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The Role of the Public Analyst
By Glenn Taylor
The Royal Society of ChemistryCopyright © 2010 Glenn Taylor
All rights reserved.
Adulteration and the Challenge for Enforcement Scientists
In the UK we have beaten food adulteration. There is an army of enforcement officers: Trading Standards, Environmental Health and Public Analysts who, amongst other things, fight the fight against food adulteration. In 2007, in an attempt to improve efficiency amongst these local authority staff, the government commissioned a review of the 60 policy areas worked on by enforcement officers including food hygiene and adulteration (composition), led by Peter Rogers, chief executive of Westminster City Council. It concluded that adulteration of food (measured by checking its composition) was not in the top five 'priority areas' in terms of risk and effective use of the resource provided by enforcement officers. Consequently, some local authorities now argue that food composition is no longer a priority, leading to it receiving scant attention. Food adulteration has been beaten, or at least you would be forgiven for thinking so.
The problem is that adulteration is difficult to define and means different things to different people. Adulteration was defined by Dr Henry Letheby, 1816–76, as 'the act of debasing a pure or genuine commodity for pecuniary profit, by adding to it an inferior or spurious article, or by taking from it one or more of its constituents'. To some, (Caroline Walker, the distinguished nutritionalist, writer and campaigner and others), this includes additives such as emulsifiers, synthetic flavourings and colours, which are added to make a food more desirable. Dr Henry Letheby's definition would seem, at least at first glance, to support her opinion. However, additives such as antioxidants (added to foods that contain fats to stop them going rancid), colours, emulsifiers, stabilisers, gelling agents and thickeners, flavourings, preservatives and sweeteners are permitted in foods and controlled by food law; in the eyes of the law, they are not adulterants. If they were classed as adulterants then synthetic foods, such as an instant strawberry dessert that has never been near a strawberry (or any other fruit) or in fact anything containing additives, i.e. ready meals, sweets, snacks and numerous other products would be considered adulterated, leaving the public with much less choice and eating only the most 'natural' ingredients (those grown or raised).
The Public Analyst's role is to help the courts decide what is adulterated and what is not; and, yes, the meaning of those words does change as research provides more evidence. For example, Azo-dyes (in some food colours) once permitted are now considered harmful and have more recently been banned. Also Sudan dyes; colourants used in oil solvents and polishes, which were the subject of an emergency order in the EU in July 2003, were found in chilli powder imported from India in 2005 and subsequently added to many foods including pizzas, sauces and ready meals. Sudan dyes are now considered carcinogenic (an agent that promotes cancer), at least if present in sufficient quantities. Another example is the 'Southampton Six': six colours linked by research at Southampton University with increasing ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) behavioural problems in children. The colourings (Sunset yellow (E110), Quinoline yellow (E104), Carmoisine (E122), Allura red (E129), Tartrazine (E102) and Ponceau 4R (E124)) are now being avoided voluntarily by industry in products aimed at children and there are calls to ban them by law.
On the subject of Public Analysts and enforcement officers, Professor Tim Lang at City University says: 'It is an enormous job and there are several constraints on their work. Unsurprisingly, one problem is money. Their budgets are squeezed all the time. That's been a long-running concern for me. The real issue isn't about controls, though. It's about the need for more independent food scientists. In the mid-19th century, modern food chemistry began by acting on the people's behalf. What we've got now is chemistry that, by and large, works for the food industry. People in mainstream public health say the problem is not adulterated food, it is heart disease, cancer and diabetes, and they are absolutely right. But the point people like me have been making for years is that the modern legalised adulteration and legalised contamination of food is what enables foods full of hidden fats and sugars to be sold looking like real food. That is the flipside of the coin'. Professor Lang supports the argument presented by the Food Standards Agency that there is a role for enforcement officers to provide scientific evidence for consumers so that they can make informed choices about the food and the additives that they eat. Given the 'obesity epidemic' and the associated risks to health from food, particularly processed foods, it is hard not to conclude that food standards should be a high priority for enforcement. Obesity alone costs the NHS about £5 billion per year rising to £10 billion by 2050. Obesity is responsible for 9000 premature deaths each year in England reduces life expectancy on average by nine years. Perhaps Peter Rogers et al. should think again? Food composition should be a high priority for enforcement. Maybe then some of the local authorities who argue that they should spend their efforts elsewhere would renew their vigour in this area and seek to provide the solid scientific evidence for their residents and tax payers.
So, what is adulteration? When I was at university, one of the inorganic chemistry lecturers was often heard stating: 'everything is toxic; it's just a question of the amount needed to kill'. So, should we adopt a 'precautionary approach' and ban all additives until proven absolutely safe? Maybe Caroline Walker, Tim Lang and others have a point, but, for now, we have to go with the current legislation and keep up the research.
