‘Mary had a little lamb, and when she saw it sicken, she shipped it off to Packingtown, and now its


To bring historians’ research into food-adulteration crises, preventative legislation and actions to the attention of the Department of Health and Food Standards Agency, currently in the process of developing strategies to combat widespread food-adulteration throughout UK meat-processing industries and manage public suspicion regarding processed foodstuffs.

Key Messages:

  • There is a long history of food adulteration in processing industries dating before the horsemeat contamination in 2013, and food adulteration has long been recognised in consumption habits through the growth of mass, anonymous food processing away from traditional, community-based safeguards in local production.
  • (Lorine Goodwin).
  • Historical evidence suggests food adulteration targets the urban poor disproportionately as primary consumers of cheap, processed foods. There are comparative examples of adulteration in Everyday Value (Tesco), Aldi and Lidl products to processed meat eaten by Victorian urban poor. However, the most politically active regarding food safety in history has been the middling classes, through increasing consumption of convenience food.
  • Media and political exploitation is liable to overtake the true scale of the crisis, shown by political capital made after the “Embalmed beef” crisis of 1898-1900 by Democrats during the 1900 election in the United States and by figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and General Nelson Miles. Exposés such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), regarding Chicago’s meatpacking industry, caused widespread alarm among educated and engaged classes, necessitating government action.
  • Attempts to investigate and rebuke suggestions of unsafe consumption are liable to fail in appeasing public concerns, regardless of veracity, as shown by Chief Chemist Harvey Wiley’s testing of “Embalmed beef” which failed to curb public unrest.
  • “Food Purity” movements and boycotts are destined to fail in the long term, as meat consumption is heavily ingrained into national diets (particularly British/American diets), whilst the urban poor remained financially trapped in purchasing inferior-quality meat.
  • Legislation was frequently ineffective in curtailing fears towards meat-products or tackling root causes of adulteration by leaving loopholes for non-compliance.
  • Businesses have irresponsibly cashed-in on “food purity”, through devices that draw attention away from tackling contamination. State-approved labelling and inspection stamps, alongside gimmicks and “pure” imagery, such as Edgar Ingram’s “White Castle” hamburger chain or tours of slaughterhouses among the “Big Five” meatpacking industries of America, improved confidence and profits, yet had little impact on adulteration. Nathan Handwerker, hotdog entrepreneur in the early 20th century, revived sales after adulteration scandals by hiring student customers to pose as doctors (Harvey Levenstein).
  • Historian Gabriel Kolko saw the Meat Inspection Act 1906 provide examples of big business utilising purity regulation to simply eliminate smaller competition and introduce negligent self-regulation and sham inspections.
  • Food safety and adulteration prevention protocol and investigation must extend beyond current scandals, with independent inspection and monitoring of food-sourcing increased.

Policy Context:

The recent discovery of horsemeat contamination in beef-products and ready meals by Irish food inspectors, led to widespread recalling of products in the UK potentially containing equine DNA. The scandal affected suppliers such as Nestle, Findus, Birdseye, Silvercrest and Comigel, retailers Tesco, Iceland, Aldi and Lidl and local authorities. Large numbers of contaminated products belonged to “value” brands. The image of “Horse Burgers” persisted throughout the media, despite FSA product testing and attempted re-focusing towards “food fraud” over safety issues; with persistent public concerns over processed-meat products, particularly fears of potentially dangerous ‘bute’ (phenylbutazone) contamination.

Although beef adulteration is held to have originated from Romanian abattoirs and organised criminal gangs, the problems proved European-wide, from complex supply chains that necessitate raids, seizures and meetings of European countries to discuss the crisis.


  1. To organise at least three meetings/seminars between historians, civil servants or MPs from affected departments, with at least one representative from affected retail chains (e.g. British Retail Consortium), from meat-processing companies (British Meat Processors Association) and news media, by 30th May.
  2. Secure evidence of positive receptions for historians’ interventions from audience sectors attending.
  3. Secure evidence of the impact of historian’s discourse or engagement in five different policy publications/media sources by 30th May.
  4. Publish two policy papers on food adulteration/inspection by 30th April, with online debates initiated on social media/history and policy forum, responding to developments.
  5. Arrange filming for one event, uploaded by 30th May.


  • Civil Servants, politicians and advisors at the Department of Health, FSA and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
  • Representatives of UK retailers, culinary chains and meat-processing industries affected by contamination, through organisations such as Association Of British Abattoir Owners Ltd, British Meat Processors Association, British Retail Consortium.
  • Local Authorities and Trust managers providing food-products for schools, hospitals, prisons and care-homes.
  • Media groups covering the scandal in broadcast/traditional media.


  • Contact food historians (Harvey Levenstein, Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Lorine S. Goodwin), civil servants and representatives of aforementioned departments/committees/industries to participate in seminars, to present/debate themes relevant to food adulteration and past prevention strategies.
  • With agreement of historians, publish presentations on H&P website and encourage publication of research in H&P policy Papers.
  • Encourage historians to engage with media in the form of newspaper features e.g. Times and Daily Mail features (especially in historical reflection features on present issues) and be available for comment/rebuttals. Encourage potential discussion and utilisation on consumer programmes (e.g. Watchdog).
  • Post recorded debate/presentation footage on YouTube with historians’ permission, and utilise social-media/twitter/forums for summations of arguments made during from seminars and research – encouraging public feedback and engagement.
  • Offer consultation to companies and civil servants during deliberation of legislation and public relations exercises (i.e. offer to provide evidence before the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee).

Monitoring and Evaluation:

  • Evaluate seminars using feedback forms filled in by audiences after each session – return to History & Policy for analysis.
  • Seek continued contact with parties engaged in seminars to direct future engagement.
  • Make notes/record engagement with public on YouTube/social media sites for future engagement with the public and measuring effectiveness. E.g. monitoring of key-word searches and site-traffic. Make note of politicians/committee members following twitter discussions or referencing papers in re-tweeting.


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H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

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