Food safety – sawdust sandwich, anyone?

Food safety isn’t something we can ever take for granted. With unscrupulous traders along the chain, our ancestors literally could not be sure what they were eating.

Do a search for ‘trading standards UK history,’ and an interesting article is highlighted, courtesy of the (London borough of) Hillingdon Council. It automatically downloads as a PDF, so I can’t give you a link. But, it includes information such as:

Legislation was also passed to ensure the quality of foodstuffs and outlaw adulteration. Unscrupulous producers and traders would add sawdust to bread dough, grease to coffee and even sulphuric acid to vinegar. Where adulteration resulted in widespread serious illness, or even death, the tradesmen could be executed.  

The 2013 horse meat scandal in the UK was a reminder that we can never feel smug about food safety. (The Daily Telegraph’s timeline of it can be found here) –with a helpful picture of a horse, just in case you needed one!

While horse meat itself is edible, it was a gross deception to pass it off as beef. And that’s without the worry over quality control. 

Food safety in 1815: arsenic in your wine

In 1815, (complicated) advice was offered to people wishing to test wine, to be sure it didn’t contain arsenic. This was used to clarify cloudy wine, to make it look better.

The Westmorland Advertiser & Kendal Chronical, in 1818, was congratulating excise officers for intercepting a cargo of fake tobacco and coffee in Yorkshire.

The coffee was some kind of ground beans, but who knew what you’d actually have been drinking.

I have already covered adulterated tea in a previous post.

Bon appetit

The Westmorland Gazette, in May 1818, listed some of the known adulterations of food and drink:

  • coffee – scorched peas and beans
  • tobacco – various common herbs
  • Port wine – sloe juice
  • bread – flour, ground stone, chalk, pulverised bones
  • milk – whitening and water
  • sugar – sand
  • pepper – fuller’s earth and other earths
  • mustard – cheap pungent seeds

Policing food safety 

In July 1818, the Gazette was reporting a further adulteration of food: oat meal, eked out with ground corn (heavier, so made the oat meal go further), along with ‘unsound wheat’ and ‘unsound barley’.

The grain merchants and dealers of Kendal set up an association a month later, to try to tackle malpractice.

They were: William Jennings, Thomas Burrow, George Murgatroyd, Thomas Barnett, Isaac Singleton, Christopher Robinson, Edward Dickinson, George Watson, John Atkinson, Thomas Jackson, Thomas Andrew, Simon Myerscough, John Dodd, Thomas Forrest, Caleb Medcalf, James Cowherd, Benoni Harling, Richard Rawlinson, Lawrence Hodgson, John Morris, Daniel Dunglinson, Richard Walker, John Holme, William Hogg, William Paterson, Joseph Jackson (Great Strickland), Joseph Bray, William Brown (Dalemain Mill), John Ellwood, John Cowherd, John Swarbrick (Preston), George Clark, John Clark (Blackburn). 

They vowed to bring to justice anyone adulterating wheat, oats, barley or other grain, or using unlawful weights or measures.

The penalty for adulterating grain was a fine of up to £5. For short measures, it was 40 shillings (to be levied for the use of the poor). 

Bone of contention

In May 1819, the Gazette published a handy guide on how to detect adulterated flour. So common was the practice of adulterating it with ground bone, that the price of bone had risen!

Pure and unadulterated flour may be known any of these methods: 

1. Seize a handful briskly, and squeeze it half minute; preserves the form-of the cavity of the hand in one piece although it may be rudely placed the table. That which contains foreign substances breaks in pieces more or less; that mixed with whiting being the most adhesive, but still dividing and falling down a little time. 

Flour mixed with ground stones, bones, or Plaster of Paris, loses its form at once

2. Having dipped the fore finger and thumb partially in sweet-oil, take a small quantity of flour. If it be pure, you may freely rub the fingers together for any length of time; it will not become sticky, and the substance will turn nearlv black. But if whiting be mixed with the flour, rubbing will turn itinto putty, its colour very little changed. 

3.Drop lemon juice, or good vinegar, upon flour; if pure, it remains rest; if adulterated, immediate commotion takes place. This is the readiest method for detecting the presence of stone dust and plaster of Paris. 

Lastly, if a person of a moist skin rubs flour briskly between the palms of both hands; if there be whiting among it, he will find resistance, but with pure flour none.