Food and Behaviour Research

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19 May 2007 - The Guardian - A menu for murder

James Fergusson

In 1952, Sir Jack Drummond, a pioneering food scientist, was shot dead while on holiday in France. A local farmer was convicted of the killings. But was he really guilty - or was a more sinister plot at work, involving agribusiness?

In 1952, Sir Jack Drummond, a pioneering food scientist, was shot dead while on holiday in France. A local farmer was convicted of the killings. But was he really guilty - or was a more sinister plot at work, involving agribusiness? James Fergusson reports
We found the Drummond family grave entirely by chance. On holiday in Provence with my parents, my wife Melissa and I had borrowed the family Volvo for the day and gone exploring along the upper Durance valley. We spent most of the morning wandering around the medieval walled town of Manosque. By the time we reached Forcalquier, the town's cultural highlight, the 12th-century Notre-Dame du Bourguet, was unaccountably locked. It was too early for lunch; instead we went to "campo santo", the local cemetery, a listed monument famous for its yew topiary.

The place was immense. A maze of terraced gardens led off a steep staircase, each of them fenced in by a thick yew hedge. We plunged downwards and struck off at random - a hole in the hedge led to another garden, and another. Around every corner lay another ponderous urn in black marble or a hefty angel in lichen-mottled basalt.

The Drummonds' resting place was on the far side of the last garden at the bottom of the main staircase. There were three wooden crosses planted in deep gravel retained by a granite border. It looked a bit like a giant cat-litter box. The names on the crosses were clearly Anglo-Saxon, although spelled without apology in the French way, with one "m": "Drumond Anne" on the left, "Drumond Jack" on the right, and in between, beneath a thick stone slab, "Drumond Elisabeth".

They were, we discovered, an English scientist, his wife and daughter - "the victims of the most famous murder in France" more than 50 years ago.

It wasn't until the holiday was over and we were back in London that I got around to looking into the killings in more detail. A small industry of conspiracy theories had grown up around "l'affaire Dominici". I soon discovered Sir Jack Drummond wasn't any old scientist, but a food scientist, a noted pioneer in the field of human nutrition. It was he who coined the now globally recognised system of vitamin classification.

In February 1940, Drummond had been appointed chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Food, where he did more than perhaps any other single individual to ensure that island Britain survived the Nazi U-boat blockade without starving. In fact the health of the British nation, schoolchildren included, was not just maintained during the second world war but improved. The American Public Health Association reported that "the rates of infantile, neonatal and maternal mortality and stillbirths all reached the lowest levels in the history of the country. The incidence of anaemia and dental caries declined, the rate of growth of schoolchildren improved, progress was made in the control of tuberculosis, and the general state of nutrition of the population as a whole was up to or an improvement upon pre-war standards." Indeed, the incidence of almost every diet-related illness was lower than it had ever been. Drummond was a genuine home-front hero.

The turning point in his career was the publication in 1939 of his only book, The Englishman's Food: A History of Five Centuries of English Diet. I ordered a copy from an online secondhand bookshop. The title sounded dry, but the book turned out to be a highly readable blend of social history and biochemistry. It was even funny in places. The historical perspective illustrated quite how much and how often our eating habits had changed.

The eve-of-war timing of the publication of The Englishman's Food was crucial because the book demonstrated brilliantly that malnutrition was not just a social issue but also a pressing military one. Poor nutrition could directly affect the performance of troops in the field. By 1939, Britain was dependent on imports for almost two-thirds of its food supply, above all on wheat from the US and Canada. At the height of the U-boat campaign in 1940, Hitler's submariners destroyed 2.6m tons of merchant shipping.

At the new Ministry of Food, Drummond produced a plan for the distribution of food based on "sound nutritional principles". From the start he regarded rationing as the perfect opportunity to attack what he called "dietetic ignorance" and recognised early on that, if successful, he would be able not just to maintain but to improve the nation's health.

A plain but balanced diet, Drummond had discovered, was the nearest thing to the elixir of life.

The weekly ration

Bacon and ham: 4oz

Other meat: to the value of 1s 2d

Butter: 2oz

Cheese: 2oz

Margarine: 4oz

Cooking fat: 4oz

Milk: 3 pints + 1 packet dried skimmed milk per month

Sugar: 8oz

Preserves: 1lb every 2 months

Tea: 2oz

Eggs: 1 shell egg +1 packet dried egg per month

Sweets: 12oz

Meanwhile the Ministry of Agriculture was intent on persuading Britons to plant their own food. Under the patriotic banner slogan "Dig for Victory", self-sufficiency became the new holy grail. It was considered the duty of all householders to turn their back gardens into vegetable patches. Windsor Great Park was given over to wheat. Even Lord's cricket ground was not spared. Between 1939 and 1944, the arable land area in England and Wales increased by 63%. Wheat, barley and potato crops almost doubled, while the production of oats rose by two-thirds. And Drummond provided the science behind the spadework.

