Monday, April 29, 2024


The Guardian, 29 April, reports that, ‘Washout winter’ spells price rises for UK shoppers with key crops down by a fifth: Analysts say impact on wheat, barley, oats and oilseed rape harvests means price rises on beer, bread and biscuits and more food imported.

Two historical examples of bread riots, one in France, one in Newbury,UK:

‘Bread was the basic staple of most people’s diets, and variations in the price of bread were keenly felt by the poor, especially by women who most frequently bought bread in the marketplace. Women would sometimes protest against what they thought to be unjust price increases for bread in what were known as "bread riots."... were a collective action designed to force bakers to sell bread at a "just" or "moral" price rather than at whatever price the market would allow.

(17 July 1725)—On Saturday the fourteenth, a baker of the faubourg Saint-Antoine seemingly tried to sell bread for thirty-four sous which that morning had cost thirty. The woman to whom this happened caused an uproar and called her neighbours. The people gathered, furious with bakers in general. Soon their numbers reached eighteen hundred, and they looted all the bakers' houses in the faubourg from top to bottom, throwing dough and flour into the gutter.’

‘The millers and bakers of the town and neighbourhood were the especial offenders, as notwithstanding the price of wheat was not immoderately high, they kept up the price of bread much in excess of what was fair and legitimate. At last the long subdued feeling of discontent found forcible expression. On a certain market day in August, during the time the sack of corn were being pitched for sale, the people broke out into wild riot.

Upsetting the open stalls, they flung themselves upon the scattered provisions, corn, meat, butter, and eggs, wrecked a couple of houses and so alarmed the bakers that they at once lowered the price of bread, and promised a further reduction. But the spirit of the mob was not easily to be managed. They proceeded to break into the mills, and throw the corn into the river; windows were broken, and damage to the extent of £1,000 was done. Several persons were injured in the fray, one of them fatally.

The following is from the Socialist Standard, May 1986.

‘Under capitalism food supplies are manipulated to increase profits regardless of the consequences to health. This is because food, like all other goods, is produced for its exchange-value and, therefore, supplied according to the dictates of the market instead of for social needs.

Profits from agriculture are maximised in the following ways: destroying or storing food when there is a surplus that cannot be sold at a profit, regardless of the number of deaths from starvation or malnutrition; cutting back on food production to prevent unsaleable surpluses in subsequent harvests; farming land more intensively by using artificial fertilisers and pesticides; extending the number of processes which food undergoes.

Although about a quarter of a million old people in Britain suffer from malnutrition and there are obscene inequalities of wealth in the rest of the population, generally speaking there is relative affluence compared with underdeveloped countries and the problem for food manufacturers is to try to persuade people to buy more in order that the market can be expanded and profits increased. Normally manufacturers can persuade the public to buy more by the skilful use of advertising, playing on the fears and insecurity of consumers in an aggressively competitive, acquisitive society. But food presents a greater problem because, beyond the level of satiety. people do not eat more as a result of increased wealth. Nevertheless, profits can be increased by extending the number of processes which food undergoes and adulterating it with cheaper additives.

In 1969 a Lancet editorial pointed out that, on average, three pounds of chemical additives a year were consumed in food by each person in this country and that the number of additives exceeded 20,000, but by 1985 this number had increased to 35.000 and the consumption of additives was a staggering 8-11 pounds a year! Indeed, a new term — 'junk-food' has been coined to describe the artificially flavoured, highly processed food that is increasingly consumed today. Additives are used to provide colouring, enhance flavour, inhibit mould, emulsify, sweeten and provide uniformity of ingredients in the products sold.

The extent of the profits that can be made from expanding the processes which food undergoes can be seen in the sale of potato crisps which cost forty or fifty times more than the same weight of potatoes. Fish fingers and chickens are treated with polyphosphates (E450) to absorb more water, while fish and prawns are dipped in water before being frozen to increase their weight. It has been estimated that the public pays nearly five million pounds a year for water! (Walker. C. and Cannon. G. 1985. The Food Scandal, Century Publishing). All of these practices are perfectly legal: the 1984 regulations only require water to be declared in uncooked cured meats if it exceeds ten per cent.

The addition of water alone in frozen fish and prawns has no detrimental effects on health but polyoxyethylene monostearate, an emulsifier used in bread to make flour absorb water, causes cancer in rats. Cancers can be caused by some synthetic food colours. The use of amaranth, a red food dye, is permitted in Britain although in 1970 a Russian study showed that in its pure form it possesses carcinogenic activity. Amaranth was banned in the USA in 1976. Its continued use in Britain is a feature of additives in that there is a complete lack of uniformity of products permitted or banned from one country to another. Commercial considerations determine which additives are permitted, however harmful, while public awareness of the dangers of certain substances and consumer pressure in refusing to purchase certain products restricts or modifies their continued use.

