Supply chain disasters – history repeats itself

United Kingdom

Recent headlines regarding supply chain failures have similarities with a disaster from the 19th Century. This article looks at the failures and suggests ways to reduce future risk.


This Halloween you may have seen an article about the Bradford Sweets Poisoning, which happened at the same time of year in 1858. Twelve children died and over 200 people were seriously unwell as a result of a supply chain mix-up.

What struck me was the similarity with last year’s cough syrup disaster, in which over 300 children died. More than 150 years after the Bradford Sweets Poisoning, supply chain failures still have a huge impact.

What went wrong?

In the 1858 Bradford Sweets Poisoning, “daft” (a non-toxic bulking agent used to replace sugar in adultered food) was stored in an unmarked cask next to an unmarked cask of arsenic. A sweet-maker was accidentally sold arsenic instead of daft, and used the arsenic to make sweets.

In the 2022 cough syrup disaster, a cough syrup manufacturer ordered propylene glycol (a non-toxic ingredient used in medicine, food and cosmetics) but was delivered ethylene glycol (a compound used in antifreeze, brake fluids and paints, which breaks down into toxins in humans). The manufacturer checked the quality and safety certificates of the delivery, but did not test to verify them. The ethylene glycol was used to make children’s cough syrup.

What is the lesson?

The key lesson is to be sure of your supply chain. Manufacturers are now much more sophisticated – and much more heavily regulated – than in 1858, especially in the life sciences sector. But there is still a clear need to use reputable suppliers, carry out due diligence and, for key raw ingredients, carry out independent testing.

How can our supply contracts reduce this risk?

A good supply contract can reduce the risk of similar supply chain failure. For example:

  • Require the supplier to comply with detailed specifications and applicable laws
  • Ensure the supplier has not excluded or unreasonably limited its liability for these failures
  • Request an indemnity for losses caused by non-conforming products
  • Reserve the right to audit the supplier
  • Require product recall assistance, potentially at the suppliers cost

These provisions are useful, but it is better to avoid the disaster in the first place, through thorough supplier diligence and, where appropriate, independent testing of your raw ingredients.

Prevention is better than cure.