Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/A few words on our meat


What is it that makes the butcher’s bill so heavy of late years? This is a question which every one is asking, and to which no satisfactory reply can be obtained. We find by the annual imports that the live stock of the island is being very largely increased, and the natural result we should fancy would be that meat would fall in price; but if you ask any housekeeper, the answer is, that on the average throughout the country meat is a penny a pound dearer than it was twenty years ago. The reply to the question housekeepers have so often asked in vain, has been at length given in the Fifth Report of the Medical Officer of Health to the Privy Council. The growing reports of the increasing consumption of diseased meat having led “my lords” of the Privy Council to order an inquiry to be made into a matter so closely concerning the public health, Mr. Gamgee, the president of the Edinburgh New Veterinary College, was deputed to report upon the subject, and this report throws a light upon the whole question, which not only explains the reason of the dearness of meat, but gives us hints with respect to the quality of some of it, which will astonish and alarm the public. We have all heard incidentally of a fatal disease among horned cattle, but few will be prepared for the enormous mortality that has been going on for years, decimating these beasts. Mr. Gamgee tells us that in the year 1860 no less than 374,048 horned cattle, worth 3,805,938l., perished of disease, and that during the six years ending in 1860, the total loss was 2,255,000, valued at 25,934,650l. Taking this tremendous mortality into consideration, we think we need not complain at having to pay a penny a pound dearer for our beef than we used do. The reduction of the tariff, which gave Sir Robert Peel such undying fame, and which was to have made England the market of the world for corn and cattle, has unfortunately totally failed to fulfil the promises of free-traders in respect to the latter item, as far as the consumers are concerned, inasmuch as we imported what we did not bargain for—a disease hitherto unknown to our stock-breeders, which has actually swept off four times as many beasts as have been imported into these islands. One half of this tremendous mortality is due to pleuro-pneumonia, or lung fever, which is infectious to the last degree, especially where the cattle are crowded in sheds, under cover. Thus out of a total of 1839 milking-cows kept in 88 dairies in Edinburgh, in the year ending 1st January, 1862, no less than 1075 fell victims to this disease. In Dublin, again, we find the mortality, taking the average of the last twenty years, was nearly as high, for out of 315 dairy cows kept within that period, 161 became diseased and were obliged to be killed. The annual loss among sheep, through disease, is estimated at 1,600,000l.; and among pigs, at 1,209,000l.

What becomes of all these diseased beasts? Fully one-fifth of them are sold to the butchers, the major portion for human consumption, and the remainder to feed, and, in many cases, to disease pigs. Every now and then we hear through the newspapers that some unprincipled butcher is fined for exposing diseased or tainted meat for sale in Newgate Market; but these proceedings give not the faintest idea of the trade that is being carried on in animal food that is not fit for human consumption. In fact many of the butchers themselves are unaware of the poisonous stuff they are supplying to the public, inasmuch as large quantities of meat are purchased at Newgate in the dead meat market, the carcases having been prepared in distant parts of the country. In many cases it is only the viscera, such as the lungs, as in the deaths from pleuro-pneumonia, that is to outward appearance diseased; this being removed, leaves the muscular fibre but little changed in appearance, but still unwholesome, and to a certain degree poisonous. It does not always happen however that town butchers are so blameless. Mr. Gamgee describes a process called “polishing carcases,” by which they ingeniously manage to make diseased, lean carcases look like good fat meat. This is managed by killing a good fat ox at the same time that a number of diseased and lean animals are being killed. When the lean kine have been skinned, their flesh is rubbed over from the fat of the healthy ox. In order to distribute this fat equally, hot cloths are used to distribute it over the carcase and give it an artificial gloss, and an appearance of being generally fat. The diseased organs of animals, however bad, are not wasted. They are either given to pigs, or taken direct to the sausage makers. Nothing seems too bad for the makers of these atrocious compounds. “I have seen,” says Mr. Gamgee, “carcases dressed, and portions of it prepared for sale as sausage-meat and otherwise, although thoracic disease had gone on to such an extent that gallons of fetid fluid were removed from the pleural sacs, and that large abscesses existed in the lungs.”

