The addition of foreign substances to food for profit is as old as capitalism. In medieval times the production of food was subject to quality control by the guilds who regulated their members’ trade practices. Food inspectors spent a good deal of time making sure wine, ale, flour and oil were of an acceptable standard and quality. The fourteenth century German “pure beer” laws are an example of this.
The development of industrial capitalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century led to increasing numbers of people crowding into towns and cities. The adulteration of their food and drink was accepted as a matter of course and practiced with impunity. Like other wealth creating activities food production took on its modern mass-production character — that of a commodity to be produced for sale on the market with a view to making a profit.
Controls were swept away to such an extent that by the 1850s a Member of the Royal College of Physicians, called upon to give evidence before a Parliamentary Committee, could report that he had found adulteration of food “very prevalent”. It occurred, he said
“. . . in nearly all articles which it will pay to adulterate, whether of food, drink, or drugs. There are but few exceptions to this rule . . . The adulterations practised are very numerous . . . The majority consists in the addition of substances of greatly inferior nature, for the sake of weight or bulk. Other adulterations consist in the addition of various colouring matters; these are employed either to conceal other adulterations, or to heighten, and, as it is considered, to improve the appearance of articles. Lastly, a few adulterations are practised for the purpose of imparting smell, pungency, or taste to certain articles …”
(Quoted in Royston Pike, Human Documents of the Victorian Golden Age, 1974, page 295.)
That this steady stream of adulterants had a debilitating effect on the health of the working class can hardly be doubted. It must have been in part responsible for the fact that during the first world war 41 percent of workers conscripted to defend their masters interests had to be rejected as unfit. Seventy years later government reports still point to the inadequate nutritional levels of the poorest members of the working class, except that adulterants have been up-graded — they are now called additives and have pretentions to respectability.
Researchers from the DHSS found in 1986 that children were eating more crisps, chips and potato products than any other single food. Biscuits and cakes were the second most popular item, being eaten more by weight than vegetables. Little fresh fruit was eaten. Commenting on the report Andrew Veitch, medical correspondent of The Guardian, noted:
“Children of families on Family Income Supplement and Supplementary Benefit had the lowest nutrient intake and were significantly shorter than others. (4 April 1986, emphasis added.)
The “state of the nation’s health” is still a subject of concern. The employing class clearly does not want a clapped-out working class suffering ill health because of their diet. On the other hand, there is a great deal of money to be made peddling food given an added value and therefore a bigger margin of potential profitability.
Increasingly too consumers — workers who stump up at the cash register — are asking the question, What is it that we are really eating? Complacency is being replaced by concern. Worried families pressurised by advertising and lack of time and money into buying the cheaper processed foods are questioning the need for additives, as the campaign to remove artificial colouring matter demonstrates. With limited money to spend it does not need a degree in economics to work out that a shopping basket of products less likely to contain processed, additive-rich food, will cost more than one including a preponderance of beef-burgers, pot-noodle and fruit squash. The outlay for a family of four eating a “healthy” as opposed to a typical diet was compared recently by Isobel Cole-Hamilton, a dietician working for the London Food Commission, and Anita MacDonald from the University Hospital Leeds. Not surprisingly the healthy diet costs a great deal more — £48.04 as compared to £37.09 (more than 25 per cent.) MacDonald also pointed out that:
” . . . it would be impossible for a child to obtain the minimum nutritional requirements laid down by the DHSS from the amount of money available for food from supplementary benefit — the allowance simply isn’t large enough.” (The Guardian, 18 October 1986.)
Food and drink manufacturers have an annual turnover of £6bn and account for 10 per cent of all manufactured output. They spend an estimated £231 in a year on food additives. Seventy per cent of what is spent on food buys processed products. There are no exact figures for the amount of additives consumed per head but Erik Millstone of Sussex University estimates it to be between 3 and 7 kilogrammes annually. It could be considerably higher in some cases — 10 or 15 kg per head a year because not all people consume the same quantity of processed food. As The Guardian survey quoted above showed, food purchases of those with less money to spend will almost invariably be made up of processed food because it is cheaper.
