Is Frederick Accum’s legacy being squandered?

| August 19, 2014 | 1 Comment

AccumIn 1820 a little book was published in Britain and the USA that shocked its readers and arguably began the process that led to modern food law in Europe and North America. A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons was penned by a German-born chemist called Frederick Accum, who lived and worked in London. Accum’s book was the first to alert consumers to what was really in the food they ate and how unscrupulous traders were routinely swindling them. His observations were taken seriously because they were based on scientific analysis. Accum believed that the science of chemistry was the best way to detect and combat food adulteration. But it took 40 years until the 1860 Food Adulteration Act started a legal crackdown on the practice and a further 15 before the 1875 Sale of Food and Drugs Act established adulteration offences and set up the network of analysts and inspectors needed to enforce the new law.

Food adulteration has a very long history, and last year’s horsemeat in beef scandal was just the latest event of many. Fortunately, it did not pose a serious threat to public health, but it served as a reminder that there are still people out there willing to make a fast buck by adulterating food and swindling consumers. The horrified public reaction to the scandal prompted the setting up of a number of official inquiries to look at how it could have happened. Sadly, it seems that, in the UK at least, we are not to be allowed to read the results just yet. The British Government set up an inquiry last year headed by Professor Chris Elliot of Queen’s University Belfast. By all accounts, Professor Elliot did a very thorough job and talked to an awful lot of people in the meat industry. An interim report released last December identified adulteration and other food crime as a serious threat and recommended the establishment of a special police unit to tackle it. The final report was to be published this summer, but will not now appear until some unspecified date in the autumn, ostensibly to allow new ministers time to study it properly following a cabinet reshuffle. Some commentators believe that the real reason is that the report contains some conclusions about the effect of public spending cuts on the enforcement of food legislation that could be very embarrassing for the current government. Indeed, I have heard it suggested that the report will never appear in full.

I cannot pretend to understand the possible political reasons for delaying publication of Professor Elliot’s report, but I do know that suppression of what it contains will have a serious effect on consumer confidence in the food industry. If spending cuts have reduced our ability to police the food supply chain then the public should know about it. Then they can decide whether they approve and take it into account next time they are called upon to vote. There has certainly been a reduction in funding for inspections in food premises since 2010 and there are now fewer inspectors to carry them out. Much of the network of Public Analysts laboratories has also been closed down to save money. It has even been suggested that food samples could be sent to laboratories elsewhere in Europe for analysis. This in a country of 63 million people that remains undeniably prosperous yet is apparently unable to afford the infrastructure needed to protect its citizens from adulterated food. I don’t think Frederick Accum would be terribly impressed. Professor Elliot’s report should be published in full at the first opportunity.

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