Some reckon that part of the good old days, was when Bahamians weren’t scared of anything. Your old Grammy and Papa used to pick up frog and rat and roach with the same aplomb they employed in swatting mosquitoes. No difference. In the good old days when everyone lived in a little clapboard house, supported by a couple cement blocks, a roach or rat tail in your food, hardly caused you to pause for a second. All you did was to flick it off the banana leaf, aiming it over to the hungry dog you had tied to the tamarind tree. I’m joking, sort of!
Alas though, as time moved on, say around 1961, it was soon realised what was needed, in the Bahamas, was an act of parliament to address food and drink safety. No more surprises in your bottles and milk cartons.
The days when rodents and bugs in your food started to turn people’s stomachs began around 1961. Despite having a Chief Medical Officer on the government payroll, all sorts of things were turning up in bottled and canned items, manufactured in Nassau.
1961 – Spurgeon Bethell tells House of Assembly that he found a roach in his rum. Sir Roland responds that he didn’t think the roach drank most of the rum!
The exchange in the House of Assembly between Sir Roland Symonette and Spurgeon Bethel over a cockroach he found in his rum bottle shows Sir Roland (United Bahamian Party) to be a man not above having a good laugh and throwing a few side swipes at the Opposition Progressive Liberal Party PLP.
Mr Spurgeon Bethel (PLP) told the House of Assembly today that he has found a roach in his rum and flies in his cola and milk, and that all the products referred to were bottled in the Colony.
Mr Bethel asked for the appointment of a committee to consider all matters pertaining to bottling and canning with a view to recommending a Pure Food and Drink Act for the Colony.
He had not yet risen on a matter of greater importance, Mr Bethel told members.
Mr Bethel, who is in the liquor business, said one of the depots he supplied handed him two bottles of rum which so startled him that he turned them over to the Chief Medical Officer.
One had a roach and the other had dirt.
The C.M.O took the matter up with the firm concerned and they apologised and expressed their regrets. Last year he bought a Coca-Cola and took a mouthful of flies. The firm expressed their regrets but said that they had no liability as he did not swallow the flies and was therefore not damaged.
On another occasion he bought some milk and as he got to the bottom a blue fly came up through the straw. He was nauseated.
Mr Bethel said that the government was remiss in not doing something about this condition.
He believed that some of the products put up here contributed to the number of people in the hospital and insane asylum.
Sir Roland Symonette (UBP) seconded Mr Bethel’s motion and said:
“It is my considered opinion that the roach did not consume much of the rum.”
So Roland agreed that a Pure Foods Act at was sadly needed.
He believed that it was due to our sunshine and water that people were not injured by some of the products.
Replying to Mr. Bethel’s complaint that there had been a committee on the same subject before, Sir Roland said the chairman of a committee had to exert himself if he expected to get anything done. Chairman of the old committee was Mr. Cyril Stevenson (PLP).
Mr Arthur Hanna (PLP) said steps should be taken to avoid not only insects but to see that food was properly sealed to avoid other contaminations.
Appointed to the committee were Messers Bethel, Foster Clark and George Baker.
(The Nassau Daily Tribune, Thursday July 6, 1961)
LEGAL FOOTNOTE – KNOW THE LAW
In the preceding Nassau Daily Tribune article of July 1961, the company that had been bottling dirt and cockroaches made it clear that since Mr. Spurgeon Bethel was not harmed by the cockroach, he therefore could not claim damages from the company.
Despite Mr. Bethel coming into possession of the bottle that contained the roach, and being disgusted by what he saw, he could not sue because he would not be able to show that he was physically damaged by the contents of the rum bottle with the cockroach in it.
This company’s reasoning in 1961, is based on a famous case, in Tort Law, which established a new era of civil liability law as it related to harm caused by a product.
The case Donoghue v Stevenson was all about a snail in a bottle of ginger beer in 1928, that was actually consumed and made the person became ill as a direct result.
Donoghue v. Stevenson, also known as the ‘snail in the bottle case’, is a significant case in English law. The ruling in this case established the civil law tort of negligence and obliged businesses to observe a duty of care towards their customers. The events of the case took place in Paisley, Scotland in 1928. While attending a store, Ms May Donoghue was given a bottle of ginger beer, purchased for her by a friend. The bottle was later discovered to contain a decomposing snail. Since the bottle was not made of clear glass, Donoghue consumed most of its contents before she became aware of the snail. She later fell ill and a physician diagnosed her with gastroenteritis. Donoghue subsequently took legal action against Mr David Stevenson, the manufacturer of the ginger beer. She lodged a writ in the Court of Sessions, Scotland’s highest civil court, seeking £500 damages.
Donoghue could not sue Stevenson for breach of contract because she had not purchased the drink herself. Instead, Donoghue’s lawyers claimed that Stevenson had breached a duty of care to his consumers and caused injury through negligence. At the time, this area of civil law was largely untested. Stevenson’s lawyers challenged Donoghue’s action on the basis that no precedents existed for such a claim. They referred to an earlier action by Donoghue’s lawyer, Mullen v. AG Barr, where a dead mouse was found in a bottle of soft drink; judges dismissed this action due to a lack of precedent. Donoghue’s initial action failed but she was granted leave to appeal to the House of Lords (which, at the time, had the judicial authority to hear appellate cases). The leading judgement, delivered by Lord Atkin in 1932, established that Stevenson was responsible for the well-being of individuals who consumed his products, given that they could not be inspected. The case was returned to the original court. Stevenson died before the case was finalised and Donoghue was awarded a reduced amount of damages from his estate.
The outcomes of Donoghue v. Stevenson established several legal principles and precedents:
Negligence. Firstly, the House of Lords ruling affirmed that negligence is a tort. A plaintiff can take civil action against a respondent if the respondent’s negligence causes the plaintiff injury or loss of property. Previously, the plaintiff had to demonstrate some contractual arrangement for negligence to be proven, such as the sale of an item or an agreement to provide a service. Since Donoghue had not purchased the drink, she could prove no contractual arrangement with Stevenson – the judgment established that Stevenson was still responsible for the integrity of his product.
Duty of care. Secondly, the case established that manufacturers have a duty of care to the end consumers or users of their products. “…, “a manufacturer of products, which he sells… to reach the ultimate consumer in the form in which they left him… owes a duty to the consumer to take reasonable care”. This precedent has evolved and now forms the basis of laws that protect consumers from contaminated or faulty goods. These protections began as common law but many have since been codified in legislation, such as the Trade Practices Act (Commonwealth, 1974).
Neighbour principle. Thirdly, the Donoghue v. Stevenson case produced the “neighbour principle”, which extended the tort of negligence beyond the tortfeasor and the immediate party. It raised the question of exactly which people might be affected by negligent actions. In Donoghue’s case, she had not purchased the ginger beer but had received it as a gift; she was a “neighbour” rather than a party to the contract. The new principle stated: “You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law, is my neighbour? The answer seems to be persons who are so closely and directly affected by my act that I ought to have them in [mind] when I am [considering these] acts or omissions.”