Princeton University Press, 2008, 400 pp., $26.95
A century before Morgan Spurlock put himself on a month-long diet of McDonald’s burgers and fries for his hit documentary, Supersize Me, Harvey Washington Wiley came up with a similarly dramatic flourish to publicize the health risks in certain foods. Wiley, then head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry, devised an experiment that became widely known, thanks to the expository talents of a reporter from the Washington Post, as “the poison squad.”
Bee Wilson, a prolific British food writer with a Ph.D. in history from Trinity College, Cambridge, reminds us of this remarkable incident in her latest book, Swindled. As Wilson tells the story, the experiment was put into action in 1902 after Congress gave Wiley $5,000 to conduct a series of trials on food safety. That era being rather more tolerant of experiments involving other people, the poison squad consisted of 12 healthy young male volunteers from the Department of Agriculture. Six of the volunteers were given preservative-free food while the others had borax, benzoate and other then-common additives larded into their diets. Two years later, Wiley could pronounce the “clear and unmistakable lesson” that “preservatives used in food are harmful to health.”
The poison squad experiment influenced public opinion, and therefore helped inspire Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. The immediate trigger for political action, however, was supplied by a passionate young socialist, Upton Sinclair, whose 1905 novel The Jungle featured horrifying descriptions of conditions in the Chicago meat packing industry. While Sinclair meant to focus on the miseries of immigrant Lithuanian workers employed there, the sordid details of industry practices, based on Sinclair’s own seven-week stint working in the Chicago meatworks, is what drew the public’s attention. Naturally enough, American readers were shocked to learn how often rats and rat dung ended up in their breakfast sausages, and how frequently strong pickles were injected into these sausages to overwhelm the stench of rotten meat. Instead of making the readers feel sorry for the workers as Sinclair had hoped, the novel made them feel more sorry for themselves owing to the risks they were taking by eating rotten and adulterated meat. As Sinclair famously quipped, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
Such episodes form the better parts of Wilson’s Swindled. Wilson is not fond of so-called flavorings and chemical additives in food. Indeed, by the end of the book the reader is being exhorted with a distinctly puritanical zeal to buy organic fresh food, in whole form, and only from trusted local sources, as the only way to avoid the insidious nature of modern, massive-scale food fakery. Taking such advice is, one supposes, a matter of taste, temperament and pocketbook. Either way, Swindled has more to offer than advice. As Wilson traces, with both precision and passion, the many changes wrought on the world of food over several centuries, a pattern seems to emerge: “Improvements” often result in food of dubious if not dangerous qualities.
It’s a story not just about swindlers but also well-intentioned ignoramuses—and those who tried to stop and correct them. For example, Wilson limns the extraordinary significance of Frederick Accum’s pioneering 1820 book, A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons. Accum was a German expatriate living in London, a chemist by training but also man of many interests and a considerable ability to educate and persuade the public. It was largely his public evidence and experiments that convinced Parliament that it was safe to light the streets of Westminster with gas lamps rather than lanterns. He lectured on everything from crystallography to vanilla pods. But by 1820, nothing seemed to appall him more than the state of English cooking and the criminals who tampered with food for profit, often with poisonous effect.
“It would be difficult to mention a single article of food which is not to be met with in an adulterated state; and there are some substances which are scarcely ever to be procured genuine”, he wrote in his famous treatise. “There is death in the pot”, warned the writing on Accum’s title page, which was suitably adorned with images of skulls and serpents. Here, clearly, was a scientist with an eye for publicity. Indeed, Accum made himself rather a nuisance collaring people and lecturing them on the matter. He was in a sense a combination of the Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader of his day, and like those two, Accum’s efforts did eventually produce some beneficial results. Thanks to his efforts, it was no longer commonplace to have pickles colored green with copper, candies dyed red with lead, lozenges made from pipe clay, or custard flavored with poisonous laurel leaves, as was then the custom in England.
