Horsemeat in historical perspective: food adulteration in Victorian Britain

The recent scandal about beef and other ready meals containing horsemeat has shown how food can quickly become a hot political topic, with consumers and the media putting pressure on retailers and politicians for action. Following the publication of its report on 14 February, the Select Committee  on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has continued to hear evidence on food contamination this week. However, such scandals are nothing new, as this blog about adulteration in the Victorian period explains.

The adulteration of foodstuffs and beverages was rife in the nineteenth century, an indication of the difficulties in feeding a rapidly growing population. Pressures on food supply were one reason why politicians were increasingly favourable to free trade measures that removed barriers, including tariffs, to food imports. The repeal of the corn laws, the statutes which regulated the importation of foreign cereals, in 1846 was widely heralded as securing cheap bread for the poor. Politicians therefore focused on creating a free market in which consumers could buy food. By removing tariffs and opening the British market, they hoped to keep food free and cheap.

However, little attempt was made to protect consumers or monitor standards or quality. The prevailing ethos of the time was embodied in the Latin motto caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. Even attempts to standardise weights and measures, the meanings of which varied considerably from place to place, were difficult to pass.

By the 1850s it was impossible to ignore the issue of adulteration. The Birmingham scientist John Postgate exploited chemical advances to reveal the extent of adulteration of food, drink and medicine. His public campaign prompted a select committee to be appointed, chaired by the Birmingham MP William Scholefield.

The committee’s 1856 report provided a horrifying catalogue of the common adulterants in everyday foodstuffs and beverages. For example, bread often contained potato, plaster of Paris, alum and copper sulphate, while confectionery was frequently coloured with poisonous pigments. By the time beer reached pubs or off-licences it had been diluted and adulterated with other ingredients, including water, treacle, salt, alum, sulphuric acid and Cocculus Indicus, a plant-derived intoxicant.

In 1857 Scholefield introduced a bill based on Postgate’s ideas. Postgate proposed that local councils should appoint public analysts who would have the power to test for contaminants and impose fines. However, there was much parliamentary opposition to a compulsory measure and Scholefield was forced to withdraw his bill. Eventually a permissive bill was passed in 1860. This law, the Adulteration of Food Act, permitted, but did not compel, councils to appoint analysts.

Despite the Act’s deficiencies, it was probably an achievement to get a measure passed at all given the climate of the time. The 1860 Adulteration Act was also an important first step to further, stronger legislation passed in the later nineteenth century, including the 1875 Sale of Food and Drugs Act.

Further reading:

T. Seccombe, rev. M. Lee, ‘Postgate, John (1820-1881)’, www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/22595

D.J. Oddy, ‘Food, drink and nutrition’, in F.M.L. Thompson (ed.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950 (1990), II, pp. 251-78.

For details on how to access William Scholefield’s biography on our 1832-68 preview site, see here.

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One Response to Horsemeat in historical perspective: food adulteration in Victorian Britain

  1. epeplow says:

    Reblogged this on The History of Parliament and commented:

    Food adulteration – not simply a product of the recent horsemeat scandal! From our ‘Victorian Commons’ section…

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