1910s >> 1912 >> no-90-february-1912

The Ethics of Commercialism

In spite of the numerous laws that have been passed prohibiting the sale of adulterated foodstuffs, the number of prosecutions each year is enormous. And yet the total cases detected by the inspectors is insignificant compared with the actual amount of adulteration.

Avoiding detection seems to have been reduced to a fine art, especially in some branches of industry — the dairy trade, for example.

The official figures show that of the total number of samples of milk taken, over 12 per cent. have been found to be adulterated. But adulteration today is carried to such perfection that many of the samples taken cannot be proved to have been tampered with.

Take, for example, the case of the London dairyman who, when brought into court charged with selling adulterated milk, had finally to admit that he had systematically “doctored” his commodity for the last three and a half years. Yet dozens of samples had been taken from him by the Council and passed as genuine new milk.

Now milk, before it can be assumed to be adulterated, must contain less than 3 per cent. of fat, which is the amount prescribed in the milk regulations of the Board of Agriculture. This is, as is well known by the authorities, a very low percentage, and there are very few cows indeed that would give such a poor quality of milk. But unless the samples prove upon analysis to be below this “standard,” the authorities cannot prosecute.

So the cute and unscrupulous dairyman takes advantage with impunity of this margin between the standard allowed and the actual quality given by the cow, and reduces all his milk to the artificial line of demarcation.

Because of the difficulty of detection the method usually adopted is that of adding separated milk. The lactometer (an instrument for testing milk by its specific gravity) is placed in the churn of milk and the “sep” added until the lactometer indicates that the legal limit has been reached.

Hundreds of samples of such milk can he taken and analysed, and passed as new milk. It is only when the dairyman “overdoses” it that he is prosecuted, and even then, often enough, unless it is a very flagrant case, no action is taken.

After the dairyman has been fined several times his name gets very odorous in the district. and it frequently becomes necessary to find a new name for the firm. Many instances of this could be given, but one, which developed into a rather amusing case, will suffice.

A short time ago a North London firm was fined £100 for the above method of fraud, and the customers hearing of it, naturally began to transfer their custom to other dairymen. In an endeavour to avert this the name of the firm was changed, and shortly after the old firm was summoned for the old offence, but under the new name, and were fined only £5 because this was the first offence!

Another dairyman had a novel device for selling margarine as butter. As he was of the opinion that the inspector would not ask the carrier when on the round for a sample, he considered it safe to work off the margarine on the unsuspecting “round” customers. But the officer eventually got a clue, so another innovation was tried.

The “butter” was wrapped in ordinary unstamped paper, and then placed in a bag labelled “margarine.” If the inspector or a “suspected” person asked for half a pound of butter they were told that it was margarine, and shown the stamp. But when the regular customer was supplied the bag bearing the magic legend was removed, and they were handed the unstamped packet. And the very existence of the law and the inspectors helped to lull their suspicions and render the deception more complete and easy.

And so the game goes on. There is a continual struggle going on between the fraudulent trader, who seeks the aid of science in his nefarious business, and the inspector, who has to be a veritable Sherlock Holmes if he is to be successful in catching his prey. Every new method of detection, every fresh trap to catch the culprit, only results in the discovery of other means of defeating the law.

Some of our critics think that they have discovered in the laws relating to adulteration, a flaw in our contention that the capitalist class legislate in their own interests. They assert that the laws are diametrically opposed to the interests of the ruling class.

Such an idea is entirely erroneous We cannot look upon the wealthy class as one homogeneous whole in all matters of detail, although we can, in a broad sense, when considering the interest of the working class as opposed to that section of society.

The wealthy class function in society in s two fold capacity, i.e. as capitalists and as purchasers of commodities for personal consumption. It is in the latter capacity that the capitalist generally views the laws directed against adulteration and seeks to protect himself from the unscrupulous trader. But even as a capitalist and an employer be knows that these laws are an advantage to him; for if his wage slaves are getting inferior food he is getting an inferior quality of labour power. Therefore he is not getting full value for his money, for after all, the wages ha pays are only the equivalent of the food, clothing, and shelter supplied to the labourer, and necessary to enable him to reproduce his efficiency. Indirectly, the capitalist purchases the food, clothing, and shelter for the worker when he hands him his wages, so he himself is affected by any fluctuation in its quality or price.

This has been admitted, unwittingly no doubt, by the European and American statesmen, large companies, and even Governments who have raised the nominal or money wages of their employees because of the increase in the cost of living.

These laws, again, aim at protecting the capitalist from “unfair” competition Take again as an example the dairy trade. During last summer the exceedingly dry weather was responsible for a shortage in the supply of milk which resulted in a rapid increase in the wholesale price.

This affected the small men far more than the larger retail firms. The latter are usually cow-keepers. and are therefore not affected by the price, but only inconvenienced, perhaps, by a little shortage. But the small traders, who depend upon the wholesale firms for their supply, had to pay such a price that it left them no margin of profit. In many districts they could not even raise the price to their customers, for the larger firms, after consultation among themselves agreed not to do so — no doubt with a view to crushing out their small opponents.

This proved to be a great incentive to adulteration by the small men, as many of the local papers will testify. But still many of these petty traders were exterminated through inability to make the business pay. In some cases, after holding out to the last, they endeavoured to sell out to their larger competitors; but the latter were often too ‘cute to purchase, knowing full well that their rivals would have to retire from the field, and that they would then get their businesses for nothing. And they did so, eventually, while their one time competitors were reduced to the ranks of the unemployed.

No wonder John Bright once referred to adulteration as a legitimate form of competition.

Adulteration is the outcome of competition and the desire for profit, and it is therefore inherent in the capitalist system. And no matter what number or manner of laws are passed against it, it will continue as long as the system continues.

When food and clothing are produced for use and not for profit, adulteration will disappear along with the huge army of inspectors who at present try to exterminate the adulterator, and signally and ignominiously fail to do so.

H. A. Young