Do we have food adulteration and fraud under control in the EU? Recent food scares such as the 'Surrey Curry Scandal' where chicken tikka masala investigated by Surrey Trading Standards Officers was found to contain up to four times the limit for permitted colours; the despicable addition of melamine to Chinese baby milk to produce a product sufficiently high in apparent protein to pass off as milk, but which had no nutritional value and led to renal failure and malnutrition in infants; the Sudan red dye in spices; and counterfeit vodka, would certainly suggest not – the fight continues.
Is adulteration new? In 250 BC King Hiero commissioned a gold crown. He gave the goldsmith the gold and when he received the new crown he was concerned that it had been adulterated. He thought that the goldsmith had kept some of the gold for himself and replaced some of the gold with silver. King Hiero asked Archimedes to investigate the matter but without damaging the crown. At the time no techniques existed for an analysis of this kind without causing damage. A perplexed Archimedes had to develop his own test. Whilst taking a bath, Archimedes had the 'Eureka moment' when he discovered that his body displaced a consistent volume of water in the bath. He realised that he could use this to measure the density of the gold crown and discover if adulteration had indeed taken place. He was, it is said, so excited by the discovery that he ran down the street naked shouting 'Eureka' (I have found it!). He checked the density of the crown and compared it to genuine gold and silver. It is alleged that this demonstrated that adulteration had indeed taken place. This story was recorded by Vitruvius some 200 years later and has been doubted by some scholars who argued that Archimedes would have had to make precise measurements of the crown's volume, which had an irregular shape; something that would have been incredibly difficult at the time. However, the total volume of water displaced is equivalent to the volume of the crown and therefore accurate measurements of density and volume could have been made.
There are several references to adulteration of wine and bread which trace the practice back as far as the Greeks and Romans. Pliny (AD70) recorded 'the wheat of Cyprus is swarthy and produces dark bread, for which reason it is generally mixed with white wheat of Alexandria'. He noted, with disapproval, that some bakers kneaded their bread with seawater, so that they could save on the cost of salt and detailed how white earth 'Leucogee' (alum, associated more latterly with dementia) was added to bread to bulk its weight.
In 1202, King John declared an 'Assize of Bread', in an attempt to control the profitability of bakers and fix the price of bread to the price of wheat. By linking the price of bread to the price of wheat King John hoped to stave off famine and the associated uprisings that normally followed. Sadly an attempt at controlling profitability did no such thing. It merely encouraged profiteering by other means, namely adulteration. The bread was sold by weight and thus the fraudulent bakers simply increased the weight of the produce by using sawdust or metal amongst other things. Consequently the Assize had to be regularly updated to include regulations concerning the adulteration; as methods of adulteration changed, so did the Assize. In 1582 the Assize, which had effectively become the English Sale of Food Act, included details of punishments for first, second, third and fourth offences. This resulted in a fine, loss of stock, pillory or prison and, finally, banishment from town.
In 1311, Alan de Lyndseye, a baker, was brought before the Alderman and Mayor and 'sentenced to the pillory for making bread that was of bad dough within and good dough on the outside'. He didn't seem to learn. A short while later he was back before the Alderman and Mayor and again sentenced to the pillory for 'selling bread that was made of false, putrid and rotten materials through which those who brought the bread were deceived and might be killed'.
Beer was also a key part of the diet and therefore a target for profitable adulteration. The quality of drinking water could not be relied upon and therefore beer consumption was encouraged. It also provided additional nutritional value when diet might not have been completely 'balanced'. At the end of the 17th century a child was allowed to drink two pints per day. Benjamin Franklin, who lived in London during the period 1757–1774, recorded the daily beer consumption in a London printing house which he visited. The employees each had a pint before breakfast, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, a pint at six o'clock and a pint when they finished work.
In the 1700s, people recognised food was adulterated. Tobias Smollett, a physician, author and satirist wrote in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker in 1771:
'The bread I eat in London is a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum and bone ashes, insipid to the taste and destructive to the constitution. The good people are not ignorant of this adulteration; but they prefer it to wholesome bread, because it is whiter than the meal of corn [wheat]. Thus they sacrifice their taste and their health to a most absurd gratification of a misjudged eye; and the miller or the baker is obliged to poison them and their families, in order to live by his profession.'
The Victorians were sticklers for standards and rules, although clearly not all Victorians followed them. During the 18th and 19th centuries food adulteration was rife (Figure 1.1). Strychnine was used to make beer taste bitter, alum (now possibly linked to dementia) and chalk were used to increase the brightness of flour, and weight was increased using sawdust or parsnip powder. Red lead was added to sweets to make them brighter and more colourful.
Two London based scientists, Accum and Hassall, led the charge to stop this fraud.
In 1820, Frederick Accum raised the alarm on food adulteration. His analytical work led him to publish a book: 'A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons', the first edition of which sold out within a month, demonstrating public awareness and concern. This book is still available today.
