Book Reviews

Book review: Swindled.

Bee Wilson, a British food writer has rendered invaluable service to all of us with this well-researched book. She explains in great detail how English grocers and food manufacturers were defrauding the public up to be beginning of the 19th century, until a transplanted German scientist began to expose them. She actually divides British food manufacturing into two distinct periods – before Accum (the German scientist) up to 1820 and after Accum. Still, after 1820 fraud continued, but to a much lesser extent. She also explores in depth American food manufacturing, and how some companies exploited and still do, the unsuspecting consumer by outright mislabelling foodstuffs.

Even today, food fraud continues with some staples namely rice – Basmati rice. Most people know, or at least have heard that Basmati rice is either from India or Pakistan. It tastes and smells much better than regular long-grain rice.

Yet a scientific research conducted by M. Woolfe Ph.D., then working at the British Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) established that out pf 363 Basmati rice samples gathered in the United Kingdom, only 54 per cent were pure. The rest were blended with much less expensive rice and passed on as the authentic product at more than double the price of regular rice.

But there is more. Bread has been tampered with since the very beginning of baking.

Most of the time the flour has been blended with that of inferior grade – often wheat flour with corn or rye or both. Even more frequently, the weight is less than stated on the package.

Bee Wilson also writes extensively about “free-range chicken” and farmed salmon pointing out how these “plants” actually raise these animals and at what cost to the environment and taste. Coffee is also a subject that is dealt with in great detail – if a reader follows the advice; the price of the book pays itself in a few weeks.

Today, more than ever before, food products are recalled in the U.S.A. and Canada. These recalls are the result of poor and/or greedy managers trying to maximize profits at the expense of public health. They get way with it until the public displays an outrage due to a death or media exposure. Government agencies cannot control “plants” as thoroughly as before. They are short staffed due cost cutting measures.

Whereas previously meat inspectors were on the killing floor in abattoirs inspecting carcasses, today they spend most of their time in offices filling out forms to report “plant” activity and statistics.

Much of what grocers, fishmongers, meat packers, and butchers get away with can be attributed to general public’s ignorance of food, and the gullible attitude towards attractively packaged or presented merchandise. She believes, rightly so, that should food-savvy consumers ask relevant questions, merchants wills top fraudulent practices to a large extent.

Surprisingly, there is no effort on the part of governments to increase food inspections, which proves once again the old Roman dictum CAVEAT EMPTOR.

Buy this book and read it not once, but twice, and refer to it from time to time!

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