Food Fraud: Frederick Accum, the great 19th Century food fraud detective

By 15. March 2013Blog, Health, Nutrition, Quality

London of the 18th and 19th centuries was a very different place from today. Most food fraud cases in the UK today involve bulking out a product with a cheaper one such as the horse meat scandal, or the great basmati rice scam.

Back then, copper was added to green vegetables when boiling or to pickles to “make them more green”, lead was added as a colouring to some sweets and cheese and beer was tainted with a toxin from Cocculus indicus to hide the fact the beer had less malt and hops and to give the drinker the “giddy” feeling usually accompanied by a strong beer.

Accum was a German chemist who came to London at the end of the 18th century. He quickly made a name for himself as a competent chemist and began a one man war against food alteration which led to him publishing a book “Treatise” which named and shamed food fraudsters and explained to the public how to check the authenticity of some of their food and drink by carrying out some simple chemical tests with products available from the chemist.

He had a rather unfortunate fall from grace and it took another few decades before other people continued his cause, but in his hey day he would stun the public with great shows of chemistry and be called upon when people believed their food was adulterated to try to prove it for them, like a Sherlock Holmes for food fraud. So why did he fall from grace? It appears that he did not have a great respect for books and saw them only as tools for the advancement of his own work. He was caught ripping pages out of books in a library and when his home was raided many more pages from other books were found there. He fled back to Germany before his trail and never returned to England.  Had he lived in the day of the photocopiers or even smart phones with their good quality cameras who knows what more he could have accomplished.

The source for this article is the book “Swindled: From poison sweets to counterfeit coffee – the dark history of the food cheats” by Bee Wilson.