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Food, not so glorious food

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Accum and Hassall (Callie Jones)

Despite occasional scares, UK residents can be fairly confident that their food and drink are of good quality and as labelled. But today’s standards may not have been so high without pioneering work by chemist Frederick Accum and physician Arthur Hill Hassall in the 19th century.

There was then little control on food standards, and additives used to add weight and bulk to foodstuffs could be poisonous. Bread was adulterated with plaster of Paris, bean flour, chalk or alum, for example. Alum, used to make bread whiter and heavier, caused bowel problems and constipation or chronic diarrhoea, which was often fatal for children.

Additives in beer included cocculus indicus (a berry extract containing picrotoxin), nux vomica (a source of strychnine) and vitriol (sulphuric acid). Red cheese was coloured with red lead and vermillion (mercury sulphide), while copper salts were used to colour pickles green.

German chemist Frederick Accum came to London in 1793 and established himself as a chemical analyst. In 1802 he published a treatise that was the first serious attempt to expose the nature, extent and dangers of food adulteration.

Accum found ferrous sulphate and sheep’s dung in tea leaves, bilberry and elderberry juice in wine, and lead, copper and mercury salts in children’s sweets. But his work made him powerful enemies and, accused of damaging books from the library of the Royal Institution, he fled to Germany in 1821 to escape trial.

Ten years later, Thomas Wakely, editor of The Lancet, started his own campaign against the adulteration of food and drugs. He launched the Analytical Sanitary Commission, with Dr Hassall as its chief analyst. The Lancet published Hassall’s detailed analyses of 2,500 samples of food and drink. These showed that adulteration was the rule rather than the exception and resulted in the passing of the first Food Adulteration Act in 1860.

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