When will there be a fridge in every house around the world?
For centuries, people would only trust fresh meat if… they’d seen it walk.
The fear of eating something that has gone rotten has its origins in the dawn of time, and is still tragically current. In Italy, selling poorly preserved food is a crime, and therefore the problem is just getting people to obey the law. However, in many other parts of the world, the alternative simply doesn’t exist: maintaining the cold chain or preserving food properly is an impossible goal. The result is hard to quantify, but according to the World Health Organisation many of the nearly 2 million deaths each year from diarrhoea (of which approximately 1.5 million are children under the age of 5) can be attributed to ingesting contaminated food or liquids.
A classic example is meat, because attempts were being made to ensure it stayed healthy as far back as antiquity. An excellent book for anyone who reads French is “History of Food Fears” (Histoire des peurs alimentaires), by Madeleine Ferrières, Seuil 2002, which reveals an unsuspected history. In a fascinating account, the author tells a huge number of stories that may seem incredible, such as the conviction rooted in the early 1600s that you could get leprosy from eating potatoes. Although fears like this seem absurd to us today (and who knows what future generations will make of our fears of some foods now considered taboo because they are the fruit of new technologies), the issue of ensuring that meat is of good quality is incredibly current, at least in the poorest countries. Ferrières describes not just how in the 1200s, in some parts of Europe, it was absolutely obligatory to lead animals for slaughter alive practically to the doorstep of the consumer, but also how in the Middle Ages they tried to impose general standards of hygiene, requiring butchers to wear clean clothes. And naturally there were also strict rules for the sale of fish and seafood. In Geneva, the records show that in the 1500s, the fish catch had to be sold the same day in summer and within two days in winter. Milk, meanwhile, had to be sold when milking took place, or at most within the day.
In short, the simplest daily shopping required shrewdness and also a certain amount of luck. It’s something that we have forgotten thanks to technologies that ensure good preservation, from fridges to canning. Now that these technologies exist, the challenge is to make them accessible to everyone.