The news stories about melamine-substitution and concentrated rice-protein in pet food and the number of pet deaths have come in thick and fast, as pet owners all over America are up in arms.  More recently, word of toothpaste manufactured in China that has diethylene glycol in it has been on the news. 

Diethylene glycol is the main ingredient in automobile anti-freeze.  It has been substituted in some factories for the more-expensive, non-poisonous glycerine.  I have even read a story that said the substitution is not so very dangerous, because after all, people do spit out toothpaste rather than consume it.  Leaving aside questions of trace amounts of d.g., it seems pretty obvious that whoever wrote this has never been responsible for child care.  I would not at all be surprised to hear that children eat toothpaste regularly.

Before Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, and popular sentiment drove Congress to write its first consumer-protection laws, many American cookbooks listed ways to assess foodstuffs that came through intermediaries rather than straight from the farm. Furthermore, you can read a cookbook as an indicator of scientific, technological, and commercial history–even the ones you buy today.  Early cookbooks covered far more than food–it also covered the making of flea spray and cures for pertussis; the distillation of cordial wines; and how to train kitchen help.  New cookbooks emphasize the wealth of choices we have in world cuisine, indicating the extent of our global intercultural relations, as well as the number of appliances we deem necessary for civilized life.

But it is urbanization, not globalization, that makes intermediary food handling necesary, and therefore permits the unsafe manipulation of food.  It is but a short step there, as urbanization and poor practice both grow, that the demand for food safety law first becomes a public issue.  The difference that 150 years makes in this process is only one of scope, since the issue becomes transnational, the number of intermediate steps increases, and the range of products we make ourselves diminishes further each day. 

In the U.S., it was common practice in the 1800’s, for instance, to use expect poor quality in food products.  This is from Sarah Josepha Hales’ (1841) The Good Housekeeper:

If you wish to economize in family expenses, bake your own bread.  . . . . The savings are greatest when flour is the cheapest. . . . . The rich will [also] find advantages in . . . having their bread baked at home.  They can be certain that their bread is made of good flour.  This is not always sure when eating baker’s bread.  Much damaged flour, sour, musty, or grown, is often used by the public bakers, especially in scarce or bad seasons. (pp. 30-31).

Flour was also extended by the use of plaster dust.  The burgeoning home economics movement, recounted so wonderfully by Laura Shapiro in Perfection Salad (1986) noted that food manufacturers treated each scandal as an exception to the rule.  (p. 196).  Advertising of the time recounts the purity and wholesomeness of manufactured products.   (The illustration at right says: “Perfectly pure, genuine, and free from adulteration.” ) And at the same time, women were entering the field of science by learning how to check for sulfuric acid in vinegar, ammonia in baking powder, peas and pickles colored with copper salts, cream of tartar extended with rice flour, alum in the bread, and chlorides in the sugar, right in their own kitchens.  (196-197).

In 1883, Dr. Harvey Wiley of the USDA’s Chemical Division had begun to lobby for better consumer protection laws, but it was not until Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking novel came to bookstores that U.S. voters universally demanded safe food.  Even after 1906, the law was poorly enforced and poorly written, which brings us to a time when the Consumer Union first began publishing consumer information.  After a rocky start in 1933, they published their first reports in 1936.  Most of Consumer Reports magazine appears to have left behind those that need them the most (the poor or lower middle class), but their advocacy of safe cars, the fight against resistant staphylococcus in hospitals, credit card fraud, and other important features of life keep them highly relevant to U.S. society.

Illustration purposes only!  May not be actual poison toothpasteAt any rate, for China, the international embarrassment has led to counterattack at the poor handling of the crisis around the world.  They have begun more rigorous inspections of imports and exports even as the rest of the world has also stepped up their oversight of China-manufactured foods and drugs.  American history, at least, shows that it takes a crisis for us to call for collective action on consumer safety.

NYT, May 21: China investigates contaminated toothpaste

Illustrations: RootsWeb; Mead School; town.lunenberg.ca; Germes online.  Please note that I attach no accusations of any sort to any brands illustrating this post.  They are included to please your eye alone.

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