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‘Sell by’ is not a fresh idea
PERCY REBOUL and JOHN HEATHFIELD give a variety of products from the Victorian era a squeeze to see if they have gone off yet.
As we or the supermarkets throw away that pack of food on the grounds it is past its 'sell by' date, we can perhaps reflect that our Victorian ancestors, in spite of readily available fresh produce grown on local farms and market gardens, were in far more danger of illness caused by bad food and drink.
So serious was the problem, that in 1857 a Food and Drugs Act was passed which empowered local authorities to employ public analysts. There were few at first: in 1860 only seven in the whole of London, but there was a rapid expansion in the early 1870s.
One of the most distinguished of these was a Whetstone resident, Professor John Attfield, Secretary of the Pharmaceutical Society. He found wine from Bordeaux adulterated with sulphur and lead, and reported that 'the list of poisonous additives reads like a stock list of some mad and malevolent chemist'.
In 1862 the Privy Council was told 'one-fifth of all butchers' meat comes from diseased animals'.
The famous reporter Henry Mahew also found that much meat sold from open market stalls was putrid. Even bread was sometimes polluted with chemicals. In 1890, William Dell, a fishmonger of Finchley, was fined for selling 'stinking fish'.
In 1873, Samuel Bull, from Whetstone, was ordered by the Finchley public health inspector to close a well that was 'putrid and disgusting'. This was another example of the serious pollution of local streams and wells with raw sewage.
Today, there are major local and national controls over the quality of what we eat and drink but, as long as we remain more interested in contemplating what goes into our bodies than we are in what comes out of them, the sell by date syndrome will presumably continue to be part of our lifestyle.