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The First Consumer Activist

Back in the early 1800s, Frederick Accum was the first scientist to skewer the rogues who were defrauding the public with adulterated foods.

So you are worried about aspartame or a little Red #3 in your food? You know what you would have to worry about back in the early years of the 19th century? A little strychnine in the beer.  A touch of mercuric sulfide in the candy.  A sprinkling of red lead in the cayenne pepper!   

Frederick Accum didn’t like this type of food adulteration one bit.  Children were being poisoned by colorants in candies, their mothers were being duped into buying bread whitened with aluminum sulfate, and their fathers were drinking beer rendered bitter with strychnine instead of hops.  It was time to blow the whistle!  And Accum was the man to do it.  After all, he was an accomplished chemist who had opened up the first commercial chemistry laboratory in London, and had made quite a name for himself offering courses to the public on what he called “practical chemistry.”   

In the back room of Accum’s shop students learned that a black precipitate formed when a solution was treated with hydrogen sulfide confirmed the presence of lead and that copper as a contaminant could be detected by the tell tale blue color that resulted from the addition of ammonium hydroxide.  Accum even catered to people who preferred to experiment with chemicals at home.  He produced “Chests for Chemical Amusements,” the forerunners of modern chemistry sets.  I suspect there may have been the odd client who was less than amused, since safety was not one of Accum’s strong points.  When talking about the glow-in-the-dark property of the yellow phosphorus included in the Chest, he explained that “if rubbed on the face, taking care to shut the yes, the appearance is most hideously frightful.”  Indeed.  Possibly permanently frightful.  Yellow phosphorus is flammable and highly toxic. 

Accum’s clients included some wealthy socialites who were concerned about what they were eating, and the chemist confirmed many of the fears.  Pickles were found to be “greened” with copper compounds, candies colored with red lead oxide, and the taste of vinegar sharpened with sulfuric acid.  Something had to be done, Accum decided.  So in 1820 he published his classic book, “A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons,” charmingly subtitled “Death in the Pot.”  It was the first expose ever written of the repulsive practices employed by some food producers, and the first systematic attempt to raise the public’s consciousness about the safety of the food supply.   

The chemist didn’t pull any punches.  Not only did Accum describe the abhorrent practices, he named the culprits!  Woe to the merchant who colored his confectionary with copper arsenite, “extended” his powdered tea with a mix of ferric ferrocyanide, copper acetate and sheep’s dung, or enticed children with jams dyed with salts of lead.  Bakers who added plaster of Paris to flour to increase the weight of their loaves also felt Accum’s wrath, but it was the beer fraud artists who were particularly singled out for skewering.  Adding ferrous sulfate, alum and salt to give beer a good “cauliflower head” was common at the time.  As was the use of an extract of Southeast Asian fishberries to impart a bitter flavor.  After all, it was cheaper than using hops.  Of course the fact that it might kill an imbiber was of no concern.  Fishberries derived their name from their use by Southeast Asian natives to stun fish.  Picrotoxin, a compound similar to curare, paralyzes the nervous system, making it easy to pick fish out of the water.  

These practices were of course illegal, but as Accum pointed out, the law was not hard to skirt.  He described how the prohibited ingredients were stored off site, only to appear in the oversize pockets of the special coats worn by beer makers on brewing days.  While Accum attacked food adulterers mercilessly, he was also scornful of the authorities who allowed the public’s welfare to be compromised in this fashion.  “The man who robs a fellow subject of a few shillings on the highway is sentenced to death, but he who distributes a slow poison to the whole community escapes unpunished,” he declared.  As one might expect, Accum made many enemies in the food business who sought revenge.  And one day, when a librarian at the famed Royal Institute, where Accum had once been Sir Humphrey Davy’s assistant, apparently saw him tear pages out of a book instead of taking notes, the enemies got their chance.  The matter was brought to the attention of the police, Accum was charged with robbery and released on bail.  Disgraced, he fled England to his native Germany and the food criminals went back to adding chalk to milk and substituting burnt carrots, scorched black peas and chicory powder for coffee.


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