When Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” hit bookstores eight years ago, I was almost as impressed by the timing as the topic. Smoke from incinerating cattle and sheep with foot-and-mouth disease was wafting over Europe, mad cow was raising fear beyond the business pages where it’s now relegated and the diabetes link to too many Happy Meals was flashing on the news almost nightly. Schlosser hit the trifecta.
Bee Wilson’s “Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee” also benefits, if that’s the right word, from its arrival in the middle of a disaster. Milk contaminated with melamine from China has killed four babies there and sickened tens of thousands more while the chemical additive has been detected in everything from British chocolate candy to eggs in Hong Kong.
But the most recent fraud covered in “Swindled,” in 2004, is very similar to the one playing out today -- babies in China dying in droves thanks to unethical dealers who sold fake milk. And that makes it clear the book will be just as relevant in 2018, even 2118. One thing the author makes painfully plain is that as long as buyers need to eat and sellers want to profit, cheaters can always win.
“Swindled” is being marketed as a history book, but it reads like the morning newspaper, at least the virtual global one I cobble together in trawling the internet every day. New study advocating supplements that do more harm than good? Check. Deceptive wording on new product labels? Check. Price-fixing of commodities? Check. It’s a chronicle of disasters foretold. Pick a scandal, any scandal, and there will be a corollary.
Melamine, which is a cheap but lethal protein, is most in the news now. But in the 1700s English bakers were adulterating their bread with toxic alum, an additive that made inferior flour look highly refined. In the Spanish-American war, soldiers were ordered to eat “embalmed beef,” meat so foul it probably made Spam seem tempting, after a shady producer provided it. In the current 100-year war, KBR has been caught repeatedly foisting contaminated meat and other foods (and dirty water) onto the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Connections at the top never go out of style (Teddy Roosevelt then, Dick Cheney today).
Some of the most devastating episodes in the book are playing out again today as if all the laws and outrage of the last century were gone with the blown pork brains that are now sickening meatpacking workers. Upton Sinclair’s 1906 exposé “The Jungle,” with its disgusting meat and mistreated workers, is tragedy revisited without farce: Hundreds of overworked, even abused immigrants were recently rounded up at the Agriprocessors kosher plant in Iowa, and downer cows were videotaped by PETA at a slaughterhouse in California just this year. At least as far as anyone knows, no workers wound up rendered into lard, as they were in Chicago a century ago.
Similarly, Wilson tells a stomach-churning tale of milk from cows kept by breweries in New York in the 1850s to recycle the swill left from making beer into a foul but lucrative liquid to be sold to the poor. The animals reel from the reeking waste at first but come to treat it as food because it is all they have, and of course consumers suffer in the long run. Contrast that to industrial chickens and pigs today, raised in horrific confinement and producing eggs, breasts and chops that are barely fit to eat. While animal rights activists have gotten an initiative on one ballot this election, agribusiness is fighting it under the Orwellian name Californians for Safe Food.
In short, anyone paying attention knows food scams will be with us forever. Right now Hellmann’s is sneakily packaging mayonnaise in a “quart” jar that actually contains 30 ounces, while Campbell’s huge advertising campaign is attacking Progresso for using MSG when its own soups contain just the same additive. Just days after one study found some brands of children’s cereal are 50 percent sugar, another revealed that some manufacturers are compensating for using less sugar by adding more salt; Kellogg’s Frosties have as much as potato chips.
Serious scams today are potentially more devastating because there are no borders. A grocer in Victorian London selling fake peppercorns or pickles made green with copper could only do so much damage locally. Today chile powder dyed with dangerous Sudan 1 can go all over the world, in products with ingredients listed in ant-size type that can cover the entire back of the label.
Nor are we any safer for our limitless access to infinite knowledge. The more we “know,” the more confused we get. How else would Hungrygirl.com be cleaning up promoting food that is totally processed? And who can trust a Food & Drug Administration in an administration that sold yellowcake to the world when it tries to reassure Americans that melamine is safe to eat?
The motto that was once “caveat emptor” (suspiciously cheap food 200 years ago was rarely safe food) is echoed in the government’s consistent advice today to consumers to cook meat and spinach and eggs to eliminate bacteria or contaminants. Cleaning up the food supply is apparently not an option. But as Bee Wilson makes clear repeatedly, the best defense is an educated palate -- if you know what the real deal tastes like, you won’t get fooled again.
And that is what makes “Swindled” not your average doomsday tale. Wilson, A British food writer whose last book was “The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us,” repeatedly spells out the root of all the evil. The short indictment of food fraud through the ages is a combination of free markets running wild (laissez faire attitudes combined with self-policing equal disaster); the distance between producer and consumer, which makes it easier to muck with food down the line, “incoherent” food laws, and “politics that is by turns apathetic and corrupt.” During the worst food scandals, just like the one unfolding in China, the truth remains what it was in the past: “Honesty would be suicidal.”
All that sounds exactly like what led to the meltdown on Wall Street. But at least no one died from that.