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Soc Hist Med. 1999 Aug;12(2):293-311.

Food, hygiene, and the laboratory. A short history of food poisoning in Britain, circa 1850-1950.

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  • 1Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London, UK.


Public health concern with food safety and food poisoning emerged in Britain in the 1880s following the first indication that acute gastric illness was caused by a specific organism. Although incidents were for many years only sparsely reported, the central medical department and its scientists were anxious to extend their knowledge of the incidence, specific causal organisms, and epidemiology of the illness. This paper argues for a widespread incidence of food poisoning in Britain in the nineteenth century and traces the social economic, and hygienic contexts within which it occurred. As deadlier infections retreated, food poisoning became an increasing concern of local and national health authorities, who sought both to raise public awareness of the condition as illness, and to regulate and improve food handling practices. Notification of cases was begun in 1939, and this, together with social changes during and after the Second World War, produced an escalating spiral of reported incidents which still continues. This trend, it is argued, is essentially an artefact, whose significance is reduced if considered in its broader historical context.

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