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Endeavour. 2011 Jun;35(2-3):66-73. doi: 10.1016/j.endeavour.2011.05.006. Epub 2011 Jun 24.

Analysis as border patrol: chemists along the boundary between pure food and real adulteration.

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Lafayette College, Easton, PA, USA.


A disputed butter competition in Pennsylvania in 1895 brought the cultural, environmental, and scientific character of the Era of Adulteration to the fore. The incident put a spotlight on the confusing character of adulteration and the increasingly prominent role of chemical analysts in arbitrating that confusion. This article uses the case to explore the role scientific analysts played on the border between pure food products and adulterated ones, arguing that the scientists fighting adulteration gained credibility within a cultural environment where trust and confidence were problematic and an agricultural environment where spatial connections between producers and consumers were difficult to see. They were not just detectors of chemical impurities, but participants in a vital cultural arbitration. Characterizing them for their cultural role helps demonstrate that their practices and identity were (and remain) relevant for more than just detection and eradication, then and in the future.

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