1920s >> 1927 >> no-271-march-1927

The people’s food

The evil effects of capitalism may be divided into two categories—those which at all times glaringly obtrude themselves before our notice and those whose more insidious nature is revealed only occasionally in Blue Books, or in reports of Commissions or of judicial proceedings. In the latter category can be placed the practice of adulterating food and other articles.

It may safely be assumed that, despite periodical exposures, the alarming prevalence of adulteration is not generally realised. The average person is familiar, of course, with certain scandals arising from the employment of girls to make pips for “raspberry” jam, or from the additional fragrance imparted to tobacco by the admixture of an equine product which is eminently suitable for accelerating the growth of vegetable marrows. The extent of the danger may be more accurately gauged, however, by the perusal of the recently published report on the administration of the Sale of Food and Drugs Act during 1925. This report furnishes indisputable evidence that adulteration, in spite of all “safeguards” and heavy penalties following conviction, has not diminished, and is widespread in all cases where it is both practicable and profitable.

Let us examine the report referred to. We are told that during 1925 30 fresh appointments of Public Analysts have been approved. This item would suggest that the authorities are sceptical of their ability to eradicate the evil. (The Public Analyst, like the coercive forces, has become, it would seem, a permanent, indispensable, and growing feature of capitalism.) Following upon this information, is a summary of the results achieved by the analysis of the 118,930 samples submitted. Out of this mere “drop in the ocean” of commodities, no less than 7,714 samples, or 6.5 per cent., were found to have been tampered with, as compared with 5.9 per cent. for the previous year. Now when we consider (1) that samples required for analysis must be purchased in the ordinary way; (2) that the purveyor of contaminated articles is fully aware of the consequences of detection (and would, therefore, take precautions to “get the wire” before a visit from an inspector), and (3) that only a fool would sell adulterated produce to a stranger except in error, we are justified in assuming that the percentage of adulteration over the whole range of commodities is at least as high as that revealed by the samples analysed. The percentage of adulteration in London and the 40 largest provincial towns was 5.5, and in the remainder of the country 7.7.

A few details from the report of the various substances examined may help better to indicate the extent of the practice.

In respect of milk, the number of samples found to be adulterated or below standard, was 5,163 out of 61,909 analysed or 8.3 per cent., the percentage for the previous year being 7.7—a gratifying increase ! Dirt, preservatives, formaldehyde, colouring matter (chiefly annatto), deficiency of fat to the extent of 30, 40, and 50 per cent., and in one case 85 per cent., and added water in quantities varying from 4.5 to 30 per cent., were discovered amongst the unwanted contributions to baby’s dietary. No wonder patent foods are sometimes preferred to milk as a means for rearing bonny (not bony) babies ! Some workers occasionally taste butter—or at least, imagine they do ! These favoured ones will doubtless be interested to know that samples of butter were found to contain water above the legal limit of 16 per cent., excessive preservative, and in some instances were almost wholly margarine. The huge army of margarine devourers may console themselves by these revelations, but they will find cold comfort in the fact that samples of “marge” were found to be improved by the addition of water in excess of 16 per cent., preservatives in abundance, mineral oil of the nature of paraffin, and butter fat above the legal maximum (10 per cent.).