One of the most pestilential of the diseases that attack stock of all kinds is anthrax, a blood disease, which shows itself in boils, and carbuncles, and gangrenous complications. Even beasts dying of so loathsome a disease as this, find their way to the butchers’ shops. It has been proved that pigs partaking of this poisoned flesh have become infected with carbuncular irruptions, and there seems good reason to believe that the great prevalence of carbuncular irruptions in the human subject, noticed within these last twenty years, is due to the use of this class of diseased meat. Dr. Livingstone remarks “that whenever the natives of Africa eat the flesh of an animal that had died of pleuro-pneumonia, they always suffered from carbuncle.” One of the most common diseases prevalent among stock is the measles in pigs. The term is rather inappropriate, as the measle is nothing less than the larvæ of the tape-worm. The Irish say that “there is no pig without its measle.” So common is this affection among Irish pigs, that it has created a new profession among those who deal in these animals, called “measle triers.” Mr. Gamgee says, before the animals are paid for, they are examined by a measle trier, a man who proceeds to work with a short and stout stick, a penknife, and an assistant. The pig is caught by his hind legs, then by a fore one, and then turned up; the stick is forced into the mouth and turned down on the ground, with a knee placed upon it, inflicting pain and bruising sadly the pig’s upper jaw. The tongue is then drawn out and wiped, and measles looked for, or felt for, beneath or at the root of the tongue. When it can’t be found there and the seller denies the fact of measles being present, the measle trier has to cut into the tongue and draw out the larvæ.

It is not very satisfactory to hear that nearly all the measly pigs find their way to London, the Irish being too knowing to eat them. Mr. Gamgee tells us that there cannot be less than 50,000 measly pigs in Ireland, and that for every measly pig at least one person contracts tape-worm, hence the prevalence of that parasite in the human intestines. It has long been a puzzle how the larvæ of the tape-worm could enter the stomach of man alive, considering that the heat of cooking generally kills them, but it is pretty certain that they are not always killed in the curing and smoking of ham and bacon, and in this manner it is supposed to obtain access to the human intestines. Measles are never found in Wiltshire bacon, therefore we should advise all our readers who wish to avoid this unpleasant parasite, to confine themselves to the home-bred article. Another circumstance which tends to make pork at times unwholsome is the practice of feeding pigs with all kinds of offal. It is very common to give them the diseased viscera of all animals that have died, and in many cases their flesh is thereby rendered poisonous. Mr. Gamgee says that sows fed on horse flesh and other offal, always die shortly after they have farrowed, and that young pigs fed on flesh soon die. All carnivorous pigs may be known by their soft diffluent fat. Mr. Huxtable, the famous pig breeder, is accustomed to fatten his stock by giving them a slice of fat bacon every morning. We hope after the evidence given by Mr. Gamgee that he will no longer pursue this objectionable practice. There is a great temptation to feed pigs on offal, as they so speedily make flesh on this diet. For this reason many butchers breed pigs, and let them find their living in their slaughter houses. Beware, therefore, good reader, of butcher pork.

We are told that in the great establishments in France for the rearing of chickens and fowls, that they are fed upon horse flesh, which they eat voraciously. If carnivorous feeding makes our pigs’ flesh poisonous, it is very probable that a like system of feeding will make our delicate chicken meat a curse rather than a blessing to invalids. We may feel pretty sure that the horse flesh is not of the most healthy kind or of the freshest quality. This rank food is not given primarily with the idea of fattening the fowls, but for its known quality of stimulating them to lay eggs, a carnivorous feeding hen, it is asserted, never failing to give her egg a day the whole year round; a discovery this not very refreshing to the lovers of new-laid eggs, as so many of them now find their way here from France.

