Food Adulteration, the Victorians and Us

or rather How Britain Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Processed Meat

Helen Williams is Ph.D. student in the School of English, Drama, American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham. Her thesis explores the representation of medicine and middle-class healthcare in the novels of Wilkie Collins, reading his texts alongside contemporary layperson writings on medicine. Her postgraduate profile is available to view here.

Whilst the origins of the recent horsemeat scandal are still uncertain, with some press reports indicating that food was being contaminated as far back as 2011, food adulteration itself obviously has a much longer history. Although not unique to the Victorian period, it was a persistent problem throughout much of the nineteenth century: the development of manufacturing processes and gradual movement towards mass production provided opportunities for contamination on a large scale, whilst supply chains in dense urban environments helped to aid anonymity. Meat in particular could travel long distances before reaching a retailer (either in the form of livestock transported via the railway network, or as preserved meat from overseas) and pass through up to three intermediaries between farm and butcher.[i] Products such as sausages and pies were particularly suspect, often containing unwanted offcuts and portions of diseased meat which otherwise could not be sold, and joints of meat were frequently cleaned and cut to disguise signs of disease. Keen to sell as much of the animal as possible – diseased or not – many farmers and retailers sought to disguise the unwholesome nature of their produce.

The same combination of factors fuelling nineteenth-century food adulteration – long supply chains, mass production, the drive for greater profit margins – have been transposed into twenty-first century concerns and are clearly at the root of the current horsemeat issue. An increasingly globalised food market has resulted in complex transnational supply chains (management consultants KPMG estimated that there are as many as 450 points at which the integrity of such a chain can break down), whilst the combination of supermarkets driving down prices in the face of a recession coupled with the escalating price of beef has inevitably led to the adulteration of meat products with cheaper alternatives. With the government’s progressive deregulation of the food industry impacting on standards and supply chains stretching across Europe and beyond, the horsemeat scandal is a re-run of Victorian food adulteration problems on a global scale.

Image 1: Durrants butchers shop, North London. Early 1900s

It is unsurprising to find that consumers today dislike being conned into buying adulterated food as much as their Victorian predecessors, but what is of more interest is the contrast between nineteenth- and twenty-first century attitudes towards the unadulterated forms of food, meat in particular. Throughout much of the Victorian period Britain was the “heaviest consumer of meat in Europe” and, despite that fact that many poorer families could easily go for months without being able to afford it, the production and sale of meat was a highly visible, large-scale process.[ii] In London, the livestock market at Smithfield and wholesale dead meat markets at Newgate and Leadenhall necessitated the movement of cattle through the streets – an image vividly evoked in Oliver Twist, as Dickens describes the steam ‘perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle’ and the ‘grunting and squeaking of the pigs’ – with sites such as Smithfield serving as slaughterhouse as well as marketplace.[iii] Beyond the large meat markets of the capital, butchers also proudly displayed carcasses in shop windows, hanging the meat to improve flavour as well as using it as marketing tool to attract custom.

Image 2. Daily Mirror, Thursday 14th February 2013

By comparison, what recent newspaper reports on the horsemeat scandal betray is not so much an issue with the adulteration of meat or ingestion of horsemeat per se, but a reaction to the visceral realities of meat production. The Daily Mirror’s front page on February 14th, for example, provided a lurid glimpse ‘Inside UK Meat Factory’ with an image of ‘blood-spattered butchers’ and animal carcasses in the background, yet the impact of the photograph draws more on the perceived horror of the work occurring inside the abattoir, rather than the presence of anything visually identifiable as horsemeat. There is little in this image which differs from that of the butcher’s shop – meat is hanging on hooks in the background with smaller cuts on the table in the foreground – but here it is the process of meat production itself which is figured as a source of disgust. Whether or not the meat is horseflesh, the reaction that the photograph is intended to provoke plays on the fact that, for many, the image of meat being ‘hacked’ from animals in ‘blood-spattered’ abattoirs is an unpleasant one.

In Wilkie Collins’s text Man and Wife, Sir Patrick advises his nephew-in-law to ‘shut your eyes’ and ‘swallow your adulterated sugar’, and whilst many Victorians may have had to shut their eyes to contaminated food, it would seem that it is the inverse of this problem which is at the heart of current events.[iv] Rather than shutting our eyes to the adulteration of food, it is the reality of the meat industry in its most basic form which seems hardest to swallow. Instead of witnessing herds of cattle being driven to market, or the carcasses of animals strung up in butchers’ shops, meat production is – by and large – a remote process which consumers do not have to consider, aided by the processing and packaging of meat products. The enduring popularity of meat which is processed and reconstituted (particularly in the UK and USA) combined with the need for consumers to find cheaper alternatives to the often more expensive whole cuts of meat has seemingly lead to a particularly distorted relationship with meat products. Not only do processed and reconstituted meats provide an easy opportunity for adulteration, but they also make it easier for the consumer to disassociate the meat on the plate from the animal from which it has been cut. With reports suggesting that shoppers are returning to butchers for meat and shunning supermarkets, comparisons between Victorian food adulteration and the horsemeat scandal illustrate the ease with which nineteenth-century issues transcend time to the present, but also provide some useful pointers for how our relationship with food, and meat in particular, needs to be reconsidered.

[i] Richard Perren, The Meat Trade in Britain, 1840 – 1914 (London: Routledge, 1978): 37

[ii] James Gregory, Of Victorians and Vegetarians: The Vegetarian Movement in Nineteenth –century Britain (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2007): 13

[iii] Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (Ware: Wordsworth Classics [1838] 1992): 132

[iv] Wilkie Collins, Man and Wife (Oxford: Oxford University Press [1870] 2008): 94-5

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