Looking back to look ahead: The development of food science, food safety and food regulations
More than 300 years ago, long before the term “food science” existed, Salem had a painful legacy. In a single year, the villagers of Salem were engulfed in a murderous frenzy of superstition, and 20 people were tortured and hanged for witchcraft.
Curious how rye bread may have led to this series of prosecutions for witchcraft? Foodborne illnesses are no new phenomenon- they go way back in history.
In fact, many instances of food poisoning potentially changing history have been documented over the centuries, which led to the advancements in food safety we know today.
Read on to find out how looking back into the history of food safety helps us get ahead. Looking back into the history of food safety helps us get ahead.
Foodborne illnesses are no new phenomenon- they have been around since the beginning of time. Many moons ago, it’s very likely that Alexander the Great – king of ancient Greece and conqueror of Persia and Egypt – charismatic, ruthless and brilliant – fell not from a sword, dagger, or arrow, but from a tiny “bug” known as Salmonella, which caused typhoid fever . And in 1898, the Spanish-American War was more than just a battle against weapons and bombs, it was a battle against infection. The Spanish-American War had brought another outbreak of typhoid fever, sickening more than 20,000 soldiers. One that revealed line officers’ culpability and made sanitation a priority for the army.
Other historical instances of food poisoning potentially changing history have been documented. The Salem witch trials were carried out during the late 1600s when people held beliefs in witchcraft, and were extremely superstitious. People in Salem began exhibiting convulsions and strange symptoms. Some of those symptoms were similar to those caused by LSD, such as severe hallucinations.  A religious doctor blamed witchcraft for their afflictions, and the rest of the villagers succumbed to suggestibility and groupthink. A situation with the perfect ingredients for stirring up mass hysteria- accusations flew and the witch hunt was on. By May 1693, more than 200 people were imprisoned, 19 were hanged and 1 was crushed by stone during torture – all accused of witchcraft .
But the real devil may have been on the dinner table all this while. The villagers were not bewitched, but rather, suffered from ergotism from ingesting rotten rye. In fact, it was discovered 300 years later in 1976 by Dr. Linnda Caporael of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that perhaps it was a toxic fungus, which grew on the rye used for food, which resulted in the “strange” symptoms.  The tragedy then, was one of extreme proportions and it destroyed a community for generations to come. Maybe if science had been more advanced in that period, the fate of those tortured and executed might have been different.
Later in the early 1900s, raw milk contamination, botulism-tainted canned olives, and salmonella-tainted oysters were among the most notable outbreaks in modern history. Several hundred people died as a result of those outbreaks. In 1919, three cases of botulism caused by consumption of canned olives packed in California made national headlines. Nineteen people died in total after eating food containing botulism-tainted canned olives at a banquet or family gathering. Consequently, strict processing regulations were enacted—115.6°C for at least 40 minutes—and a statewide inspection program overseen by the impartial California State Board of Health . Many of these standardized practices had spread to other food products by 1925, such as tuna, sardines, and most vegetables . In the United States, similar outbreaks persisted throughout the first half of the 20th century until the publication of a novel by Upton Sinclair which shed light on the brutality and exploitative nature of the meat-packing industry.
THE TRUTH IS HARD TO STOMACH
After Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” captured the hearts (and maybe stomachs) of Americans in 1906, the food industry underwent an upheaval. Described in the book, there were unsanitary, hazardous practices and harmful working conditions in the Chicago meat-packing industry. Public outrage grew after widespread press coverage. This led to the implementation of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906, in order to legislate meat inspection procedures . Later through the second half of the century, outbreaks have spiked dramatically in the country. One such major outbreak was caused by Salmonella in 1985, related to contaminated pasteurized milk. This was the worst Salmonella outbreak in U.S history which sickened roughly 16,000 people .
The food safety methodology radically changed following the outbreak from sight, smell, and touch to a scientific method known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) .The HACCP system was first developed in the 1960’s when the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Pillsbury Company collaborated to provide food for space expeditions . As a result of its success, the original HACCP was adapted to educate other food facilities in the industry in 1971 . In addition to decreasing foodborne illness by minimizing biological, chemical, and physical hazards along the supply chain, HACCP is recognized for significantly reducing infections associated with foodborne illness today . Having implemented HACCP systems for several years, by 2003, the USDA Economic Research Service estimated that foodborne illness in the United States had been reduced by 20% .
RAISING THE STANDARDS OF FOOD SAFETY
A milestone in the 21st century, the ISO 22000 standard was developed in 2005 to help the food industry identify and control safety hazards. Interactive communication, system management. HACCP principles are some of the key aspects of the standard . Nonetheless, this did not prevent major outbreaks that continued in the 2000s. Examples include the 2006 E.coli outbreak from contaminated spinach that caused five deaths, the 2008-2009 salmonella outbreak from peanut butter that killed nine and infected 714 people, and the 2011 listeria outbreak from cantaloupes that killed 33 people and caused a miscarriage . Salmonella outbreaks and other highly publicized food safety issues prompted the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA) to be enacted by Congress in 2011. The act seeks to ensure food safety by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it .
DESPITE PROGRESS, MORE WORK TO BE DONE
We read news of another outbreak of foodborne illness or food recall nearly every other day. The food safety industry has made great strides over the years. However, there are still an estimated 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses each year . As recently as February of this year, Abbott recalled its infant formula products and closed its Michigan plant due to serious bacterial infections in four infants. This worsened a shortage that began with pandemic supply chain issues . In light of history and the challenges posed by the pandemic, consumers and producers must be vigilant to prevent the proliferation and spread of harmful microorganisms, as they continue to evolve.