The risks and anxieties associated with eating in modern Western societies need to be placed both in economic and historical context. Quite clearly, for large numbers of people in the contemporary world the overriding anxiety relating to food emerges out of a concern that now or in the future one simply will not be able to get enough food to remain healthy and active or, for that matter, alive. Similarly, even in Europe, we do not need to reach very far back into history to come across situations in which food shortages affected the lives of millions of individuals. The Second World War, for example, saw widespread food shortages in continental Europe, although they were often unevenly distributed in geographical and social terms. Indeed, in some instances, large numbers starved, or were starved, to death. As we have already seen, low nutritional standards and inadequate food intake were common in the lower orders of British society in the nineteenth century. Indeed, Mennell (1985:27) argues that centuries of recurrent famine have left their mark upon the European mind, with such themes as starvation and cannibalism woven into the very fabric of European folklore.
Risks other than shortage have long threatened the food consumer. The contamination of food with naturally occurring micro-organisms and toxins has always posed threats to human health, all the more disturbing when the underlying mechanisms were not understood. Perhaps one of the most chilling and bizarre manifestations of such contamination is the illness known as ergotism. Ergot is a fungal disease which affects cereals, the grain becoming infested with the spore-bearing bodies of the fungus. Rye is particularly susceptible to this fungus, and if the grain is badly affected cooking may not neutralize the toxic effects, rendering bread baked with the affected flour highly dangerous. The symptoms of ergotism include either burning pains and gangrene in the limbs, or itching skin and convulsions, hence the names ‘Holy Fire’ or ‘St Anthony’s Fire’ given to the disease. An outbreak in the Rhine valley in AD 857 is thought to have caused literally thousands of deaths (Tannahill 1988:101). The disease occurred all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages, causing intense suffering, insanity and death. Its actual cause was not discovered until 1670, when a French country physician, a Dr Thuillier, after years of patient study of the