You are what you eat: food safety

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By | From the Collections

In 2015 the focus of  World Health Day – 7 April – is food safety. The Wellcome Library has a wealth of material on food (some of which is available digitally); here are some examples on food safety, from disease prevention to food inspection.

Russian health poster on cholera

Unhygienic practices which lead to cholera. Colour lithograph by the Ukraine Military Sanitary Directorate, Sanitary Enlightenment Department of the Kiev Region, 1921. Wellcome Library reference: 531512i

Cholera, although a water-borne disease, has significant impacts on food safety and human health. The Ukranian lithograph, ‘Unhygienic Practices Which Lead to Cholera’, depicts scenes that have major concerns for the safety of food and the potential to cause disease. Four key messages are highlighted: drink thou not unboiled water; eat thou not unwashed fruit and market grub; dirty water and flies transmit disease; and an ill person is a source of infection.

Public health poster about flies

Flies infecting food. Colour lithograph after A. Games, 1941. Wellcome Library reference: 20277i.

The depiction of flies as transmitters of disease seemed to be common in twentieth century public health campaigns. The British graphic designer Abram Games created a poster during World War II called ‘Flies Infecting Food’, which states: “Kill all flies – You owe it to yourself. Your comrades. Your efficiency”. While the language of wartime posters is somewhat different to that of the World Health Organization, the key message about protecting food and kitchen areas from insects and pests remains important to public health today.


The rise of campaigns associated with food- and water-borne diseases in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was accompanied by greater inspection of foodstuffs in the United Kingdom. Food safety issues feature prominently in the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) reports. In the 1912 MOH report  for Battersea, the Sanitary Inspectors noted that various foods – from fruit to fish – purchased at London markets were considered unsound and were destroyed. Food samples were also tested for analysis in the borough; 96 out of 1000 samples were adulterated, including 53 samples of milk. One milk vendor was kept under the watchful eye of the Food Inspector after being prosecuted for selling milk watered down by 18%.

Fortunately, due to regulation and enforcement, food standards in countries like the UK are much better now than they were in the past. But in many parts of the world, food-borne diseases still have a major impact on health today.

Author: Sophie Durrans is a graduate trainee at the Wellcome Trust.

Sophie Durrans

Sophie Durrans is a Graduate Trainee at the Wellcome Trust

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