Was Food poisoning a Major Cause of Death in the 19th Century?

I was reading a story set in the 1850’s…and it appears to me that food preparation back then was pretty unsanitary. Basically, they had a few ways of preserving foods…they were pretty simple:
-pickling: immersing the food in vinegar
-brining/corning:soaking the meat in a salt solution
Canned foods came in about this time, but the sealing technology for cans was pretty primitive, and not reliable.
Of course, if you bought your meat/vegetables, etc., fresh, you probably were safe.
But if you were poor, most likely you had a few meals that included some spoiled foods.
Were people tougher back then? Or did the weak-stomached ones die off? Patrick O’Brien’s descriptions of mess food in the 1800’s Royal navy are pretty revolting…one of the mess cook’sjobs was to pick the worms and weevils out of the Captain’s food!

It’s not that people were tougher. It’s just that they were willing to accept the possibility of occasional food poisoning. In many cases, it’s only an inconvenience – you’re sick, but it’s not life threatening.

And things were cooked differently, often a lot longer. A stew made of iffy meat would probably kill off most of the germs while it was cooking. Other meats were boiled to an inch of their life.

Fresh meat was not all that fresh, and often covered in soot from hanging in butcher shops (see Otto Bettman’s The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible for all the details). In addition, milk was watered down (if it didn’t come from a diseased cow), “butter” was made from the cheapest grease available, the health of beef cattle was often iffy (and the meat was not preserved all that well). This doesn’t even mention the butchers and fishmongers who sold “seconds” – food that was deemed unsaleable to the upper class, but which was sold to the poor.

As for vegetables and fruits – forget it. Few people ate them. Fruits were picked unripe and often went directly to rotten without any step in between. Vegetables other than grains were rarely eaten at all, even on farms (in the midwest, the diet staple was corn meal; in the south, it was grits and pork fat, leading to endemic pellegra).

But people are pretty strong, and you can live on some of these things as long as they’re cooked well.

Not really…

Pickling/brining/corning/salting pretty much precludes microbial overgrowth in the foods in question.
Drying/smoking = those wonderful smithtown hams/prosciutto/parma hams, bstirma [slab of beef schmeered with spices and air dried], beef jerky, different types of fish, sausages like salami, pepperoni, chorizo…

We actually consume MANY foods prepped in pretty much the exact same way as in the middle ages and think nothing of it. Many of our snack foods like pickles, dried meat bits [dried fish, salmon jerky, beef jerky, sausage sticks/slim jims] pickled eggs, pickled pigs feet [blech] and dried fruits are purely medieval.

In general other than sausage, bacon and other preserved meats we still use today, meat was a fairly rare item for the lower classes, and augmented the fruits and veggies. In the upper classes, meats were fresh [in addition to the preserved meats] because it was easier to keep them on the hoof [as it were] then to sstore the meat. You killed a chicken when you wanted to eat chicken and they did have butchers in towns and cities…not everybody lived in little huts in the woods…so townsfolk and city folk could actually buy freshly slaughtered beef and pork…and in the tiny villages, you would slaughter a pig, and use most of its bits in different ways immediately [the larger cuts would get preserved, smaller cuts and internal organs would get used, and the trimmings would make sausage.] Just like you see in Louse on the Prarie [or was it Louse in the Big Woods…cant remember which had the pig slaughtering in it…never did like the series of books, and the tv version sucked dick.]

Given the ability of fast food to screw up cooking, i think you are more in danger of food poisoning today than then=(

Good point made in the replies so far…
I presume the OP is talking about urban environments - in other words, industrial cities. (I presume it can be taken for granted that people in rural situations were able to sustain themselves without resorting to six-month-old meat, not least through a knowledge of edibile wild foods since mostly-forgotten).

The biggest causes of illness and death weren’t to do with food - they were water-borne. Plus the transmission of TB and other airborne diseases in slum conditions.

As for the provision of fresh meat - it wasn’t a problem. The railways saw to that. (Don’t forget, until the railways, only coastal areas ever had fresh saltwater fish.) Plus, cattle carcasses hung properly last for a long time, and poultry wasn’t a major part of the diet at that time.

Basically, if people could afford meat, they could get decent meat. If they couldn’t, they’d be far far more likely to die of hunger, or of cholera, or of God knows what else.