One way or another, I found my way to this fascinating and colorful sample chapter of Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee by Bee Wilson.

One chapter tells the story of Frederick Accum (1769–1838), who published 'A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons'. His work provided a great service to the public by applying scientific method to prove that inumerable foods of the time were suffering adulteration. Describing just how pervasive food adultery has become in this era, Accum says: "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." Bee observes that because food had started passing through so many hands before reaching the final consumer, it became easy to adulterate the food and escape detection, although Accum does at least point out that "so inextricably are we all immersed in this mighty labyrinth of fraud that even the vendors of poison themselves are forced, by a sort of retributive justice, to swallow it in their turn. Thus the apothecary, who sells the poisonous ingredients to the brewer, chuckles over his roguery and swallows his own drugs in his daily copious exhibitions of brown stout. The brewer, in his turn, is poisoned by the baker, the wine-merchant and the grocer."

There is much here that chimes with the current crisis. My favorite passage of the chapter concerns the adultery of peppercorns:

Some forms of adulteration were crude—such as "P.D." or pepper dust, a "vile refuse" swept from the floor of the pepper warehouses that often got mixed in with ground black pepper. An even worse version was known as "D.P.D.," short for "dust of pepper dust," the very grimiest, nastiest floor sweepings of all. There was little art in this deception. On the other hand, some truly intricate labor went into many of the more outrageous forms of adulteration. Real black peppercorns—which many consumers doubtless bought in preference to ground, thinking, wrongly, that there was no way to adulterate the whole spice—were sometimes padded out with "factitious peppercorns," which seem to have been the work of an artisan to make. First, blackish "oil cakes" were taken (the residue left over after pressing linseed oil) and mixed together with common clay and some cayenne pepper (to give the "corns" some bite so that consumers might really be fooled by them). Then this paste was pressed through a sieve and rolled in a cask until it formed little pellets. Making these tiny balls of fake "pepper" must have been highly laborious, and swindlers couldn't get away with adding very many to the real peppercorns before suspicion was aroused—around 16 percent was standard—yet evidently it was still worth the swindlers' while to do it. Labour was cheap and spice was expensive (the duty on a single pound of pepper was 2s. 6d., a tax that was reduced in 1823), and there was no shortage of workers to carry out this peculiar trade.

It looks like there is much to be learned from this book, and the reviews I've come across are glowing.





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