Monday, March 4, 2013

Food Standards Agency 16th century style...

Or...What's in this meat pie?  
by Margaret Skea

Readers in the UK may or may not be concerned about the current 'horsemeat labeled as beef' scandal.  For those of you in the US or elsewhere who might not have heard, there is currently a Europe-wide crisis with horsemeat DNA having been found in many supposedly beef ready-meals, burgers, etc., with Food Standards Agencies running rings round themselves, testing everything in sight to discover the scale of the fraud.

For the record, I'm not worried, though I would prefer to know what I'm eating.  And if I'm not currently enjoying any burgers, I am at least enjoying the host of jokes that the crisis has spawned--my (suitably historic) favourite:  "After finding Richard III in a Leicester Car Park, scientists have found his horse in a Tesco burger."

Is the mislabeling and adulteration of food a new problem?  

Definitely not.  

I imagine it's been an issue for millennia, but I personally haven't delved further back than the 15th and 16th centuries.  It was certainly a problem then, however, and to protect the customer and avoid disorder there were strict market regulations governing what could be sold, where, and in what form.


In Scotland, some regulations came from the burghs themselves, some by statute, and the penalties for breaching them were suitably harsh.  

Take bread, for example.  Scotland, in common with most of Europe suffered from 'bread riots', with one notable difference--the rioters in Scotland were not the poor, desperate for reasonably priced food, but the bakers or 'baxters' themselves, protesting about price restrictions imposed by the burgh authorities in response to regular Acts of Parliament.

Most bread was made from wheat, though the poorest households probably made their own flat and fairly indigestible barley bannocks.  The price and weight of bread was set but fluctuated according to the price of wheat.  Burgh records describe the bailies taking flour ground from a firlot (roughly equivalent to an imperial bushel) of wheat to a baker and watching as the bread was baked.

The resulting loaf was the standard against which all other loaves were measured.  Any baker selling underweight bread risked, at best, a fine and confiscation of his stock, and at worst, his oven being broken.

Often the sale of bread, as of other foodstuffs, was restricted to freemen or women - those with burgess status. ‘Outlanders’, coming into the burgh from outside, were sometimes allowed to trade, but only if they paid the burgh for the privilege. Quality was also controlled, different grades of bread being classified as ‘white’ or ‘gray’ – not the most appealing of names - but all was to be ‘good’ and ‘dry’, which probably meant well-fired and well-risen – nothing worse than a damp and soggy loaf!

Ale was also strictly regulated – the price dependent both on the price of malt and the quality of the ale. Tasters, or ‘conners’ were appointed on annual contracts, and having graded the ales they chalked the set prices on the shutters or door of the brewsters so that they could be clearly seen. Anyone found to be over-charging could have the bottom knocked out of his brewing vessels. (Interesting that 16th century burgh authorities were concerned with imposing a maximum price for alcohol, while the current debate relates to minimum pricing.)

As now, horse was not a normal part of the 16th century Scottish diet - they were in any case much too valuable to eat. There is however plenty of evidence of the consumption of beef, mutton, pork and goat in the burghs, along with salmon, and seawater fish in coastal areas. Meat regulation was primarily concerned with quality and, as in the current horsemeat scandal, with ensuring that customers knew exactly what they were buying.



There has been much discussion on the length of our food chain, with meat being shipped all round Europe before it lands on a British table. Back then the food chain was extremely short, animals were to be slaughtered outside, in public view, and importantly, at the point of sale .


One way to ensure that a customer knows what animal they’re about to eat.

There were other issues too – the sale of meat from ‘longsoucht’ (lung-diseased) animals was banned, as was the sale of damaged or poorly butchered meat.

Efforts were made to outlaw dishonest practices designed to improve the appearance of meat, for example blowing air into a entire carcass, which plumped it up - to much the same effect, I imagine, as the modern practice of the addition of water, or the bleeding of animals before slaughter, which masked last minute feeding.

Not everyone was so well protected though - a rather shocking regulation stated that putrid pork or fish should be removed from sale and given to lepers.

But to come back to the meat pie of the title.

One of the most interesting restrictions of all on the activities of butchers or ‘fleshers’ is found in the Ancient Laws and Customs of the Burghs of Scotland--prohibiting them from trading as pastry cooks--an attempt to stop them putting poor quality meat into pies? Perhaps, which begs the sobering thought - three hundred years on nothing much seems to have changed…

There are many sources available for further information, here’s just one for starters for anyone who might be interested:

March M S (1914) ‘The trade regulations of Edinburgh during the 15th and 16th centuries.’ Scot Geogr Mag 30 (1914) 483 – 88

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Margaret Skea’s  debut novel Turn of the Tide was the Historical Fiction Winner in the Harper Collins People’s Novelist Competition and was published in Nov 2012 by Capercaillie Books.

You can find Margaret on Facebook and on her website www.margaretskea.com

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