Most of the additives were cost saving measures, although as the above list shows, food appearance was a related issue. The primary consequence to consumers was malnutrition. At the start of the first world war, the militaristic empire was shocked to learn that one in four British men was malnourished and needed feeding up before they could be deployed. Empty calories were now a matter of national defense. But in some cases, unregulated food was downright toxic.
In 1858 in the poor neighborhood of Bradford, England over 200 people became seriously ill and 20 died, from eating adulterated peppermint candies. A chemist’s assistant had mistakenly sold the confectioner arsenic in place of plaster powder, which was commonly used as a sweet filler and sugar substitute. Manslaughter charges were introduced but then dropped as magistrates discovered no laws prohibiting food adulteration existed.
Two years later the physician, chemist, microscopist, and reformer Dr.Arthur Hill Hassall published a scientific paper on contaminants in London’s water supply, A microscopical examination of the water supplied to the inhabitants of London and the suburban districts. This paper was instrumental to the water reform movement. Hassall had also been studying food adulteration and his paper in The Lancet on that issue quickly led to the 1860 Food Adulteration Act.
The United States was a bit slower to regulate food safety. The first concerns over processed, additive heavy, fraudulently labeled foods were introduced not by consumers but by higher quality competitors who didn’t want the cheap foods market to undercut them. Unscrupulous manufacturers used chemical additives to disguise spoiled milk and rotten meat and produce, driving their materials costs below what ethical manufacturers could compete with.
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