Food scandals go back a long way

Image from the cover of the book "Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee" by Bee Wilson

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: Over the weekend, details emerged from an interview that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao did with Science Magazine last month. He said his government shared responsibility for the tainted milk incident in China that killed four infants and sickened thousands.

Melamine, a chemical in plastic, was being used in various dairy products. Unfortunately, the adulteration of food isn't new. Author Bee Wilson writes about the history of what she calls "food fraud" in her new book, "Swindled."

Welcome to the program.

Bee Wilson: Thank you.

Vigeland: When you read about something like the milk scandal in China, you kind of can't help but ask yourself why would anyone intentionally put harmful stuff in food, especially food that's being given to kids.

Wilson: This is the sort of thing, which you see happening a lot where there are very low economic margins. Obviously, you've also got to have a society, as with modern-day China, where you've got the opportunities for swindling, and, unfortunately, they haven't yet got the kind of regulatory system in place that prevents it from happening. And the really scandalous thing, as well, about the current dairy scandal in China is that it's following hot on the heels of a previous scandal, which I wrote about in my book, from 2004, where there was a whole industry making fake infant formula from pretty much nothing but sugar and starch. And this wasn't just a few bad apples, you know, just a few rogue individuals who happened to be evil doing it. It was being made in 141 different factories in China.

Vigeland: Well we're talking here about situations in 2008 and 2004, but as you point out food fraud has really been going on really throughout the ages. What's one of the more egregious examples from the last 100 years or so?

Wilson: One that really recalls the current China scandal is the swill-milk scandal that was happening in New York and San Francisco and Chicago and plenty of other American cities in the 1850s, 1860s. People were keeping cows in stables attached to distilleries and, instead of feeding them something wholesome like grass, they were feeding the leftover hot alcoholic mash made for making liquor. So effectively, we're talking about here alcoholic cows who are producing alcoholic milk, which is again being marketed for children.

Vigeland: Well, when did officials kind of finally start paying attention to what was going in food that was being manufactured?

Wilson: It took a long time. It takes a whole culture shift for these things to change. And it took a lot more scandals. I mean, one of the most famous examples, which a lot of people will have read in high school, is Upton Sinclair's book "The Jungle," which really led to the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906, which was the first proper federal law addressing the problem for all of the states.

Vigeland: Well, I have to ask you: how do you go out to dinner, how do you go to the grocery store and trust that what you're getting there is safe?

Wilson: I think there's kind of two issues. There's the big cultural political issues. There's a point where this is not something that individuals can protect themselves against. So, we need better government regulation. And as for what you can do as an individual in the grocery story, well, I think so much of it is really common sense, I think. If we can re-acquaint ourselves with the ingredients that go into good food, then you'll know when you're being served a fake. The best protection really against swindling is knowing the real thing.

Vigeland: Bee Wilson, is the author of "Swindled, The Dark History of Food Fraud From Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee. Thanks so much for joining us and for killing my appetite.

Wilson: Thank you. I'm sorry about that.

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