Because shipping space was at a premium, food imports also had to be drastically reorganised. At Drummond's instigation, priority was given to cheese, skimmed dried milk, tinned fish and meat, and pulses. The technical ability to preserve food in cans had been mastered in the mid-19th century, but it was not until the 1940s that the process really took off. The advantage from Drummond's point of view was that canned food retained its vitamins.

He paid special attention to society's "vulnerable groups", as they were designated for the first time. Children and expectant or nursing mothers headed the list, receiving rations of blackcurrant and rosehip syrup as an alternative source of vitamin C, before concentrated orange juice became available.

Today, vitamins are the centrepiece of the modern food industry's most controversial growth area: the sector known as nutraceuticals, or technofoods. Processed food staples such as margarine, cereals and orange juice are fortified with vitamins and other "scientific" ingredients associated with good health, and marketed to a credulous public. Pepsi Co, for example, which owns the juice brand Tropicana, sells an orange-juice product called Multivitamins; it costs five times more than ordinary orange juice. Unilever's Flora pro-activ margarine, meanwhile, contains hydrogenated sterols, a plant compound that is supposed to lower cholesterol in the blood; it costs 11 times as much as regular margarine.

Those figures would have surprised Drummond. He always argued that the best source of vitamins was natural food, and that so long as an individual's diet was plentiful and well balanced, supplements or additives were unnecessary. Thanks largely to his efforts, by 1945 an entire generation of housewives knew the rudiments of how to prepare a meal at home. They also knew a lot about vitamins - what they were, why they were important, and which foods contained them. The tragedy is how much of that hard-won knowledge has been forgotten. It is both absurd and tragic that Tony Blair's government is trying to educate the public all over again with its proposed "traffic-light" labels on food packaging, a scheme intended to warn consumers about high levels of salt, sugar and fat.

One of the most troubling consequences of the agrochemical revolution was the nutritive difference between the intensively grown fruit and vegetables of today and their equivalents 60 years ago. According to the government's own data, between 1940 and 1991 the typical British potato "lost" 47% of its copper and 45% of its iron. Carrots lost 75% of their magnesium, and broccoli 75% of its calcium. The pattern was repeated for vitamins. A study in Canada showed that between 1951 and 1999, potatoes lost all of their vitamin A and 57% of their vitamin C, while today's consumers would have to eat as many as eight oranges to obtain the same amount of vitamin A their grandparents did from a single fruit.

Organic food still accounts for only 1.2% of the total British retail food market. In 2004, Britons spent £1.2bn a year on organic produce: about three-quarters of what we spent on bottled water. Despite all the warnings and an explosion of food scares, the vast majority of people carry on as before.

I began to amass health statistics from the media, cutting out snippets from the papers, jotting down things I heard on the radio or television.

Some scientists blamed chemical changes in the west's diet for a dramatic increase in a range of maladies such as chronic fatigue syndrome, hormone-related imbalances, mental illness, even asthma and eczema in children. Some also blamed chemicals for the extraordinary decline in western male fertility in the last 20 years. In Denmark, a country particularly badly affected, 40% of men now have subnormal sperm counts.

In the 1940s the average westerner contained no man-made chemicals for the simple reason that those chemicals did not yet exist. In a recent survey conducted by the environmental organisation WWF, volunteers in 13 British cities had their blood tested for the presence of 77 man-made chemicals, including organochlorine pesticides. Every one of the volunteers was found to be multiply contaminated.

The individual amounts of the chemicals the WWF tested for were mostly tiny and, by themselves, probably harmless. The snag, as Drummond himself pointed out more than half a century ago, was that no one was able to say what might happen to those chemicals once they accumulated and combined over time with others in the body - the "cocktail effect".

The new industrial era in agriculture began after the war. A National Agricultural Advisory Service was inaugurated in 1946. Some 1,400 technical officers were employed to roam the countryside, offering farmers free advice on how to translate the latest scientific advances into useful reality. Overall, and certainly compared with the 1930s, there had never been a better time to be in farming. It was not until 1950 that Attlee's administration began to have misgivings about the agrochemical revolution it had done so much to encourage. A Ministry of Agriculture committee was convened in that year to examine whether the chemicals the public was increasingly exposed to might be bad for their health.

The evidence heard by the committee was conflicting and inconclusive. The human health effects even of DDT were still unknown. The final result was a terrible cop-out. The committee's main recommendation was the setting up of another committee whose task would be to "advise generally" on problems relating to consumer health. That committee - chaired by Sir Solly Zuckerman, a zoologist by training - in the end decided a voluntary arrangement with the industries concerned was a better option than statutory controls. With that decision, ultimate responsibility for assessing the human health risk of agrochemicals was left up to the manufacturers for the next 30 years. The voice of reason represented by the likes of Drummond might not have prevailed, even without his untimely murder in 1952. Much of the chemical experimentation of the period was sponsored by the military.

