Donald Trump has stated his intention to do away with food safety standards, and to strip the Food and Drug Administration of its power to regulate and inspect food facilities. Because of who I am, I thought immediately of Victorian era food adulteration, and the consequences of unregulated food. Let’s take a brief look at the history of food safety in England and the United States.
In medieval England there were food safety standards. Mid-13th century bakers laws required bakers to be licensed, and they could lose that license if their loaves did not meet exacting size, weight, color, and ingredient requirements. Bakers who tried peddling inferior loaves were driven through the street with their bread around their necks.
Somewhere between the 1200s and 1800s, life changed dramatically, in nearly every respect. By the mid 1840s, bread was no longer a staple of the British diet. Poor city dwellers lived in tenements without ovens and rural poor faced great food insecurity. Technology advances in transportation and food preservation changed things too, so that food manufacturers were strangers to consumers, rather than their neighbor. Historian A.S.Wohl wrote in Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain:
The list of poisonous additives reads like the stock list of some mad and malevolent chemist: strychnine, cocculus inculus (both are hallucinogens) and copperas in rum and beer; sulphate of copper in pickles, bottled fruit, wine, and preserves; lead chromate in mustard and snuff; sulphate of iron in tea and beer; ferric ferrocynanide, lime sulphate, and turmeric in chinese tea; copper carbonate, lead sulphate, bisulphate of mercury, and Venetian lead in sugar confectionery and chocolate; lead in wine and cider; all were extensively used and were accumulative in effect, resulting, over a long period, in chronic gastritis, and, indeed, often fatal food poisoning. Red lead gave Gloucester cheese its ‘healthy’ red hue, flour and arrowroot a rich thickness to cream, and tea leaves were ‘dried, dyed, and recycled again.’
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