Feeding on Fraud

By Atkins, Peter | Geographical, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Feeding on Fraud


Atkins, Peter, Geographical


IN MY OPINION, the recent horse-meat scandal shouldn't have come as a surprise.

On the one hand, the history of the evolution of the food system in this country suggests that we're prone to this kind of problem. And on the other, we've been asleep on the job--in 2010, the coalition government reduced the responsibilities of the Food Standards Agency rather than supporting and strengthening it, so what did they expect?

My research is on the historical geography of food quality. What I've found is that during periods of lax regulation, the food system offers ample opportunity for cheating. This was particularly true during the 19th century, when the consumer was subjected to a series of staggering frauds. Cheap bread, for instance, was whitened with alum to simulate the colour of higher quality loaves. Milk was widely adulterated, to the extent that the average pint contained one quarter added water. It was also common to use dyes such as red lead and copper salts to make sweets, cheese and pickles look more attractive. even though these chemicals were toxic.

Eventually, these practices were brought under control by legislation and inspection regimes involving local authorities, but the journey was slow due to opposition from vested interests in the food industry and from political ideologues arguing for market freedom. After all, they said, one person's fraud is another's product innovation.

The horse-meat scandal has been a matter of adulteration and it's certainly not an isolated incident. There have been numerous other examples in recent decades, some of which have had serious health consequences. For example, in Spain in 1981, 600 people died and 20,000 were made ill after consuming rapeseed oil that had been intended for industrial purposes but was instead sold in street markets as olive oil.

Then, in 1985, a number of Austrian wineries were found to have illegally adulterated their wines using diethylene glycol (an ingredient of anti-freeze). which is toxic, in order to make them appear sweeter for the German bulk-wine market. This was an organised fraud employing advanced wine chemistry, and much modern adulteration is similarly technically advanced.

One of the most shocking events took place in China in 2007, when thousands of babies were hospitalised with kidney stones and renal failure, and more than 300,000 people were affected to a lesser degree. The problem was traced to contaminated milk and baby formula produced by a dairy company in Hebei province.

This wasn't an accident. The motivation was to increase profits by watering down the milk and then adding melamine, a type of resin, to boost its apparent protein content. …

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