After these disclosures some may evince a desire to “have jam on it.” If so, they should seek to develop a taste for such substances as glucose syrup, salicylic acid, apple pulp, or dyes, and in time we have no doubt a positive craving could be acquired for pieces of glass, glaze, enamel, or “silicious particles “—all of which delectable tit-bits were discovered in abundance in samples of that delicacy which, to the worker, typifies extravagance and opulence, namely, jam ! Up to now we have cherished the illusion that a capitalist environment is the cause of the “iron entering into” so many of the workers, but the report throws some light upon a possible alternative reason for this phenomenon— anchovy paste. The analysis of one sample of this fastidious dainty revealed the presence of 14 per cent. of ash consisting almost entirely of iron oxide ! Some anonymous wiseacre has coined the brilliant epigram, “There’s cheese and cheese.” Unfortunately the evidence advanced in support of this assertion has not been transmitted to us, but the report we are commenting upon enables us to accept this dictum, and further to classify cheese as (1) The wholesome and highly nutritious article of food we hear of in books on dietetics, and (2) The substance known to the workers as cheese. “Dutch Cheshire Cheese” made from skimmed milk, “Cream Cheshire Cheese” containing 32 per cent. instead of 70 per cent. of fat, “Bondon Cheese” (or wholemilk cheese), containing 73 per cent. of water and “practically devoid of fat,” are quoted in the report as typical instances of adulteration. Really, is it not time for the workers to say “cheese it !” Even samples of dripping were found to be contaminated—by water, colouring matter, and excess of free fatty acids (to disguise rancidity) ; and a miniature chemical laboratory was unearthed in samples of bun flour, which contained “a complex mixture of rice flour, mineral matter, sodium phosphate, sodium bicarbonate, and reverted calcium phosphate” ! Judging from the report, chocolate and sweets, too, are calculated to put one “on his metal,” for analysis showed the presence of foreign starch and fats, French chalk, sulphur dioxide, quartz, zinc, copper, and sawdust ! What a feast for an ostrich—or a goat ! We find also that the sweetening properties of sugar may apparently be augmented by the inclusion of coal-tar dye, sawdust, and ground rice ! I will conclude the illustrations from the report by citing two examples, each of which is proclaimed at various times to be the “national beverage.” I allude to tea and beer. A sample of the former seems really to have been a blacksmith’s outfit masquerading as tea, for it was discovered to contain iron filings, pieces of wire, and nails. Such an exhilarating tonic, such a veritable spa-water for the workers, should surely help greatly in the building of an iron constitution, and a physique pre-eminently wiry and as hard as nails ! The analysis of samples of beer revealed the presence of lead, boric acid,, and excess of salt. Observe how the emetic qualities of the salt are scientifically counteracted by the lead ! This unique mixture would no doubt lie very comfortably like an alp on the chest of the living ! But the boric acid is an improvement! Ah ! he was some poet who wrote “Beer ’twas that brought him to his bier.”

I have stated above the facts as derived from capitalist sources, and leave the reader to draw what inferences he chooses as to the utility, or desirability of a system which has failed to eradicate a practice so dangerous to human well being. Whilst refraining from exaggerating the magnitude of the evil, the writer would point out that it is one among many evils endured by the workers which react one upon the other. Thus cheek by jowl with adulteration we find underfeeding, overcrowding, physical degeneration, ill-health, premature decay, and a host of other ills attendant upon poverty. The abolition of the cause of the one evil will abolish, therefore, the entire body of these evils. What, then, is the cause of the prevalence of adulteration ? We see how capitalism has accentuated the dangers of the practice, and one Commission of Inquiry after another has failed to do more than to suggest the imposition of stringent penalties. This latter course does not grapple with the cause, and virtually attributes the practice to human imperfections or to the malevolence of individuals. But however malevolent a capitalist might be, he is possessed of sufficient intelligence to know that the pursuit of malevolence in adulterating his products bears hardly upon his pocket when he foots the bill for hospitals, disease, and the impaired efficiency of his own and other workers. A deeper cause must be sought for. The present “social” system is based upon the private ownership of the means of living. A necessary feature of such a system is the production for sale of articles made by workers, who are compelled by their propertyless condition to sell for wages their one valuable possession, their labour-power, to these owners of the means of living. As the workers produce far more than the value of their wages they are deprived of the wealth they produce in proportion to the quantity of goods that are produced for sale. The resultant competition between these exploiters of the workers (that is, the capitalists) for the markets in which to dispose of their commodities, impels certain of them to seek an advantage over their rivals by adulterating some of their produce with shoddy imitations, increasing bulk and weight by the addition of rubbish, “deodorising” or “preserving,” and other harmful shifts. Production for profit is, therefore, the root cause of adulteration.

It has been contended that even under a system of society where production is for use and not for profit, there will still be adulteration. For instance, will not “preservatives” be necessary at all times to prevent putrefaction or rancidity of “perishable” articles? Under a sane system production will be regulated by the ascertained needs of society—chaos will give place to scientific organisation of production, distribution, and apportionment. Society with its tremendous powers (many now latent) of production, transport, etc., could assure purity of food, and the necessity for adding poisonous ingredients to food will therefore not arise.

Regarding the plea that purchasers are often to blame for insisting upon having articles a certain colour, etc., that is not consistent to their nature, its speciousness is apparent when we consider the fact that purchasers are not informed of the deleterous nature of the substances that are used to obtain the desired colour, etc. When the whole people have the management of affairs in their own hands they will be rational enough and place purity before prettiness as a criterion of utility.

The Socialist remedy is the only one we prescribe.

Perchance in the course of centuries of capitalism (if such is conceivable) nature will adapt the digestive organs of workers to meet the perils that are inseparable from the rotten dietary compulsory to members of the working class. But Socialism is a more certain cure, and can be put into operation whenever the workers understand the necessity for it, and have organised themselves to take control of the political machinery, prior to effecting the change from capitalism to Socialism’.

W. J.

(Socialist Standard, March 1927)

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