Abstract: Trick or Treat? American and Canadian Meat Exports to Britain in the Late Nineteenth Century and the Misuse of Geographical Appellations

David Higgins and Dev Gangjee


It is well established that by the late nineteenth century Britain was the world's biggest importer of foodstuffs. One feature of this trade that has received scant attention from business historians is the misrepresentation of foodstuffs in the British market according to geographical origin. This paper attempts to fill this void by using a case study of American beef in Britain. First, we utilize current debates in business history that emphasize vertical integration and the use of the supply chain to control brand quality. Second, we emphasize the absurdities in prevailing British legislation on merchandise marks and the serious obstacles to their eradication. Finally, we employ new data to calculate the price premiums that could be earned from origin misrepresentation. Our results indicate that the incentive to misrepresent was not simply a function of origin, but also of quality. While it is true that considerable premiums could be earned from "passing off" American beef as British in the early 1890s, this perception becomes increasingly unreliable from the 1900s. In fact, we demonstrate that from the latter period considerable premiums could be earned by misrepresenting Scottish beef as English, as chilled American beef, or as beef imported live and subsequently slaughtered in Britain.