A brief history of food fraud

The connection between food and fraud goes back as far as history itself. The types of fraudulent acts have changed over the centuries: in 19th-century markets, for example, vegetables were coloured with copper, and milk was diluted with dirty water and flour, while today’s food sellers are using more modern methods to maximise their profits. What hasn’t changed, however, is the fact that anything goes: the only limits are technical feasibility and political acceptability.

Peppermint sweets were to blame. In 1858 twenty people died and more than two hundred became seriously ill in a poor district of Bradford, a town in England. The assistant of a local druggist accidently sold the sweet-maker arsenic instead of a substance made from plaster of Paris that was commonly used at the time as a cheap substitute for sugar. When the manslaughter charges were later dropped because there was no law against this type of offence, the local newspaper noted: “The actual crime is that there is no law prohibiting the practice of adulterating foods.”

Unchecked adulteration

In the 19th century, England was seeing more adulterated foods than ever before in its history. A period of rapid social change had made it possible: as a result of industrialisation and urbanisation, the distances between producers and consumers were larger, and the market, more anonymous. In addition the government was, for the most part, leaving the food market to its own devices. It wasn’t until the tragic event in Bradford that food laws were enacted based on the following principles: do not poison food, and do not deceive.

More than 150 years later, the experience of being bamboozled as a food consumer is universal. Wherever food is highly commercialised, food sellers succumb to the temptation of playing tricks in order to increase profits. Today, producers are still adulterating foods – albeit no longer with copper, plaster of Paris or powdered horse liver. Modern-day manufacturers use bread improvers, flavours, colourants, fillers and preservatives – this is how they make “more from less”, and now, unlike in the past, it is completely legal.

Rigid penalties

There have been times when it was strictly prohibited to adulterate foods. In mid-13th-century England, there was a guideline prescribing a certain size and weight for each type of bread, as well as what ingredients it should have and how much it should cost. Bakers who failed to comply with these rules were driven through the streets with their bogus bread tied around their necks. Repeat offenders lost their licence. The rigid penal procedures were a reflection of the value that was attached to bread as an important staple food.

What would the medieval bakery inspectors have to say, for example, about the toast-bread rolls produced today by the German company Harry-Brot? This product contains not only flour, water, salt, yeast, maize semolina and glucose, but also a whole raft of E-numbers: acidifying agents, stabilisers, emulsifiers and raising agents. It is often said that food has never been as safe and of such high quality as it is today. However, several substances, like sweeteners, azo dyes and industrially hydrogenated fats, were initially considered harmless, but today we know that just the opposite is true.

Modern-day marvels of technology

Other marvels of modern food technology – though not necessarily suspected as potential health hazards – simply represent cheap substitutes for natural ingredients: flavourings. A mere 0.2 billionth of a gram of flavouring agent is needed to make one litre of liquid taste like fresh grapefruit juice. Consumers, however, would usually rather buy products with natural ingredients. Therefore, producers prefer to disguise products containing flavours, printing brightly coloured fruits on the packaging and giving their products enticing names. Take Pfanner, for example: the Austrian beverage manufacturer has christened one of its tea-mix drinks “Yellow Cape Gooseberry Lemon” and decorates the carton with two large cape gooseberries. The fact that undefined flavouring agents are responsible for the “taste experience” is written in small print – as required by law – in the ingredients list. Today that journalist from the Bradford local newspaper might have reached a similar conclusion: “The actual crime is that there are laws allowing the practice of adulterating foods.”


Last update April 10, 2010