The centuries-old fight over margarine and adulterated foods

Pink margarine, pink sludge, pink slime, copper dipped pickles, arsenic and other FDA approved food nightmares.


WASHINGTON, Sept. 13, 2015 – If your nose wrinkles at the thought of Red Dye #5, you might be surprised at just how much your foods are adulterated, most often in the quest to make non-foods look more like the natural foods they seek to replace.

Shopkeepers have used color to attract buyers for hundreds of years. British vendors would use lead, copper, arsenic and other lethal ingredients to brighten their wares.

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Fortunately for the public health, a German scientist named Frederik Accum observed these practices and documented them in “A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons.”  It is described by as “Exhibiting the Fraudulent Sophistications of Bread, Beer, Wine, Spiritous Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Cream, Confectionery, Vinegar, Mustard, Pepper, Cheese, Olive Oil, Pickles, and Other Articles  Bread, Beer, Wine, Spiritous Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Cream, Confectionery, Vinegar, Mustard, Pepper, Cheese, Olive Oil, Pickles.”

Arthur Hassall, a chemist, proved that a pickle maker used copper to make their product appear greener. “Hassall’s work showed that adulteration was the rule rather than the exception and that adulterated articles were often sold as genuine,” the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Noel Coley wrote of Hassall.

Both men’s work resulted in the British government’s passage of the Food Adulteration Act of 1860.

While most of us think of food in unusual colors as a novelty – remember purple ketchup? – it can also become political. When margarine first arrived in grocery stores, it was white and not very appealing. Manufacturers added yellow dye to make it resemble butter and sales soared, much to the dismay of the dairy industry.

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  • State laws were passed that required margarine to be colored pink, in response to lobbyists’ pressure to make the substitute look less like butter, but those laws were thrown out by the Supreme Court.
  • Congressmen from dairy states quickly passed the Oleomargarine Act of 1886, which taxed margarine and prevented it from being colored yellow for nearly 70 years.
  • A Canadian anti-margarine campaign from 1886 until 1948, banned any and all margarine. Quebec’s strong dairy lobby enforced rules against dyeing that remained in place in the province until 2008.

Moms on a budget have long been creative in making the family food budget stretch, and they are not squeamish about kitchen tricks, like making one gallon of whole milk two by stretching it with half powdered milk or adding bread crumbs to beef to make that hamburger stretch.

The solution to the “white” color of margarine problem? Producers included a packet of yellow dye moms could add to make the “oleo-margarine” look like the more expensive butter.

Then there is pink slime (beef) and pink sludge (chicken) by-products.  But that is another story.


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