Why are additives used in such vast and increasing quantities? As far as food manufacturers and processors are concerned they fulfil a number of important technical needs. They improve the look of food products, they modify their texture to increase acceptability, they inhibit mould and bacteria and extend “shelf life” (which means the product can be kept in circulation from machine to mouth longer before it decays and loses its value). Flavours lost in the manufacturing process can be regained or reinforced. These needs are real in a system where increasing amounts of food are industrially processed before consumption. For example, Erik Millstone estimates that 45 major food distribution centres handle some 80 per cent of all the food marketed in Britain, “Hence the ability of preservatives to give food a long shelf life is of enormous economic value to the food industry . . .” (New Scientist, 18 October 1984).
The Consumer Association have looked into the use and need for additives in food, and as far as flavours are concerned state that:
“In a highly competitive industry, keeping down costs while maintaining sales is essential for survival. Even though manufacturers might acknowledge that the most wholesome products would include natural ingredients . . . substitution of flavours for ingredients is one of the easiest ways for them to reduce costs . . . Undoubtedly when raw material costs increase, manufacturers may feel under pressure to lower the quality of some products in order to maintain their position in the market.” (Understanding Additives, Which? Books-Consumers Association/Hodder and Stoughton, £6.95.)
In the case of preservatives they admit that:
“Hygiene in factories is not always as high as modem standards would demand. Bacterial spores are commonly found in food processing plants, and preservatives may need to be added to food to prevent contamination during processing . . . The financial benefit of extending the shelf-life of products is likely to be greater than the cost of adding individual preservatives.”
Scientific research coupled with public pressure have led in recent years to the abandoning of some artificial colouring matter in food. This was almost always added to make the product look attractive. But according to the CA:
“Manufacturers would not have replaced synthetic colours with more expensive natural ones unless they were able to recoup or absorb the additional cost. Companies which felt that there was a commercial risk in excluding colours have, on the whole, retained them . . .”
As far as additives as a whole are concerned an anonymous representative of the food manufacturing industry is quoted as saying that “We do produce some products with fewer artificial additives. This is purely for marketing purposes” (emphasis added). This puts into true perspective what the CA identifies as the consumer’s overriding need ” . . . to be able to obtain a nutritious and balanced diet, at prices they can afford . . . ” (emphasis added). To which it is reasonable to retort — “It may be cheap, but is it safe?”.
Another response to criticism has been the provision of more “information” on food packaging. However this sop to public opinion still fails to give relative quantities, excludes flavourings, and often does not specify additives used in production prior to the final processing. For example muesli, that prime example of health conscious eating, may contain fruit treated with mineral oil or preserved with sulphur dioxide, the presence of which is not indicated on the label!
Of the use of sulphur dioxide, the most widely used antimicrobial preservative, Erik Millstone and John Abraham say:
“… it is of enormous technological, industrial and commercial value, but we know that it is harmful to at least a few people, and that it may be harmful to many people.” (Additives: a Guide for Everyone, Erik Millstone and John Abraham, Penguin Books, £3.95.)
Other entries in this “dictionary” of chemicals used in food manufacturing make grim reading. In their assessment of the supposed safety of over 200 additives the phrase “presumed safe” occurs with frightening regularity. The possible long term effect of the continuous intake of small doses and the consequences of taking combinations of chemicals (the so-called “cocktail” effect) will be costly and time consuming to ascertain. The Food Additives Council (a body which regulates the use of additives) has no funds of its own and has to rely mainly on research carried out by the food industry itself £ a bit like a gamekeeper trusting the poachers.
The results of research are secret or difficult to verily. Experiments on animals do not produce results which can be readily transferred to humans primarily because the methods are imprecise. Millstone and Adams, summing up this state of affairs, say:
“. . . the entire regulatory system rests on an undisclosed base . . . Secrecy is defended by industry and government on the grounds that disclosure might adversely affect the commercial interests of companies.”
Indignant as one may feel at being poisoned for profit — at being forced by economic circumstances to consume inferior food — it must be realised that this is simply part and parcel of the production for sale and profit system. In a society of production for use the incentive to adulterate food would disappear.