Alas, Accum’s story does not have an entirely happy ending. In the first place, Accum was driven out of London, his anti-adulteration campaign faltering in consequence, when he was caught supposedly vandalizing his own source books from the library. The assistant librarian at the prestigious Reading Room of the Royal Institution realized that pages had been torn out of books Accum was in the habit of reading. Peepholes were then drilled in a cupboard adjoining the Reading Room to allow the librarian to spy on the culprit, and Accum was observed to tear several more pages out of a book some weeks later. A search warrant was issued on Accum’s home, and he was charged with “feloniously stealing and taking away two hundred pieces of paper to the value of ten pence.” His publisher dropped him, and newspapers mocked him. Friends had to raise money as “surety” to keep him out of jail before the case was heard. One wrote to the Times begging the president of the Royal Institute to stop the persecution and arguing Accum had learned the habit from another scientist who would tear out pages “to save time and trouble.” The prosecution still went ahead, but Accum did not appear at the hearing because he had left to return to Germany, unable to bear the shame and the loss of popularity. That left the sellers of tainted food relatively free to continue in their falsifying ways. None suffered from it more than the urban poor, who had little choice but to accept it. Accum’s efforts notwithstanding, England became known across Europe as the land of food swindlers, thanks particularly to its greedy grocers.
More broadly, Accum seems to have underestimated the size of the problem because he did not fully grasp its source—and here his experience elides into our own. “Except when it affected Treasury revenue—as in the case of sugar, tea and coffee—the British state did not at this time see it as its business to interfere in the selling of food”, Wilson writes. She points out that in Accum’s time the rapid increase in the mass adulteration of food was a relatively new problem made possible by the size, endemic poverty and depersonalized ambiance of England’s newly industrialized cities. The government failed to react to these changes, maintaining its traditional laissez-faire approach to food standards and regulation, because, having never done so before, it did not realize it could react. English law had long focused on ensuring that various measures of food and drink were standardized. Even the Magna Carta of 1215, as Wilson points out, was not just a document that established the basis of liberty for the modern world: It also stipulated standard measures for wine, ale and corn. But traditional measures, as well as the strict requirements for the baking of basic foodstuffs like bread, were given force by familiarity. Food was produced and consumed locally by people who knew one another. In late 18th and early 19th century England, that was no longer the case in many cities. Deception then competed with detection and usually won.
The fight against food swindling advanced in the 1850s amid the general context of Victorian-era, Conservative-led reforms. A doctor named Arthur Hill Hassall realized that he could use a microscope to analyze food and drink samples for a new magazine, The Lancet. His weekly reports soon attracted immediate horrified attention. (One wonders if Sinclair had ever head of him). By 1860, Britain had passed its first general adulteration act, making it illegal to knowingly sell adulterated food as pure. By the 1880s the worst horrors of the “demon grocers” had become a thing of the past.
While Britain’s stomach was suffering though the first half of the 19th century, American eating patterns were regarded as much healthier, given that most people still raised most of what they ate. But as America shifted from a predominantly agricultural society to an industrial one, the same basic problems that afflicted post-Industrial Revolution Britain began to affect post-Civil War America. There were a few earlier episodes, it is true, like the swill milk scandal from the 1850s, in which cows were fed the hot grain mash left over from distilling whiskey and the milk had the taint of alcohol. But it was only several decades later that examples of food tampering proliferated widely, prompting Nebraska Senator Algernon S. Paddock to complain, in a cadence rather typical for 1892, that “the devil has got hold of the food supply of this country.”
It wasn’t the devil, in fact; it was only unregulated big business. New York City typically led the way in America as had London in England. As before, it was the urban poor who suffered most. It was only after 1893, when philanthropist Nathan Strauss financed low-cost milk depots selling pasteurized milk to poor New York families, that infant mortality rates finally dropped from very high levels. By then, too, a women’s movement for pure food had gained strength. It was often linked to the temperance movement, and it also illustrates the role of the churches in the Progressive-era fight against contaminated food. The struggle for pure food was seen by those who organized it as part and parcel of a more general assault on moral turpitude and outright sin. Socialists like Sinclair and Robert Hunter were hardly the majority in this fight.