The production of meat involves a number of processes which are potentially injurious to health; milk and meat may become contaminated from the routine doses of antibiotics given to cattle to prevent infectious diseases. The modern methods of rearing cattle cause them to be considerably fatter than wild game; the fat is also higher in saturated fats, which contribute to heart disease. and lower in polyunsaturated fats. But meat products present the greatest threat to health. Profits are boosted by using hide, skin. bone, preservatives and large amounts of fat in sausages. Most processed meats not only contain preservatives and colouring but consist of two or three per cent salt by weight while salami consists of as much as five per cent salt. Processed meats and bacon contain nitrates which interfere with the body's ability to convert carotene into vitamin A and combine with amines, occurring naturally in food, to produce nitrosamines which can cause cancer.

It is estimated that about twenty times more salt (sodium chloride) is ingested in this country than is needed for the maintenance of health and that an excessive intake is, at least in part, a causative factor in the production of high blood pressure. But salt is added to a wide range of products besides processed meats, including cereals, tinned vegetables. soups and bread.

Sodium also occurs in the diet by the wide use of monosodium glutamate, a flavour enhancer which permits smaller amounts of more expensive foods to be used. It was also widely used in baby foods until a study at Washington University in 1969 showed that in large doses it damaged the brain cells of baby mice. As babies have a poorly developed sense of taste its use was clearly directed at the mothers who "tested" the food to ensure that it was suitable. The publicity that resulted from the study led to some manufacturers (but not all) withdrawing monosodium glutamate from their products. The extensive use of monosodium glutamate in Chinese cooking can lead to side-effects such as palpitations, general weakness, gall bladder discomfort and numbness of the arms and the back of the neck and has become known as the "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome".

Table salt, itself, is not free from additives but may contain sodium ferrocyanide and magnesium carbonate to prevent caking. In addition, sodium is consumed in the form of sodium citrate in soft drinks. It is, therefore, not surprising that a study in Scotland in the 45-64 age group found that one-fifth of them suffered from mild hypertension.

Sugar is an invaluable additive to the food manufacturer, it provides bulk cheaply, preserves, thickens and sweetens. Every man. woman and child in Britain consumes an average of two pounds of sugar a week. Tooth decay, obesity, constipation, diverticulitis, gall bladder disease, chronic digestive disorders and diabetes have all been implicated to some degree with the excessive consumption of refined foods in industrialised countries. By contrast. adult-onset diabetes is rare in rural Africa where a diet high in unrefined carbohydrates is eaten.

The food industry is also making more use of dextrose in food: more than 16lbs of glucose (dextrose) a year, on average, is consumed in processed foods. Fructose, a naturally occurring sugar which is twice as sweet as sucrose (white sugar) has been used in the food industry in the USA and could be an improvement in health terms because only half the amount needs to be used. But health needs under capitalism are always secondary to the requirement of profitability and the Common Market placed an import quota on high fructose com syrup to protect sugar beet production.

Highly refined foods provide more calories, but less nutrients (unless artificially added) and do not induce satiety as readily as unrefined food, tending to lead to higher consumption with greater profits for the manufacturers. White bread is made by the highly mechanised Chorleywood Bread Process which avoids the hours of fermentation that traditional bread requires. It also contains more air and water than the traditional loaf as a result of using additives that are potentially harmful. Polyoxyethylene monostearate, potassium bromate, propionic acid, ammonium sulphate, chlorine dioxide, nitrosyl chloride, benzoyle peroxide, sodium propionate. L-cysteine hydrochloride and azodicarbonamide are all used in refined bread. Agene was used for bleaching flour for nearly thirty years before it was linked with nervous disorders in humans and in 1968, 600 people in Johannesburg were poisoned by bread containing one per cent potassium bromate (Grant. D., Your Daily Food, Faber and Faber. 1973).

Even when additives are present in food at what are considered to be "safe" levels there is still a risk to health. The American Food and Drug Administration found that two chemicals taken at the same time can enhance the effect of each other; for example. silicone when used with an emulsifier makes the cells of the gut more absorbent and susceptible to poisoning.

There is also considerable contamination in food from the use of insecticides. In 1984 the Association of Public Analysts found that one third of fruit and vegetables were contaminated with DDT (despite being banned), aldrin (a carcinogen), dimethoate and mevinphos.

Although consumer pressure has resulted in a few dangerous substances being withdrawn from food the number of additives used has increased considerably in the last twenty years. Additives will continue to be used while it is profitable to do so. Only a socialist society which puts people first can stop the threat to health which capitalism imposes.’

Carl Pinel

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