Food Fraud History

Recent events such as the Brazilian beef bribes and in the UK – turkey being sold as halal lamb, demonstrate that the lessons from the horsemeat scandal in 2013 have not been learned. Food fraud is described as the deliberate misrepresentation of food for financial gain. In 2016, PwC estimated the value as $40 billion globally.

The practice of misleading the consumer goes back into history, with the Babylonians deeming that the death penalty be used for watering down beer. Probably, not because it diluted the alcohol, but because beer was safe to drink and diluting it with unsafe water, could make the consumer ill too.

Medieval history shows that the authorities in Nuremburg were concerned enough about the substitution of saffron (e.g. with marigold petals) to give inspectors the authority to invoke the penalty of death by being burned at the stake, if found guilty.

In Victorian times, there are reports of tea leaves and coffee grounds being reused after being boiled with sheeps’ dung and dyes and then dried. There was a treatise written by Frederick Accum, in 1820, which detailed the types of adulteration and substitution being conducted as well as how to detect them. He left the UK in 1821 after receiving a lawsuit.

Food fraud history humbugs

The infamous case of Humbug Billy in 1858 in Bradford shows how accidental substitution of an ingredient can lead to terrible consequences. In this case, “Humbug Billy” or William Hardacre (Hardaker) sold sweets in the market in Bradford. His manufacturer used a sugar substitute or “daft” (A mixture of substances such as powdered limestone and plaster of Paris, not tasty but safe), as the cost of sugar was so high. On this occasion, the “daft” was not sold to the manufacturer, but arsenic trioxide was supplied instead.  The manufacturer made the sweets and sold them to Humbug Billy. It is estimated that each sweet had enough arsenic to kill 2 people.

As a result of the mistake, 20 people died and 200 were made ill, including the manufacturer, James Appleton. All involved were charged with manslaughter, but none convicted as no crime had been committed. As a consequence, however, the 1860 Adulteration of Food and Drink Bill changed the manner by which ingredients could be used, mixed and combined.  The UK Pharmacy Act of 1868 introduced more stringent regulations regarding the handling and selling of named poisons and medicines by druggists and pharmacists.

The abolition of the sugar tax in 1874 meant sugar became affordable to all.

food fraud value

More recent examples are:

1981- Toxic Cooking Oil- Spain- 20 000 people affected, 400 deaths

1985- Europe- wine with diethylene glycol for sweetness and “body”

2003- Sudan Red- carcinogenic colour- Global

2008 Milk & melamine– China- 300 000 people affected,     54 000 babies hospitalised and 6 deaths- increased nitrogen (protein) content

2008 – Dioxins in Pork in France, Belgium & Ireland from dioxins in feed. Global recalls

2013 Horsemeat substitution led to recalls from UK & other European countries

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