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Food fraud in the ancient and medieval times

Food fraud could be fatal

Food fraud has been known since people started dealing with food. It can be called a „food scandal“, if health risks for consumers emerge from intentional adulteration. A scandal always occurs, when people break conventions and when this becomes public.

Adulteration of the food quality

Since time immemorial it has been reported that people tried to manipulate the food quality either by adding substances that decrease the food’s value or by using ingredients that rise the food‘s appeal. Reports from the physician Galenos indicate that dealer in the ancient Greece added fats of inferior quality to olive oil. The Roman Apicius published instructions of how to transform cheap Spanish olive oil into expensive Italian olive oil by using herbs and roots. In the times of the establishment of the German Empire food fraud was common. For example, gypsum was added to bread, magenta to wine and flour to sausages.

Consequences for public health

Food is not safe anymore when its quality has been diminished to an extent, that consequences for public health can emerge.

A famous example in this context is wine. In medieval times poor harvests led to the problem that the demand exceeded the offers. Not only chalk, mercury, arsenic, sulphur, bacon, mustard, spices and herbs were added but also lead to cover the bitter taste. As a result in the 17th century the „colica Pictonum“ was common in broad parts of Europe. Painful colics and damages to the nervous system were visible symptoms of this illness.

High infant mortality rates because of adulterated milk

The adulteration of milk in the German Empire had a dramatic impact: It was common to dilute milk by 50 % and to restore the original consistency by adding sugar, flour, chalk, gypsum, rubber, barley, rice, calf’s brain or soap. Furthermore milk was sold that came from sick cows, that was spoiled, bloody or otherwise contaminated. As a result the mortality rate of infants during the first year of life was about 40 % at the end of the 19th century. Food fraud was a topic that determined public life. It was subject of media coverage, of caricatures and of satirical songs. Reference books were published to help the people to identify adulterated foods.

Risk management

Already in ancient times food fraud was punished. In the Roman Empire first laws were passed to protect the people from adulterated food.

In medieval times food quality was controlled on behalf of the guilds or the town councils. The controls were limited on a sensory testing. The addition of hazardous substances like lead in wine could only be proven when the negative impact was visible. Preventive health protection was not yet possible. The first procedure of a chemical analysis („Württembergische Weinprobe“) was developed and published in 1707, after hundreds of people were poisoned because of the addition of lead to wine.

In Germany the first food law was passed in 1879. It was the beginning of an official food control and already contained the two central principles of the food law in the 21st century: Protection of the consumers‘ health and protection of the consumers against misleading and deception.

Dr. Sabine Bonneck