To revert again, however, to the causes at work affecting the healthy quality of our meat, we may refer to the very unnatural manner in which our live-stock is fattened. Some time before Christmas all animals intended to compete for the great Smithfield prizes at the Agricultural Show are dosed with oil-cake and other carbonaceous materials, at the same time that they are stall-fed and deprived of all exercise. The result, in the butcher’s eye, is “a perfect picture” of a beast, for which the breeder is rewarded by the judges with a handsome prize. But, in reality, these prize-beasts are all, more or less, diseased by this over-feeding on highly stimulating food. Mr. Gamgee tells us of severe outbreaks of disease in cattle incidental to plethora—the blood becomes poisoned by the amount of carbon they are supplied with—the fat and flesh increase, especially the fat, in a remarkable manner, and the breeder profits, but the result is not so satisfactory to the consumer. The fine ruddy beef overwhelmed in fat we see adorned with holly at Christmas is, in reality, diseased food. We are loth to disparage the Roast Beef of Old England, but this over-fed prize-meat deserves no quarter. Some two or three years since, Mr. Gant, of the Royal Free Hospital, suspecting that the extraordinary high-pressure work suddenly put upon the great internal organs—such as the liver, heart, and lungs—of young animals thus fattened for the market, must be highly prejudicial to their health, determined to note some of these prize-beasts, and then to follow them up to the slaughterhouse and hold a post-mortem upon them. This he did: and the result was, that he found their hearts were all affected with “fatty” degeneration—a disease which affects humanity as well as beasts among that well-to-do portion of mankind who love their stomachs “not fondly but too well,” and who neglect those exercises of the body which will alone permit a man thus to indulge. The heart thus damaged, the whole circulation is interfered with, and the animal can by no means be said to be healthy. Such meat may therefore be justly classed under the head of adulterated food. It is bad enough to find our bread falsified in the course of its manufacture by man, but it is outrageous to find the poor beasts subjected to a similar falsification, making them miserable whilst in this life, and, to a certain extent, deleterious as food when dead; and, above all, it is truly monstrous to find a gigantic association, with dukes as presidents and experts as judges, selecting these bulky, apoplectic, plethoric, heart-diseased beasts as models of feeding, as fine examples of good meat, and as flowers of produce to be held up as patterns to the energetic stock-breeders of the land.

The question is, however, can we in any way prevent the evils we have pointed out, and restore the meat we eat to its natural healthy condition, before the free-trade introduced foreign diseases among our stock, and high feeding and fattening further deteriorated it? It is quite clear that the only means of insuring the slaughtering of healthy beasts only must be the introduction of some measure that covers the whole country. The rapidly growing practice of killing and dressing the meat in the country, and then forwarding it by rail, altogether frustrates any plan of mere inspection of metropolitan slaughter-houses; and we are told it is not sufficient to inspect the dead meat market at Newgate, inasmuch as there is much meat unquestionably diseased which does not look bad to the eye. Mr. Gamgee, for instance, says; “Many of the worst forms of disease are very sudden, and only slightly affect the colour and texture of the muscular apparatus. A fine fat bullock with florid meat may have died from splenic apoplexy, or been merely killed pro formâ when already on the point of death. Remove the spleen, and the carcase appears sound! Yet dogs and pigs in this country die from eating, although first cooked, any portion of such cattle.” It must be remembered, that town butchers send to the dead meat markets occasionally, as they cannot get sufficient of their own killing. Thus it will be seen that poisonous and unhealthy meat is as likely to reach the tables of the rich as those of the poor and middle classes. We have heard of persons being poisoned by eating a mutton-chop. Such dietetic eccentricities are generally ascribed to some peculiar idiosyncrasy of the individual so suffering. The effect of diseased mutton upon the stomach would, however, much more satisfactorily account for such a mishap. It is clear from what we have said, that a strict watch must be kept over the country slaughter-houses, as well as those in town, if we wish to prevent the bringing of diseased meat to town for sale.

The wilful spoiling of meat by the errors of diet is, we are glad to see, on the decrease, as the judges at our fat-cattle shows, in obedience to the public voice, have of late inclined to discourage the over-feeding of cattle, and look more now to their good points than to their powers of contributing to the grease pot. As the public voice cannot, however, reach the fraudulent meat purveyors, we must look to the Board of Health for protection against them, and upon the foundation of this Report we think the Legislature will feel inclined to act.