“Death in the Pot”: The Long History of Food Adulteration

Blog written by Dr Claudia Kreklau

“Death in the Pot”—an appetizing title! In 1820, German-born chemist Friedrich Accum, known as Frederick Accum to his colleagues in London, published a monograph written to make your stomach turn. In early nineteenth-century Britain, an increasingly urban population relied on food vendors and a growing industrial complex to provide their daily bread. Accum revealed to them that their flour contained alum, their Gloucester cheese lead, and tea (good old British institution tea!) contained cherry leaves, acting as a rather unwanted, very strong laxative.

Inflammatory as Accum’s work undoubtedly was, “food adulteration” as Accum called it, was a problem, and in good German fashion, Accum criticized the condition in Britain relentlessly. His British colleagues and industrialists were of course delighted to be told off by the young German chemist-upstart. “If Mr. Accum were as accurate and perspicuous as he is industrious, his services to the science of chemistry would be less equivocal,” one critic wrote. He also found it particularly egregious that Accum “tried to give [his work] such ‘a popular form’ as to place” testing food contents “within the reach even of those who are unacquainted with the principles of chemical science.” Accum’s works gave the public a set of simple tests to make sure their own foods did not contain poisons. After all, lead, arsenic, copper, and chrome were popular colorings – the E-numbers of the nineteenth century, if you like. The use of such substances caused more than one child to end up unconscious after eating “poisonous custard” artificially flavoured with cherry laurel.

Image attrib. Leeds University, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Accum was a pioneer in a discussion we are all familiar with today: food adulteration. Chances are that we have all watched the news at some point and wondered about what we ate the other day. The reasons for our worries are in essence the same one as in 1820 Britain. For one, we all need to eat, but most of us do not run our own farms, do not milk our own cow Daisy in the morning, nor do we pull our own carrots out of the ground. Modern consumption means being vastly dependent on agriculture and industry to keep us fed, and as consumers we have little control over what goes into our ready-made soup or can of beans. Furthermore, there are substances in our food that we would prefer not to be there: additives to give colour, texture, or taste. Substitutes can also prove tricky, as some of us may remember, horse-meat rather than beef may appear in last night’s lasagna  

All of these problems have a surprisingly long history, which is what my research on nineteenth-century food processing and consumption in Germany has explored over the past few years. Around 1870 in Germany, the food industry used, for example, potato syrup instead of real sugar, sick or dead animals to make sausages, and yeast extract to add flavour to food. The reason for this was simple: to decrease production cost and avoid financial loss. The same principles apply today. In the United States, high-fructose corn syrup is the twenty-first century cheaper sugar-alternative; the meat of sick or dying animals still end up in wontons in contemporary China; and it is hard to avoid monosodium glutamate used to mimic the savory taste of meat in the British ready-meal.

The important point is that food adulteration is not a story about contemporary China, early industrial Britain, the United States or even a rapidly modernizing Germany. It is a story about modernization more broadly. The moment a society moves from being a largely agricultural society to an industrial one with many of its people living in cities, the great majority of us outsource food-production, -processing and -preparation to agriculture, industry, grocery stores and eateries. At that stage, when we buy a sandwich, get fish-n-chips in a shop, or purchase a bottle of ketchup at the store around the corner, we have entrusted someone else with what goes into our stomachs..

Where industry rises (e.g. 1780s Britain, 1800s United States, 1860s Germany) food-changes quickly follow, at best quickly met by controlling legislation (Britain 1875, United States 1906, Germany 1878/9). Depending on how quickly lawmakers react, how much pressure they meet from their population, and how adamant consumers are about regulation, consumption habits will also change. In Britain, the United States, and Germany, for example, food industrialization was usually paired or soon followed by vegetarianism or back-to-nature movements. That was no coincidence. For consumers in Germany becoming a vegetarian in 1870 or even a vegan around 1890 was one way to reduce the risk of ingesting potentially harmful substances in a time before GMO (pesticides and fertilizers are another story!).

Accum’s story unfortunately had a sad ending: with a ruined reputation, he left Britain and it took the British government half a century to bring about the Food, Drink, and Drugs Act of 1875. However, Accum’s work simultaneous inspired one of the most comprehensive food laws in his own home country of Germany. The Food Law of 1878, paired legislation with a vast network of testing facilities, and even a food police that cracked down on reducing “bloody milk” and “urine-dyed pasta” on the market.


Frederick Accum, image attrib. Sidney Edelstein Collection, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

The good news is that we have made progress on the “food adulteration” front, and for those of us who are still worried, there are a range of ways to curb our anxiety without ruining our appetite. Examples include calling for better legislation, reading labels, and committing to a food-selection matrix (better known as diets) to reduce risk. As agriculture, industry, and our consumption habits continue to evolve globally, we will hopefully not repeat the mistakes of the past by testing rigorously before we allow a substance to end up on our plate. Lawmakers and consumers now have the benefit of hindsight, and especially up-and-coming industries with rapidly evolving markets today have the chance to avoid making the same mistakes Britain, the US or Germany did centuries ago. Keeping a collective eye on industry and food laws will ensure there will never again be any “Death in the Pot.”

Interested in the history of food? For further reading, see:

Deborah Blum, The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. New York: Penguin, 2018.

Corinna Treitel, Eating Nature in Modern Germany. Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Bee Wilson, Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

About standrewshistory
With over forty fulltime members of staff researching and teaching on European, American and Asian history from the dawn of the Middle Ages to the present day, the School of History at the University of St Andrews has one of the finest faculty and diverse teaching programmes of any School of History in the English speaking world. The School boasts expertise in Mediaeval and Modern History, from Scotland to Byzantium and the Americas to South Asia. Thematic interests include religious history, urban history, transnationalism, historiography and nationalism. The School of History prides itself on small group teaching, allowing for in-depth study and supervision tailored to secure the best from each student. Cutting edge research combined with teaching excellence offer a dynamic and intellectually stimulating environment for the study of History.

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