But as usual in the history of American commerce, the more successful capitalists of the period found a way to take reform itself to the bank. Henry J. Heinz built his empire on the promise of ketchup and other canned foods without benzoate of soda, the preservative made infamous by the poison squad. As for Harvey Wiley, his successes were as limited as Accum’s turned out to be. Wiley took particular aim at saccharine, which happened to be a favorite alternative to sugar for the portly President Theodore Roosevelt. TR was not amused, and Wiley’s “influence in Washington never recovered”, writes Wilson. Wiley then took on Coca-Cola and lost the case. He left government service for Good Housekeeping magazine, where he developed the “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval. Who knew that such an anodyne little symbol had such a drama-packed political origin? Not me.
As powerful as the Good Housekeeping symbol became, at least for a time, it was no match for the advances of the 20th century. As Wilson puts it, “squirted, cartonned, squeezed” food slowly became the shiny new standard, and what was ersatz became more prized than what was real. The industrial manipulations of food may have started as a practical response to the privations of the Depression and rationing during World War II, but it gave way in the 1950s to the “golden age” of food processing. “Frozen orange juice, instant coffee, ready made TV dinners of chicken à la king, boil in the bag macaroni and cheese in glitzy foil packages, dehydrated potato salad—all these wonder products and more were at the disposal of the housewife in 1950s America”, Wilson writes. “Thanks to intensive marketing, substitute foods were no longer to be seen as the poor relations of food they originally mimicked. They were new; and new was best.”
What was “best”, as virtually everyone now recognizes, involved massive increases in the use of chemicals in food to preserve, sweeten, flavor and brighten, multiplying well beyond the imagination of any 19th-century chemist. One can only guess at what Frederick Accum would have made of strawberry milkshakes that bore no relation to strawberries, milk or sugar; of squares of plastic-wrapped, preservative-laden white bread that could indefinitely elude the natural process of mold; of orange-flavored carbonated drinks that never touched anything remotely resembling an orange, sweetened artificially and fortified with vitamin C; of the various chemical concoctions of Miracle Whip, Pop Tarts or Pringles.
By the 1970s, there were around a thousand agricultural products in use in the United States, according to the Department of Agriculture, but more than 12,000 natural and synthetic chemicals added either directly or indirectly to what Americans were eating though the processing of food. This included the fashion for fortification, whereby various vitamins are added to food to replace and supposedly improve upon the vitamins removed during processing. Then there was the long running saga of sweeteners. After cyclamates and saccharine were withdrawn because of demonstrated links to cancer and birth deformities, the food industry urgently sought a replacement. Aspartame, now known as Nutrasweet, had been rejected on health grounds in 1980 before being finally approved during the Reagan Administration. It quickly became the world’s most ubiquitous form of artificial sweetener, used in more than 6,000 products by 2005. Needless to say, Wilson is not convinced of its safety.
Synthetic flavor-enhancers also became increasingly popular during the 1970s and 1980s, with no requirement even now in the United States or the European Union to disclose the components of many thousands of flavors listed in chemical anonymity on food labels. The once-presumed superiority of artificial flavoring over the real has faded, particularly in recent decades (although the incredible scale of their everyday use has not). These days it’s much more cool to be “natural”, or claim to be, and the tactics of the American advertising industry and their clients clearly show it. (Heinz would have understood.) Nevertheless, the demand for junk food, fast food and processed food still shows no sign of letting up. America, and to a lesser extent Europe, may be dividing into new two-tier societies based on food choices: the “natural” and more expensive for more discerning, upscale consumers, and cheap, processed fare for the rest.
Whether this amounts to a swindle of one kind or another, or a free choice by varyingly educated people, is an interesting question. Wilson does not hesitate to answer:
For better or worse, most of us live in mass commercial societies. A solution that depends on removal from this reality is no solution at all. . . . While we are waiting—and where possible lobbying—for governments to do more to improve the food supply, we as individual consumers should do what is in our power to prevent ourselves and our families being cheated and poisoned. If we embrace even a simple understanding of what makes good food, there are plenty of ways we can minimize, if not eradicate the risks of being taken for a ride. . . . Wake up and smell the coffee.
Could it be that she is right?