Bread is such an essential part of the foodscape of twenty-first century New Zealand that, apart from food preference or allergy, it is often spared little thought in people’s day-to-day lives. That was until now – people who usually bought bread regularly are now baking it (if they can get enough flour) and rediscovering the pleasure of a freshly baked loaf from the oven. We now might worry about touching the bag the flour was bought in but we don’t distrust a bought loaf. This was not the case during the 1940s, when a number of major acts regarding food hygiene were introduced. One of these laws in particular – the bread-wrapping regulation – had the attention of the Ministry of Health, bakers, grocers, and the New Zealand public for a period spanning 1946 to the end of 1948. Fears concerning an earlier dreaded virus, poliomyelitis, were at the root of the issue.
The entire New Zealand wheat industry had deep ties to the government from the First World War which controlled the price of bread. Control was slowly relaxed over time, but during the Great Depression a wheat surplus crashed the market, leading to further trouble in the economic sector. By 1934 the NZ Master Bakers Association was calling for full regulation of wheat and bread prices once more, and in 1936 the Labour government did just that. Labour also created a Wheat Committee, involving representation for farmers, millers, bakers, grain merchants, and grocers in the new industry processes. The committee would buy the entire seasonal wheat crop and sell it on at a uniform price for everyone. Although this systematic restructuring benefited countless people, lower bread prices brought lower profit margins. It was for this reason that the costly practice of wrapping bread in waxed paper declined.
As part of the 1946 Amendments to the Health Act, Health Regulation 8 asserted that no bread could be ‘removed from a bakehouse for human consumption’ or sold for retail unless it had first been wrapped in clean material. This was part of a post-war push by the New Zealand Government for stronger food hygiene standards. Public dissatisfaction with the hygiene practices of bakers, delivery men, and grocers, expressed through letters to the editor and in articles, was commonplace by 1945. The public had good reason to worry, according to medical student S. G. Bishop. In his study of a Te Kauwhata bakehouse from 1947 to 1948 the workers were largely unaware of existing health codes. Bread was left to cool where it could be eaten by birds, food was often contaminated by dead flies, delivery trucks were entirely uncovered, and the workers themselves never washed their hands.
In the later months of 1947 a large-scale polio epidemic commenced in Auckland. In three years 1,454 people were infected and around 70 people died. Schools and public facilities were closed down in an attempt to contain the virus’ impact, but nobody at this time knew how polio was spread. The popular assumption, however, was that polio could be spread through food. Much like the epidemic itself, the belief that contaminated foodstuffs were the cause of the problem spread quickly through the country. Bishop noted that newspaper editors received ‘numerous letters’ expressing this fear and demanding that the Minister of Health ‘enforce … the wrapping of bread.’
In response to public pressure, the Minister of Health Mabel Howard instituted regulations on the wrapping of bread so that no person could sell any bread by ‘retail sale’ unless enclosed in clean paper. Waxed paper, however, was expensive and difficult to acquire. In the move to quell the public’s health fears, the Government had demanded of bakers and grocers an impossible task. As such, by early 1948 the New Zealand Master Grocers Federation decided to ignore bread-wrapping regulations until a solution was found. Wrapping regulations were dropped entirely on 25 February 1948.
The battle fought over bread wrapping was a by-product of the polio virus outbreak in 1940s New Zealand. It speaks of a period in which post-war social uncertainty was further exacerbated by an incurable nationwide illness. However impractical they may have been, the regulations implemented by the Health Department can be read as a response to the significant psychological needs of a nation facing a dreaded virus.
Meena Al-Emleh is a Palestinian-Kiwi historian, currently interested in the central role food has played in New Zealand’s past. They live, study, and bake bread in Wellington, NZ.
- “Shops Will Not Wrap Bread.” New Zealand Herald, 20 December, 1947.
- “Bread Wrapping Dispute,” Northern Advocate, 7 March 1945; “The Wrapping of Bread,” Evening Post, 16 March 1945; “The Wrapping of Bread,” Otago Daily Times, 4 April 1945; “Bread Wrapping,” Evening Star, 5 October 1945.
- Para 2: Susan Butterworth, Quality Bakers New Zealand: the First 25 years (Auckland, N.Z.: Quality Bakers New Zealand, 1997); Sarah Wilcox, “Food and beverage manufacturing – Bread,” Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand; New Zealand Herald, 20 December, 1947; Executive Meetings Minutes, New Zealand Bakers Association, 1932 – 1942, MSX-3396, Alexander Turnbull Library.
- Para 3: Regulations under the Health Act 1920: to prevent the contamination of food during manufacture and sale, 1946, Hocken Library, University of Otago, Dunedin.
- S.G. Bishop “Our Daily Bread: a study of a bakery and the relevant public acts and regulations” (Preventative Medicine diss., University of Otago, 1948).
- Para 4: F. S. MacLean, Challenge for Health: history of public health in New Zealand (Wellington, N.Z.: R. E. Owen, Govt. Printer, 1964); Deborah Jane Simpson, “’A persistent cloud on the human horizon’: polio in the Auckland region 1925-1962” (Master’s thesis, University of Auckland, 1993); Bishop, “Our Daily Bread.”
- Para 5: Executive Meeting Minutes, New Zealand Bakers Association, 1941 – 1950, MSY-3163, Alexander Turnbull Library; New Zealand Master Grocers’ Federation, Remit No. 33, Annual Conference Minutes and Conference Papers, 1948, MS-TJU5 N, Hocken Library, University of Otago, Dunedin; Bishop, “Our Daily Bread”; “Delivery of Bread in Grocer’s Doorway Lead to Complaints,” Otago Daily Times, 4 June 1949.