“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.

Postgraduate Spotlight: Dawn Jackson Williams

IMG_7920aDawn Jackson Williams grew up in a small hamlet near a small village near a small town in the middle of rural Suffolk, which perhaps explains why the small town of St Andrews feels like a veritable metropolis to her. From an early age she was interested in history, particularly in moments of drama and tragedy, ghoulishly absorbing every book about the Titanic disaster and the disappearance of Mallory and Irvine on Mount Everest in 1924 that she could get her teenaged hands on, foreshadowing her current twin interests in the history of landscape and the history of emotion. She undertook her undergraduate degree in History at Oxford and completed the MPhil in Early Modern History at Cambridge, before coming to St Andrews to undertake her PhD under the supervision of Dr Bernhard Struck. She likes to joke that not only has she managed to collect the three most ancient universities in the British Isles, she has also done so in order of foundation. This was a complete accident, but she is very happy that it has resulted in her ending up at St Andrews.

Christ Healing the Blind Man, by Philippe de Champaigne, c.1655-1660; hardly an image of 'mountain gloom'.

Christ Healing the Blind Man, by Philippe de Champaigne, c.1655-1660; hardly an image of ‘mountain gloom’.

Dawn’s PhD research is focussed upon European reactions to mountains and mountain-climbing before 1750. When she first became interested in the topic she was struck by the tension between the current commonly-held belief that people in early modern Europe found mountains distasteful, and the number of sources from before 1750 – or even before 1650 – that attested to significant levels of mountain activity and, indeed, appreciation. However, the embedded perception of early modern ‘mountain gloom’ has meant that relatively little research has been done to recover the ways in which people actually thought about or interacted with mountains in the early modern era. Dawn is therefore interested in asking a number of questions in order to reconstruct a picture of the relationship between people and mountains before 1750, including: what did people know about mountains, what did they do in mountains, and did they perceive them as having any utilitarian and/or aesthetic value? She finds the topic fascinating because it requires her to interrogate and step outside of unspoken and often unconsciously-held ‘modern’ ways of thinking. For example, her MPhil research on a related topic suggested that although the early moderns often perceived ‘usefulness’ as a quality which imparted aesthetic value to an object, the modern perception that utility and beauty are distinct or even mutually exclusive had led many historians to disregard any positive comments about the utility of mountains as irrelevant to the question of whether or not they were visually appreciated.

Team-members of the 1924 Everest expedition.

Team-members of the 1924 Everest expedition.

Dawn’s other research has included an edition of the letters of Elizabeth Elstob (1683-1756), an early Anglo-Saxon scholar, and a study of the cultural preconceptions of Tibet as expressed in the sources relating to the early Everest expeditions (1921-1924), both of which she ultimately hopes to publish. She feels strongly that academic research should be disseminated beyond the real and metaphorical walls of the academy, a conviction which she recently used to excuse the immensely enjoyable process of writing a chapter on Chinese history for a forthcoming edited volume entitled A Game of Thrones and History. She will also shortly be giving a lecture on her research to the Alpine Club in London.

Beyond her research, Dawn is both the co-convener of the Early Modern and Modern History Postgraduate Forum, and the Communications Intern for the School of History, which means that most people in the School probably know her best as the person who gently nags them either for copy for the blog or paper proposals for the forum. Running the EMMH Forum – which is intended to provide postgraduates with a space for supportive academic discussion, as well as opportunities for socialising – has proved to be a particularly satisfying experience.

Outside of her academic and administrative duties, Dawn pursues a somewhat eccentric variety of hobbies. She is a member of the St Andrews Renaissance Singers, plays for the ‘Snidgets’ (the university Quidditch team), and attempts to write fiction, recently participating in the month-long challenge of NaNoWriMo. For slightly less active relaxation she watches sci-fi, and detective shows with her husband. As the topic of her thesis might suggest, she is also a keen hiker and – when time and funds allow – occasional mountaineer.

Dawn blogs about PhD life at The Historian’s Desk.

Spotlight on Heidi Mehrkens

Mehrkens_image (2)Heidi Mehrkens grew up near Bremen in northern Germany. As a trained journalist, she had already spent time working for newspapers and on the radio when fresh inspiration for the future struck and she decided to go to university. She studied modern and medieval history in combination with law at the Technical University Braunschweig and nurtured a special interest in art history whilst working as a freelance museum guide for the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum.

She then joined a DFG-sponsored research project focussing on France and Germany in times of war (18th-20th centuries), supervised by Professors Ute Daniel and Gerd Krumeich, and completed her PhD in 2005. Her doctoral thesis on the Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871 considered the implementation of the law of nations and French and German mutual perceptions of a strongly nationalised warfare; her first book Statuswechsel: Kriegserfahrung und nationale Wahrnehmung im Deutsch-Französischen Krieg 1870/71 was published in German in 2008.

Statuswechsel_cover (2)Generous post-doctoral scholarships granted by the German Historical Institutes in London and Paris offered her the opportunity to live and work abroad for almost two years whilst also expanding her academic teaching experience as assistant professor in Braunschweig. In 2012 she came to the School of History as a Research Fellow in Late Modern History, joining the AHRC-funded project Heirs to the Throne.

Heidi is currently writing a book on interactions between royal heirs and representatives of the constitutional state in Great Britain, France and Prussia between 1815 and 1914. While some royal heirs inherited seats and actively gave speeches in parliament, others were frustrated in their attempts to participate in the political process. Throughout the 19th century successors were denied active political participation; leaving them with the choice between concealing their ambitions and confronting the constitutional representatives or even the monarch as head of the dynasty. From the opposite end of the scale, politicians, political parties or cabinet ministers approached and dealt with the royal heir with very different agendas in mind. Their efforts to shape the future monarchy (as well as current politics) by actively influencing – or excluding – the successor to the throne can illuminate how spheres of influence between the royal and the constitutional elements of the state were constantly being re-negotiated.

Portrait of Louis-Philippe of Orleans with his two eldest sons, the Duke of Chartres (future Duke of Orleans) and the Duke of Nemours by Louis Hersent (1830).

Portrait of Louis-Philippe of Orleans with his two eldest sons, the Duke of Chartres (future Duke of Orleans) and the Duke of Nemours by Louis Hersent (1830).

Although her main focus is on research, she also runs the project’s website, where one can read about the “Heirs-Team” and their favourite topics, for example Heidi’s essay on the Prince, the President and the Cholera. She has recently co-edited a book, Sinngeschichten: Kulturgeschichtliche Beiträge für Ute Daniel (Böhlau, 2013), which assembles thirty-five essays on the history of the senses and sense in history. Another recent exciting project was a workshop at the German Historical Institute Paris about new approaches to German 19th-century political history, resulting in the edited volume L’espace du politique en Allemagne au XIXe siècle: Revue d’histoire du XIXe siècle, n° 46, 2013/1. Future book projects will most certainly include a comparative history of the experience of disempowerment in 19th-century Europe and a biographical study of King Louis-Philippe I Orleans, focusing on his (self-)perception as a teacher and father figure.

Heidi teaches transnational political and cultural history of 19th-century Europe with a special interest in alliterations (monarchy, military and media). This semester she is a lecturer and tutor for MO1008: Themes in Late Modern History.

On a mission to liberate the (academic) world from tense muscles and back pain, Heidi, who used to work as a fitness instructor in a gym, is a qualified yoga teacher and runs classes in Edinburgh and for School of History staff-members. She loves music and dance and enjoys watching football on TV (even though both of her favourite teams from Braunschweig and Bremen are currently straining her support to its limits…).