Food Fraud in History

Counterfeit goods are almost as old as the concept of genuine goods. After all, no man is an island and whenever we have to rely on another person (or organization) for the things we want and need, there’s always been a chance the other person might try to swindle us into buying something of inferior quality. Today we’ll be talking about some (but certainly not all!) historical incidents of food fraud, and how officials took action against it.

1st Century AD – Roman Lead Sweeteners

Believe it or not, the ancient Romans had artificial sweeteners. While sugar cane was unknown in Europe before the 15th century, there were still ways of making things sweet, typically by using honey or fruit extracts. One popular way of sweetening wine was with a liquid called sapa, which was made by reducing grapes in a lead vessel. I think you can see where this is going. The use of this lead-based sweetener was incredibly widespread, and today many historians claim that Rome fell in part due to high quantities of lead in their food, poisoning them and affecting the development of people all over the Empire.

14th Century AD – English Weighted Bread

Food is incredibly dependent on the whims of Nature, and in turn, food prices can fluctuate wildly from year to year. To prevent mass starvation due to overpriced food, the English passed laws in the 13th century which regulated the price of bread by the portion of wheat used in making it. However, “enterprising” bakers would often find ways of circumventing these laws.

One of the more interesting tricks they used was baking copper pennies into their loaves to weigh them down when inspectors came around. They also kept proper loaves on display while selling lighter loaves from a back room. The law was constantly amended to outlaw these practices as they developed, as well as further regulating selling practices, which protected not only the people getting conned by crooked bakers, but also honest bakers whose bread would lose weight when it became stale.

16th – 19th Century AD – French Sawdust Bread

Few things are seen as more French than the baguette. However, dark bread was popular at a certain point in history, and while we might consider it to be fancy whole grain today, having a brown loaf with lots of stuff in it was common back in those days. Buckwheat, rye, and hulled wheat were common ingredients for French bread from the 1500’s to the 1800’s, but unfortunately, so were dirt, sawdust, hay, and anything else that was free and looked like it belonged in a loaf. These were used as fillers, reducing the amount of actual flour and saving bakers money. Governments across Europe stepped in and regulated the trade of wheat, ensuring everyone could afford this daily necessity.

19th Century AD – English Dust Pepper

England has a long and proud history of guild-based commerce. Around 1180 AD, the Guild of Peppers was founded to ensure the quality of spices entering the kingdom, and it became the Worshipful Company of Grocers in the 14th century. They garbled, or sifted, spices to ensure that shipments weren’t being adulterated with gravel, twigs, and other assorted garbage. This works well when you’re dealing with spices that are uniform in size, but becomes impossible when other things are made to be the same size as what you’re sifting, such as peppercorns made of linseed oil and dust, or ground pepper made of dust swept up from the pepper processor’s floor. The government imposed fines of £100 onto anyone found to be counterfeiting pepper. This might not sound like much, but would be worth almost £10,000 today! Ultimately, the guild lost much of its respect thanks to repeated pepper scandals.

Of course, there have been many other schemes in the past, and almost as many solutions. Roman bakers had government-issued brands for their bread, and hefty fines for counterfeiters are a common go-to throughout history. We here at IDLogiq are working on new ways of combating fake goods using brand new blockchain technologies to help us track and trace items at every step of their manufacturing and distribution.