London's Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports 1848-1972

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City of London 1924

[Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Port of London]

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Your Medical Officer noticed a slight sour smell such as might have been
expected from the presence of a variety of moulds. There were only slight traces
of black spot mould, so that the whole of the mould was superficial.
Without knowing accurately the whole conditions as to temperatures and
moisture maintained in the chamber during the voyage, one cannot say what was
the cause of the apparent failure of the amount of formalin used to prevent this
mould growth.
On cutting, the meat appeared perfectly sound ; there was a trace of sourness
to the sense of smell which, considering the susceptibility of fat to odours, might
have been accounted for by the mould smell noticed in the chamber. A sour cheesiness
was noticed also to a greater extent in two defrosted quarters later.
On the general question of formalined meat, my opinion is that, though the
penetration in this as in former consignments is comparatively slight, the effect
of small quantities of formalin is so powerful that none of it should be permitted
in foodstuffs for the purpose of preservation. The very preservation by such
small quantities of formalin as are found suggest that since a mechanism of the
preservation is the arrest of a chemical process very allied to digestion, this would
render the meat indigestible and, therefore, not of such a nature as is desirable for
human consumption.
The good colour if preserved in the absence of mould would confer a marketable
value on the meat which might be altogether misleading. This consideration is,
of course, entirely theoretical ; at present there is no experimental basis for a
decision as to the possibility of the use of formalin in minute quantities in
As regards this consignment, at the request of the consignees, the whole
quantity (463 quarters) was destroyed by your contractors, irrespective of the
formalin content.
An experiment with this meat is worth recording. Some of the material stood
at room temperature for a least a month in an unsterilised but covered screw-top
bottle. The pieces were originally taken as presenting specimens of various moulds.
The moulds grew heavily to a length technically known as " whiskers." Bacterial
growth was so slow, however, that at the end of the experiment there was only
slight deliquescence showing in some of the pieces ; the majority of the pieces were
quite unaltered in appearance except for the mould growths and in consistency.
This is in conformity with a method which I have found satisfactory in preserving
small crabs and other crustacea for examination. The animal is allowed to
die in formalin, one teaspoonful to the pint or more of sea water, and is then dried
in the sun. Even large specimens of say Portunus Puber will thus remain inoffensive
and undecomposing for years though freely exposed to the dust and hygrometric
conditions of a house.
The inferences are that processes of digestion which are comparable, if not
identical with those of decomposition under bacterial or other ferments, being
primarily simple hvdrations, must be seriously interfered with in the presence of
traces of formalin.
It is certain that all chemical preservatives in foods interfere in some degree
with digestive processes apart from any direct injurious drug action the preservative
material itself may exert. Their very mode of action is the rendering of
preserved material incapable of fermentation, i.e., digestion—in their presence. The
dilution or removal of the preservative is the first work thrown on the digestive
organs on receiving preserved foods. Individuals of different ages or capacities
vary in their powers of doing this work and any one individual's powers will differ
from day to day.
Proof of positive harm to individuals should never have been made a criterion
in view of such obvious considerations. A strong condemnation of chemical
preservatives, which are not natural to the human economy, lies in the fact
that they do not kill, but do prevent life.
One can but hope that the recommendations of the recent Departmental
Committee in the matter will not long await the promised enactment.