffee was often bulked with acorn or chicory; milk was thickened with potato starch and passed off as cream; pickles were greened with copperas (iron sulphate); boiled sweets were coloured with arsenic and mercury.   In the 1820's, the chemist Friedrich Accum published a Treatise on Adulteration of Food, highlighting the use of chemicals in food.  He made himself so unpopular amongst London food manufacturers that a lawsuit caused him to flee the country.

Chalk, Plaster of Paris and, it was said, bone ashes were used to bulk out bread flour.  The compound alum was added to the mix for its whitening action and to produce a more silky crumb.  It was said that the consumers' delight in 'white' bread encouraged the practice.  W Mattieu Williams in The Chemistry of Cooking, published in 1885, pointed out there were two guilty parties to alum use - the buyer who demands unnatural appearances and the manufacturer who supplies the demand.  The medical journal, The Lancet, horrified the public when in the 1850's it published test results on 49 samples of bread and found all to be in some way adulterated.  The Food Adulteration Acts of 1872 and 1875 finally outlawed bulking out, poisonous additives and short weights.  However, chalk made a legal return in 1942 to bolster calcium deficiencies in the wartime diet.

Today's horsemeat food scandal owes much to price-squeezing by supermarkets and long supply chains  but W. Mattieu's observation on buyers and sellers still rings true.  If we demand cheaper and cheaper unrecognisable processed food, maybe we shouldn't be surprised when it turns out not to be quite what we thought.  One report on the horsemeat situation this week suggested worst of all was the possible use of wild Romanian horses.  Well, given that they will have eaten a natural diet, if I was going to eat horse, then I would prefer wild pony to racehorse stuffed with "bute".  Maybe now we should be looking at the other adulterations we currently take for granted in the form of 'additives', 'improvers' and 'nutrients'.  Let's get back to teaching our children how to shop wisely and cook from scratch because the less we know about food the more we risk being duped by the unscrupulous "all for the sake of money".