Socialist Worker

Marx and Engels on food adulteration

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 1945

A grim history

Bad food produced by profit-hungry companies has been a hallmark of capitalism from the beginning.

In his book The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1844-5, Frederick Engels set out some of the most common ways food was ruined.

He quoted from the Manchester Guardian to demonstrate that it was common for butcher’s shops to sell tainted beef, pork and fowl — partly because of “the incomprehensibly small fines” to which they were subject when caught. Engels then went on to quote other common adulterations:

“Pounded rice and other cheap materials are mixed in sugar, and sold at full price. A chemical substance — the refuse of the soap manufactories — is also mixed with other substances and sold as sugar.

“Chicory is mixed in good coffee, cocoa is extensively adulterated with fine brown earth, wrought up with mutton fat, so as to amalgamate with portions of the real article.

“The leaves of tea are mingled with sloe leaves and other abominations. Used leaves are also redried, and recoloured on hot copper plates, and sold as tea. Pepper is adulterated with dust from husks. Nasty things of all sorts are mixed with the weed tobacco in all its manufactured forms.”

‘Perspiration mixed with abscesses’

In 1855 parliament set up a committee “on the adulteration of the articles of food”, and in 1860 it passed a largely ineffective law “for preventing the adulteration of articles of food and drink”.

Karl Marx, in the first volume of Capital, commented ironically on the discoveries of an 1863 royal commission into baking:

“Englishmen, with their good command of the Bible, knew well enough that man, unless by elective grace a capitalist, or a landlord, or the holder of a sinecure, is destined to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow.

“But they did not know that he had to eat daily in his bread a certain quantity of human perspiration mixed with the discharge of abscesses, cobwebs, dead cockroaches and putrid German yeast, not to mention alum, sand and other agreeable mineral ingredients.”

Marx noted the testimony to the 1855 parliamentary committee that, because of adulterations, “the poor men who lived on two pounds of bread a day did not take in one fourth of that amount of nutrition”.

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Sat 2 Apr 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1945
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