Despite the media’s best efforts, last month’s horsemeat ‘scandal’ failed to stir up much public outrage. To most, our unconscious ingestion of horsemeat seemed amusing, even vaguely continental. Indeed, the sale and consumption of horsemeat in this country is neither illegal nor unheard of, although there is a longstanding taboo surrounding it that possibly dates back to a papal ban on its consumption in 732. Over time, prohibition turned to collective squeamishness and, more importantly, better uses were found for horses. As such, the consumption of horsemeat became increasingly rare and widely frowned upon. In 1941, a Hull butcher made headlines for attempting to alleviate wartime food shortages by selling horsemeat, honestly and openly in this case. The story was presented as a sign of the desperate situation Britain was facing and the extreme measures that some were forced to take as a result.
However, the main concern in the recent horsemeat incident was less the horsemeat per se, but rather the idea of hidden ingredients. In fact, food adulteration has been part of urban British life for many years. It was particularly widespread in the nineteenth century, when demand for food in the overpopulated cities far outnumbered the supply, and there was a lack of regulation against debasement. Coffee, tea, spices and, above all, bread, were some of the most popular targets for adulteration, with contaminants ranging from other, cheaper foodstuffs such as oatmeal and arrowroot, to more harmful substances such as chalk. Studies by Arthur Hill Hassall and Henry Letheby prompted the first parliamentary enquiry into food adulteration in 1855-6 and the first Food and Drugs Act followed shortly after. Increased legislation by no means put a stop to food adulteration, but did at least prompt a rapid decrease in its contamination with dangerous substances. Advances in food science and alleviated economic conditions have also been key in reducing dangerous food adulteration in Britain. However, it has never completely disappeared.