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Durham University

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Publication details for Professor Peter Atkins

Atkins, P.J. (2007). Laboratories, laws, and the career of a commodity. Environnment and Planning D: Society and Space 25(6): 967-989.

Author(s) from Durham


Unlike most foods, milk is produced fresh at least twice every day, thus recreating, over 700 times a year, a commodity ‘designed’ by the combination of nature, commerce, and law. The paper is a study of the ontogenesis of this commodity in Britain since 1800, stressing the emergence of two new objectivities: dairy science and the law on adulteration. In the words of Christopher Hamlin, what mattered was the “manufacture of certainty, however flimsy that certainty might later be shown to be.'' This was achieved by the collection of samples, the generation of facts by the deployment of the laboratory technologies of physics and chemistry, and a semimonopoly over the truth-power of dairy science that was gradually built up by the large commercial companies. A foundation of state-sponsored regulation provided an official legitimation of compositional standards that suited the interests of capital but ignored ‘natural’ variations in quality and often pilloried innocent producers. The public eventually became accustomed to the regulated quality of the milk in its ‘pinta’ and assumed it to be natural. Even the standardization of composition since 1993 has caused very little disquiet among the consuming public, although milk is now a fully constructed commodity like any other dairy product. Mechanical modernity has at last triumphed over a century of ‘milk as it came from the cow’.