Food adulteration is nothing new

HorsesWith horse meat cropping up all over the place in food in the UK at the moment, I went back to the interview I recorded in 2008 for Princeton University Press with Bee Wilson about her book Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Ersatz Coffee.

As the book makes clear, (justifiable) concern about what’s in our food is nothing new: complaints about adulterated bread date back at least as far as the Middle Ages, and the Victorians had to contend with fake tea, ersatz coffee and cheese coloured with red lead. In this interview, Bee says:

Adulteration is a universal in history – it’s always been with us and it’s always going to be with us in some form or another. But it only seems to have become endemic in modern industrialized cities coupled with a particular kind of state. You would have editorials written in the Times between about the 1820s and the 1860s quite regularly saying things like, if a gentleman wants to sell chicory and call it coffee, that’s his business, no one should intervene…

Listening to the BBC lunchtime news today, I was surprised by just how phlegmatic shoppers interviewed on Camden High Street were about not knowing what was in the food they were eating; the prevailing attitude was, if the food’s cheap, you’re naive not to expect some corners to have been cut along the way. Where, I wonder, is the dividing line between corners cut and horses minced?

To listen to the podcast click here.

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