Between January 1851 and December 1854, Hassall analysed around 2500 samples in his London laboratory and proved that adulteration was the rule, not the exception. He recorded the names and addresses of the vendors and published these details along with the results of his analysis. Hassall used microscopy and rudimentary chemical tests to identify food-fraud. Microscopy was introduced as a means of identifying coffee adulteration. Coffee had become very popular by 1850 and was relatively expensive thus making it a target for fraudsters. Coffee was 'cut' with chicory in the same way that a drug dealer might 'cut' or dilute illegal drugs today. Whilst chicory is not harmful to health the practice of 'cutting' made vast sums of money for the fraudsters.
The Adulteration of Food and Drink Act 1860 was introduced in an attempt to reduce the levels of adulteration. It made provision for the appointment of Public Analysts; qualified scientists dedicated to the protection of the public. Not all local authorities appointed Public Analysts. Some decided that the money should be spent elsewhere. The 1860 Act was revised in 1872 to incorporate Hassall's proposals including the naming and shaming of those found guilty of adulteration (now it was legal to provide this information) and for a second offence, punishment by six months' hard labour. Local authorities were required to appoint Public Analysts and the full-scale fight against food-fraud began. At this time, Hassall was seen as one of the leading lights in food adulteration and its detection.
In 1874, the Society of Public Analysts was founded. Hassall was instrumental in its formation and was involved in examining the working of the 1872 Act. Hassall again gave evidence and the report of his committee provided the basis for the following Acts: Sale of Food and Drugs Act of 1875 (amended 1879); the Margarine Act of 1887; and the Food Adulteration Act of 1899. These Acts produced considerable improvements in food standards. Hassall's investigations eventually resulted in dramatic improvements in the control of adulteration, the appointment of Public Analysts in all the counties and boroughs of Britain and the formation of the Society of Public Analysts to represent their interests and maintain their professional status. Thus the first model of enforcement was established in 1874 with 77 Public Analysts, each with his own laboratory, working together through a society to provide uniform methods of analysis and common interpretation of analytical results.
The laws for the prevention of adulteration of food, drink and drugs in 1872 did not strictly define adulteration but declared that the admixture of anything whatever with an article of food, drink, or drug, for the purposes of fraudulently increasing its weight or bulk, is an adulteration within the previous provision of the Act. The adulteration of intoxicating liquors was covered in the Licensing Act 1872, which provided a schedule of deleterious ingredients which were considered to be adulterations. Adulterants of interest to enforcement are manifestly of a fraudulent nature and whilst some may arise accidentally or naturally in foods and other commodities the tracing of the source is of key interest in pursuing a charge of adulteration.
In 1898 the then Institute of Chemistry qualified Public Analysts who had to pass an examination in the chemistry, microbiology and microscopy of food, water and agricultural fertilisers and feeding stuffs. This examination eventually became the Branch E of the Fellowship Examination, and then the Mastership of Chemical Analysis of the Royal Society of Chemistry. It is incorporated in the Food Safety (Sampling and Qualifications) Regulations 1990 as the qualification certifying the competence of Public Analysts.
By the mid 1950s, there were 40 laboratories employing over 100 officially appointed Public Analysts. The next two decades saw the introduction of more complex techniques in laboratories, including atomic absorption spectrophotometry for metals analysis and gas–liquid chromatography. Public Analysts became able to identify the additives found in the new 'synthetic foods' encountered in the 1960s and 70s; lemonade made from flavourings and not lemons, being one example of a synthetic food.
Initially, the range of work undertaken by the Public Analyst included food, drugs and water samples. This increased by the 1970s to include: agricultural analysis (animal feeding stuffs, herbicides and pesticides, etc.), toxicology, environmental science, health and safety testing and consumer safety (toy safety testing, for example).
The 1980s was a significant decade for Public Analysts and the food industry. This decade saw the introduction of:
growing numbers of ready meals containing more additives, making food analysis increasingly complex
changes in lifestyle including microwave cooking leading to significant changes in diets, promoting a 'fast-food culture'
readily available scientific techniques including high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC), Fourier transform infrared spectrometry (FTIR), immunoassays and enzymatic analysis
externally assessed laboratory quality systems and accreditation (by NAMAS, now UKAS) designed to ensure the quality and consistency of analysis and the interpretation of results
externally assessed proficiency trials, designed to test the ability of the laboratory and its scientists to analyse unknown samples accurately and precisely; and
Local Government Act 1988 which introduced compulsory competitive tendering to local authorities.
Most of the initiatives introduced in the 1980s and implemented in the 1990s had a significant upward impact on the costs of Public Analysts, who embraced the new rules despite this. The costs of the improved technology and quality systems (the latter estimated to add 10–20% to laboratory costs) were very significant. Whilst compulsory competitive tendering did not apply directly to Trading Standards or Public Analysts, the 1990s saw the introduction of tendering for services, pitting one analyst against another and driving laboratory fees (but not costs) down. This resulted in some Public Analysts losing or having to share their long-held appointments with others, leading to reductions in income. This started the search for competitive advantage and reduced the likelihood of working together for the benefit of enforcement.
Excerpted from Forensic Enforcement by Glenn Taylor. Copyright © 2010 Glenn Taylor. Excerpted by permission of The Royal Society of Chemistry.
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