This extract from the ‘final report of the select committee of the House of Commons appointed to inquire into the adulteration of food, drinks, and drugs’ was printed by The Morning Post, a conservative daily newspaper, on 19 August 1856, a year after the committee was formed. The report was the first parliament-sanctioned investigation into the widespread practice of food adulteration (which was technically legal at the time), and it mobilised efforts to ban the practice.
Most significantly, the committee stated that it could not ‘avoid the conclusion that adulteration widely prevails’ (first column). The committee, chaired by Birmingham MP William Scholefield, reached this conclusion after it had ‘examined a great number of witnesses, comprising men of high scientific advancements, as well as those [with] practical knowledge as dealers’ from all over the country (first column). It identified commonly adulterated products including staples such as bread, coffee and lard, and listed the hazardous ingredients used to adulterate them, such as plaster of Paris, red lead and sulphuric acid.
Looking to other countries such as France who had already introduced serious penalties, the committee argues that the British government must similarly outlaw the practice. Government’s official position was that it must not interfere with trade to uphold freedom of commerce; it was the customer’s personal responsibility to select safe foodstuffs. As the Committee states here, however, ‘there are many adulterations which it is impossible for the buyer to detect’. Food adulteration had become a public health issue, and for this reason the government felt it must act.
Discovery of wider problems
Although it was not within the committee’s remit, its investigation raised concerns over ‘patent medicines’ – medicines which do not work as promoted – and the unrestricted sale of ‘the most violent poisons’, which could be sold and obtained by anyone.