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Reviewed by:
  • Histoire de la qualité alimentaire (XIXe-XXe siècle)
  • Patricia E. Prestwich
Histoire de la qualité alimentaire (XIXe-XXe siècle). By Alessandro Stanziani ( Paris: Seuil, 2005. 440 pp.).

From genetically-modified crops to the European Union's definition of chocolate, debates on the quality of food are usually heated and invariably complex. Alessandro Stanziani, an historian and economist, uses nineteenth century controversies over the quality of wine, meat, milk, and butter to analyze the development of French pure food legislation from the regulation of individual markets to the law of 1905, which set the standards for the entire food industry. The legislation of 1905 was so effective that, in 1993, it was integrated into the European Union's codes on the quality of food. This scholarly study, based on a wide variety of original sources from court cases to commercial handbooks, offers important perspectives to historians but scant comfort to consumers. Whether in response to the dangers of a trichinosis epidemic or to the appearance of margarine on the market, French pure food legislation, argues Stanziani, was designed primarily to stabilize agricultural markets during a period of rapid expansion and intense competition. Only indirectly and secondarily did such legislation protect the consumer.

The originality of this study may not be immediately apparent to historians, unless they have a decided taste for macroeconomic theory. Dr. Stanziani is interested in how markets function, and he addresses his research to economists with the hope of convincing them of the value of historical analysis. Each section begins with a lengthy discussion of the relevant macroeconomic theories on the behavior of markets, followed by a detailed exploration of the archival records. From this juxtaposition of theory and history, the author draws a number of general conclusions. Among the most important are that the state is not monolithic in its goals or actions; that regional producers may have conflicting [End Page 756] goals; and that what he terms the "economic actors", from wine producers and dairy farmers to wholesalers and café owners, do not always act rationally, (i.e. according to economic theory), but rather interpret information according to their perceptions and experience. These concepts may be novel to economic theorists, but they are familiar to historians.

Nevertheless, with patience and perseverance, even the most theoretically-challenged historian will appreciate the importance of this economic perspective. By focusing on the question of fraud, Stanziani effectively conveys the dynamism of agricultural markets in the late nineteenth century. Provocatively but convincingly, he argues that fraud is merely a euphemism for any innovation that threatens the stability of markets. In effect, his analysis gives new meaning to the old joke that whenever new legislation is promulgated, the first question the French ask is how to get around it. Circumventing traditional norms gives the market its dynamism. Therefore such concepts as "pure", "natural" or "adulterated" are an indication of prolonged and intense debates about what constitutes acceptable competition. Through a detailed examination of the controversies over such products as margarine, skim milk, wine made from raisins, and American processed pork, Stanziani traces the complicated process by which producers, middlemen, politicians, administrators, the courts, and, occasionally, even hygienists and scientists reached a consensus as to whether these products were acceptable or fraudulent foods.

Innovation depended on the progress of science, and much has already been written about the wine industry's reliance on scientific techniques in the late nineteenth century. This study offers a broader and more complex view by examining the impact of science on other sectors of the food industry and on the enforcement of pure food legislation. Stanziani argues that the new scientific knowledge did not necessarily replace the more traditional or "professional" knowledge. Rather, in the industry, in the courts, and in the administration, people called upon the experts whom they deemed most appropriate, or most convincing. Sometimes both types of expertise were used, as in the case of the municipal laboratory of Paris, which employed both chemical analysis and tasting to authenticate fine wines. The persistence of this professional expertise was not, it is argued, simply a result of the inadequacies of nineteenth-century science but of what producers liked to call the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 756-758
Launched on MUSE
2007-04-05
Open Access
No
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