Food’s a controversial thing. Britain is a country currently obsessed by horse flesh, or so the press would have us believe. The revelation that a certain large supermarket’s beef burgers were in fact a combination of the humble cow and noble horse has been a hot topic. The general public were meant to be shocked that there was a chance we could have eaten Black Beauty, but public response as shown on the BBCs One Show (not an accurate poll, I do understand) demonstrates that eating horse was not the problem. No, it was that the food was wrongly labelled.
Saying that food is one thing and it actually being something else is historically quite common. Obviously during the current debate the public were not intentionally misled (as far as we know), but in the past this was far from the case. Throughout the 19th century (and before) unscrupulous traders would cut their edible wares with non-food items. Food was expensive, other stuff was cheap so one was bulked out with the other. There are two beautiful books in the Working Class Movement Library that deal with the subject of food adulteration, and how to detect it. Fredrick Accum’s A treatise on adulterations of food was published in 1820. The work details how to chemically detect fraudulent products added to food, a vital ability because adulteration was so rife. ‘It would be difficult’, according to the chemist, ‘to mention a single article of food which is not to be met with in an adulterated state; and there are some substances which are scarcely ever to be procured genuine.’
Accum was particularly worried about the use of Alum in bread. The compound was used by unscrupulous bakers to make bread whiter. Apparently if London loaves were not a brilliant white they were unsaleable due to the ‘caprice’ of the London consumer; picky shoppers areapparently not just a product of the twenty-first century.
The practice of using Alum to dye bread was still prevalent when Arthur Hill Hassall wrote his Adulterations Detected in 1857 (a copy is available in the Working Class Movement Library). Hassall investigated food adulteration by taking evidence from huge number of witnesses. His book mixes this testimony with some beautiful scientific drawings. You can see what happens when you add chicory or acorns to coffee below. (Is it just me but does acorn coffee sound like a modern artisan beverage?)
Hassall took evidence from numerous witnesses, including a Mr Richardson, who was officer for the board of health in Newton Heath, Manchester, just down the road from where I am writing this. Richardson explained that ‘We have in Newton five knackers yards’; he went on to state that the resultant horse flesh had been a ‘source of great profit to them, because they have the means of selling the best portions of the horseflesh to mix with the potted meat.’ Not quite burgers I know but it seems using horseflesh to ‘beef’ up meat is nothing new. According to Richardson the best bits of the horse were the tongue and the hind quarters which were mixed with pigs’ heads for sausages. Nor was horseflesh just used because it was cheap; its use in sausages apparently meant that bangers could stay in the shop window for longer.
The problems of food adulteration continued into the twentieth century. Papers in the Labour History archive of the People’s History Museum show that during WWI especially adulteration continued to be a problem. Food was in short supply and expensive; for those who sought profit at any expense it made sense to bulk out material with cheaper substance.
When Accuum and Hassall wrote their books the reasons for adulteration were the same as they are now: increased profit. Moreover, central arguments against adulteration were the same as they are now: consumers have the right to know that what they purchase is what it say it is. If not, outcry occurs, and as Hassall states the ‘moral status of that commercial portion of the community of this country is lowered in the eyes of the world.’