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Posted: June 2, 2011 6:21 p.m.

Morgan: Food issues span centuries

It's not as if I were planning a trip to Germany this summer, but being a vegetarian, I would give it a wide berth for now. Some 1,500 people who live there or who have visited there recently have been sickened by one of the world's largest ever outbreaks of a heretofore unknown E. coli infection that has killed 18, making it the deadliest outbreak in history. Suspicion is pointing toward imported lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers, leading Russia to ban all vegetable imports. When the advice is not to eat summer's salad bounty, I think I'll just stay home.

In recent years, we've had plenty of food scares and deaths, some from spinach, peanut butter or undercooked burgers, among others. The Chinese ratcheted up food fears with deadly baby formula and pet food laced with melamine, some of which was sold in America where it affected and killed domestic pets. Handling and cooking poultry and pork are considered hazardous activities: poultry packages even come with their own instructions attached. Eggs are often suspected in salmonella outbreaks. The website www.foodsafetynews.com will keep you more informed that you might want to be about daily food recalls around the country.

We could say food safety hazards result from today's mass food production and the global marketplace. Surely most of us don't and can't afford to buy and consume only foods homemade or grown by the farmer down the road. It takes mass production and global distribution To feed this world's billions, yet millions still go hungry or die from malnutrition. Food security - having enough to eat - and food safety are both issues to be dealt with in the times in which we live. Yet it has always been so.

Bill Bryson is the author of many curiously wonderful works of nonfiction. In his latest book, "At Home," he writes about facets of world history and evolution as seen through the perspective of the rooms in the Victorian parsonage where he resides in the English countryside.

Start with the chapter on the kitchen. Many accepted written accounts of the 17th and 18th century Bryson quotes allege that seriously questionable food additives were used to bulk out common foodstuffs in order to make them more profitable to the seller. Sugar might have been augmented with gypsum, sand, plaster of paris or dust. Chalk might have been added to milk. Red lead might have made Gloucester cheese more appealing. Tea might be supplemented with dust or sheep dung. Bone ash might have made it into bread, a particularly egregious charge because bread made up the largest part of the English diet. Bryson, however, comes down on the side of one Frederick A. Fillby who in 1934 debunked most of the claims of dangerous food alteration in his book "Food Adulteration."

Nevertheless, the lack of adequate and appropriate food storage, transportation and preservation practices did, indeed, call into question the safety of consumer foods. Spider webs, dust, human and animal hair and bugs were to be found in many bakery breads. Vermin plagued food producers and sellers. One chronicler of 18th century English life wrote of open milk pails being carried through the streets, inevitably subject to collecting "spittle, snot," dirt or mud spray, even objects tossed into the pails by young pranksters.

It was only in the late 18th century, Bryson writes, that a Frenchman came up with the art of canning, a not always foolproof method at the time, and not until the mid-19th century did ice come to be transportable, from as far away as America, and used for food storage, a development that many in England remained wary of. Americans were enthusiastic consumers of all things that could be iced. Ice made it possible for goods to be carried long distances by train, thereby opening up markets for locally grown wares in the far reaches of the country, even the world.

Despite the issues of food safety in the years Bryson recounts, gluttony ruled the day among the genteel in the 18th and 19th centuries. Foods harvested in the wild were plentiful, and the number of dishes served at each meal along with portion sizes were simply huge. Britain's Queen Anne had to be hoisted through trapdoors from her rooms in Windsor Castle to the staterooms below when she grew too obese to walk up and down stairs. The working poor knew little of this and existed on only a very little oatmeal, milk, bread or broth, Bryson details. It is interesting that still today the world suffers from either too much food, too little food for many or the safety of what is served.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.

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