In the 1950s it would have been hard even for a willing government to regulate an industry that sometimes worked for agriculture, sometimes for the military, or (in the case of ICI) for both at once.

The food expert Professor Michael Crawford of London Metropolitan University has headed the university's Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition for the past 15 years. I was there to ask him about chicken - in particular battery-reared chicken versus organic birds (he had reservations about both). He argued that modern food in general was not nearly as healthy as the public thought it was, a state of affairs he blamed squarely on the food manufacturers. It was at this point that I discovered he was a lifelong admirer of Jack Drummond.

"Have you heard of a book called The Englishman's Food?" he said. "It's all in there ... there's no better account of how the manufacturers have manipulated people's eating habits over the years in the name of profit." And he added: "Imagine how different things might have been had Drummond lived."

"There's a suggestion in France that he was assassinated by the KGB."

"Really? I don't know about that. But the timing of his death was certainly very ... shall we say, convenient for the food manufacturers."

"Are you saying that he was bumped off by big-business interests?"

The professor considered this, leaning back in his chair and scratching his throat. "You need to understand the context," he said. "The study of human nutrition was still getting off the ground in the 1950s. The establishment didn't like it - so it was suppressed." The nutrition movement in Britain was stillborn, he said. To this day there is no dedicated faculty of human nutrition at any of Britain's major universities. Crawford had himself encountered the old prejudices. He had moved to London Metropolitan University when his original berth at UCL was lost to a funding cut.

So was Drummond's murder part of a dastardly campaign of corporate suppression, without which the course of nutritional history in Britain might have been entirely different? It was quite a conspiracy theory.

According to the orthodox version of the killings, the reason for the Drummonds' presence in France in the first place was nothing more interesting than a relaxing family holiday. Drummond was an ardent Francophile who had visited the country many times before. His daughter's school had broken up for the summer holidays, so when Professor Guy Marrian, a biochemist colleague from his UCL days and one of his best friends, invited the Drummonds to stay at a rented villa at Villefranche-sur-Mer, near Nice, he readily accepted.

They set out from their home near Nottingham, in an olive-green Hillman estate on July 25. They caught a ferry from Dover to Dunkerque on July 27, and drove slowly down the eastern side of France, stopping off along the way. They spent the night in Digne in the foothills of the Alps on Friday August 1, 60 miles short of their final destination. Here Elizabeth spotted a poster advertising a charlottade, a type of bull-run, which was to take place there in three days' time. The family was expected chez Marrian the following day; Elizabeth made her doting father promise they would return to see the bull-run on Monday - which they did. The charlottade took place in the late afternoon. Several spectators later recalled seeing the family in the crowd. Afterwards they had an early supper at a local hotel, L'Ermitage.

They did not take the direct route back south to Villefranche, but instead headed west along the Durance valley in the direction of Marseilles. As darkness fell (or so the newsmen again speculated), they decided to stop and camp at the roadside, at La Grand'Terre, not far from the village of Lurs.

Much of what happened next is still hotly disputed. There were no witnesses other than the Dominicis, the peasant farmers living nearby, and their evidence was a tangled mass of contradictions, half-truths and downright lies.

At 1.10am, seven shots resounded across the valley. Gaston Dominici told the police he thought it was poachers shooting rabbits. It was not until dawn that the three dead bodies were discovered. The police investigation, led by Commissaire Edmond Sébeille of Marseilles, was a disaster from the start but it wasn't long before he had pieced together a version of what had happened. The motive for the murders was probably not robbery. The interior of the Hillman was an indescribable mess, yet nothing obvious seemed to have been taken, notably a 5,000 franc banknote. The murder weapon was quickly recovered from a pool in the river where it had been tossed by the killer: a battered Rock-Ola US army carbine held together with wire. The Rock-Ola was a kind of firearm that abounded in the region, abandoned or traded for food by US infantrymen as their liberation of Europe rolled northwards in the summer of 1944. It seemed probable that the gun belonged to one or other of the Dominici family.

Travelling with his team of investigators from house to house, Sébeille was met with what he described as "a wall of silence". The investigation was eventually to drag on for 15 months, a delay for which the commissaire was attacked by the press on both sides of the Channel.

Speculation soon began to fill the void. Michael Crawford, I discovered, was not the first person to suspect that big-business interests were involved. In an internal report of August 1952, a divisional superintendent called Harzig told his superiors that he believed the murders to be "an episode in the secret struggle between pharmaceutical corporations" - a suspicion prompted by Drummond's position at the time as a director of Boots. More popular at the time was the idea that Drummond was some kind of British government spy, and the murders a murky episode of the cold war.