Tuesday night I caught the end of the new BBC Two series 'Filthy Cities' which described 19th century New York as a city ‘consumed by filth and corruption’. And what grabbed my attention was the focus that was given to the importance of hygiene to our health – something we shouldn’t forget.
The programme explained how the implementation of health departments was instrumental in ending the corruption that kept the slums in dire conditions. Thousands of lives were saved by simply cleaning up the streets, and also controlling unsanitary cooks like 'Typhoid Mary' – possibly the first case of enforcement in a food business!
It also drew attention to the fact that food fraud has been going on since the 19th century and probably earlier. Without the invention of the fridge or freezer, disreputable butchers were turning rotten, unsaleable, meat into toxic sausages by disguising their smell and appearance with clothes dye and floor cleaners – 200 years on it’s a shame that there are still unscrupulous people who are prepared to put people’s lives at risk to make money.
These simple interventions, and the enforcement of them, are things we now take for granted, but as we go on to tackle emerging issues we shouldn’t forget that they’re still critical to protecting people’s health.