If reading about the adulteration of milk and milk products in China has got your blood boiling (and just in time for Halloween!), you’ll be doubly mad when you read Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, From Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee, by Bee Wilson.
The author of this timely book comes to the Princeton Public Library on October 15, as part of the Thinking Allowed series. In her book, Wilson uncovers the many ways swindlers have cheapened, falsified and even poisoned our food throughout history. In the case of the Chinese scandal, the recent furor is over melamine-laced food, but in the years preceding this development, Wilson writes, expensive formula made with outright fake milk, consisting primarily of sugar and starch, caused malnourishment and the death of many infants. The poor (literally) parents had scrimped on other necessities to afford the special formula, only to watch helplessly as their babies weakened and died.
But this kind of thing has been a problem world wide, usually in fast developing nations with few regulations governing food production in place. In America, we learned the hard way too, and still are. Wilson describes the swill milk scandals of 19th century New York when dairy cows were fed swill from nearby distilleries resulting in near poisonous milk (“fortified” with chalk or starch). Read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle about the Beef Trust, or consider the recent outbreaks of salmonella and e.coli, a symptom of overconfident industrial scale food production and distribution systems.
Fortunately, Wilson has a sense of humor, so while you may groan, you’ll also get to chuckle over the sheer folly of some of these schemes and snake oil antics. How can you avoid being the victim of such culinary subterfuge? Unsurprisingly, Wilson advises readers to buy local and know your producer when possible, and the fewer processed foods you consume, the better. Hear, hear!