A food taster is a person that ingests food (or drink, in which case he/she is a cupbearer) to be served to someone else to confirm that it is safe to eat. The person to whom the food is going to be served is usually an important person (for example, a monarch) or anyone that could be under threat of assassination or harm.
Food tasters have several functions:
- The safety of the food may be determined by observing whether or not the food taster subsequently becomes ill. However, food tasting would not be effective against slow-acting poisons that take a long time to show any visible symptoms.
- The food taster may also be responsible for the preparation and serving of food. The hope is that tasters will be diligent in preventing poison from being introduced into food, in order to safeguard their own lives.
- In the event that the target (emperor, monarch, etc.) should fall ill or die, the similar illness or death of the taster provides evidence of deliberate poisoning.
Examples of food tasters
Over history, presidents and royal families have hired food tasters or sacrifices, because of the fear of being poisoned. Adolf Hitler's food taster Margot Woelk tried the food at 8:00 am every day, and if she did not fall ill the food would be sent to Hitler's military headquarters. They were not always successful though: Queen Durdhara, the Mauryan empress, ate food that was prepared for her husband and died. In ancient Rome, the duty was often given to a slave (termed the praegustator). Roman Emperor Claudius was killed by poison in AD 54 even though he hired a food taster named Halotus. Tasters were sometimes coerced. In more recent times the food taster has become essential to everyday life and needed in all food producing companies. President Vladimir Putin has hired a food taster who is part of his security staff to protect himself as well. In recent times, animals such as mice have been used to detect impurities in food to be consumed by humans, such as during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China. In the United States, several recent presidents, most prominently Barack Obama, have been known to employ food tasters.
- Hurst, F. (2013, April 2). Hitler's Food Taster: One Bite Away from Death. Spiegel Online International. Retrieved from http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/hitler-food-taster-margot-woelk-speaks-about-her-memories-a-892097.html
- Walsh, J. (2014, July 23). Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned. The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/vladimir-putin-employs-a-fulltime-food-taster-to-ensure-his-meals-arent-poisoned-9624380.html
- Luthern, A. (2009, June 26). Testing for Poison Still a Profession for Some. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/testing-for-poison-still-a-profession-for-some-61805292/