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Looking for Standards of Food Quality

Throughout the 19th century most European countries developed regulations and established local and national institutions to analyse food quality and fight fraud. Experimental procedures in specialised laboratories for analytic chemistry, bacteriology and serology paved the way for stricter control of food quality and for the detection of any sort of adulteration.[1] The increasing process of food industrialisation gave way to new risks and also led to the search for new solutions. Food quality was the kernel of health and politics.[2]

The establishment of standard values in the composition of each specific foodstuff was one of the main strategies followed by countries to make it easier to control food quality and detect fraud. In most European countries the progressive introduction of a growing amount of standard values for specific foodstuffs increasingly subjected to industrial production resulted from the large-scale issue of food regulations at the turn of the 20th century. Detecting fraud and adulterations when applied to milk, wine, oil, chocolate and other daily products was relatively simple with the new analytical methods. However, the definition of quality standards and the necessity of reaching international homologation in the world food market could be more controversial, giving way to heated debates in some European countries.

In the United Kingdom, the Society of Public Analysts campaigned for decades in favour of the establishment of official standard values in the composition of foodstuffs. The issue was also included in some meetings of the FAO committees. Specialised journals such as The Analyst and The British Food Journal called for an agreement on quality standards. Nevertheless, the social groups influencing the public opinion in favour of the establishment of quality standards were not successful in their campaign, and opposite attitudes that represented the interests of the different groups involved clashed. By the 1930s the issue remained unresolved in Great Britain.[3]

Basically, the need to reach agreements about the composition of certain foodstuffs was linked to the growing industrialisation and internationalisation of the food market. That is why the issue surpassed the national context, reaching the international sphere. In fact, the interwar period was characterised by intense debate, agreements and negotiations about biological standards, to a great extent promoted by the international agencies, especially the League of Nations. Standardisation was the starting point of any industrial development in key fields such as physiology, serology, bacteriology and the pharmaceutical industry. Obviously, it was also a sine qua non condition for the international development of food industries involving quality standards.

The establishment of food quality standards was already an old demand in the international conferences of hygiene and demography held in the second half of the 19th century. As a result of this interest, an international commission for the repression of food fraud was created as a permanent conference site under the pressure of some participants calling for the establishment and publication of a code containing the normal composition of foodstuffs in each country. This was likely to be the first step in establishing a global Codex Alimentarius some decades later by the FAO. It was approved by international consensus, the only starting point for a practical solution to guarantee the regulation of the increasing industrialisation and internationalisation of the food trade.

Standardisation was also a challenge as far as the methods of food quality analysis were concerned. In the international context, the standardisation of analytic methods was proposed and discussed at international conferences. At the international meeting on applied chemistry held in Berlin in 1903, a resolution was passed on the need to reach an international agreement on the methods of analysis to be used to determine the quality of each foodstuff. In Spain this standardising initiative was pushed for through special governmental requests such as the one addressed to the Union Farmaceutica Nacional [National Pharmaceutical Union] on July 21, 1933.33 This professional association of pharmacists was commissioned to prepare a list of suitable methods for the analysis of foodstuffs. It was to be the first initiative sent to the Comision General de Sanidad [General Health Board], to be approved and distributed among laboratories, health officers and professionals with responsibilities on food quality control.34 These initiatives in favour of standardisation - especially those dealing with the composition of foodstuffs - and the request for a more detailed labelling of food merchandise was called for to improve meaningfully the capacity of public administrations to control food quality and prevent adulteration and fraud.

However, these contributions did not always result in effective food quality regulations. Indeed, in some cases these strategies became a way of allowing certain practices that were previously forbidden. The more analytical information established quantitative limits for substances that were not accepted before, considering them simple adulterations.

Another consequence of standardisation was labelling as a means of information to the consumer and a guarantee of publicity about the content and therefore quality control. However, it paved the way for the [4] [5]

transformation of the composition of foodstuffs. As long as the consumer was informed, the composition could vary within certain limits to a greater extent than before. Labelling opened up a new side to the discussion. Sometimes the capacity of consumers to understand the meaning of the label was put into question by the experts, and some authors even queried the procedure itself, considering the fact that being labelled implicitly meant that foodstuffs had passed quality controls, leading to a non-critical acceptance by the consumer. At the turn of the century attitudes to food regulations varied widely between those defending strict rules and those in favour of more permissive ones.[6]

On the other hand, there was not a uniform trend, and contradictions appeared in the regulations themselves. In the case of the composition of liquors, wines, vinegars and artificial sweeteners, some especially restrictive rules were passed in the late 19th century. But the rules approved during the first decades of the 20th century to regulate the quality of those products were more and more lenient. This example shows that the trend was towards more restrictive regulations to guarantee the quality of certain foodstuffs at the turn of the century and more permissive as time went by. However, the tendency was not the same for every foodstuff and important differences could be found depending upon specific negotiations between the several actors involved. The regulation of each individual product was finally established at a national level only, usually following complex agreements between public health officers, politicians, industrialists and consumer associations. Obviously, depending on the relative strength of the groups involved, the final regulation could be different, which was indeed the case if we look at the European context. Although in the early decades of the 20th century standardising and labelling were at the heart of the legal control of food quality, the process was not exempt of difficulties.

  • [1] Guillem-Llobat, El control de la qualitat, 2007; Elvbakken, K.T., L^greid, P.,Rykkja, L.H., ‚ÄúRegulation for Safe Food; a Comparison of Five EuropeanCountries‚ÄĚ, Scandinavian Political Studies, Vol. 31, No.2, 2008, pp. 125-148; Smith,D.F., Phillips, J. (eds.), Food, Science, Policy and Regulation in the TwentiethCentury. International and Comparative Perspectives, London, Routledge, 2000.
  • [2] Guillem-Llobat, 2008e, pp. 215-246.
  • [3] Smith, Phillips, 2000.
  • [4] Guillem-Llobat, 2008e, p. 230.
  • [5] Ibidem.
  • [6] Frohlich, X.Z., Accounting for Taste: Regulating Food Labeling in the AffluentSociety, 1945-1995, Cambridge, Ma., Massachussets Institute of Technology, 2011.
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