Food Safety Changes through the Ages

Reviewed by Wendy Marcason, RDN
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The winds of change in the food industry began to stir in 1906 when Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle reached the hearts and minds of the American public. The Jungle painted a startling picture of the Chicago meatpacking industry, describing unsanitary and dangerous practices and harmful working environments. The ensuing press coverage heightened the issue, and public reaction was strong, motivating Congress to pass in 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act, which legislated meat inspection procedures.

Science and Technology Influence Food Handling

In the early 1900s, food poisoning was at its height. Contaminated foods were causing typhoid fever, tuberculosis, botulism and scarlet fever. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1900, the incidence of typhoid fever was approximately 100 per 100,000 population; by 1920, it had decreased to 33.8, and by 1950, to 1.7. The decrease was influenced by breakthroughs in the understanding of bacteria growth, hand washing, sanitation and the invention and implementation of pasteurization for milk products.

Another influencing factor in the downswing of food poisoning was the development of refrigeration in the 1920s. Before refrigeration was widely available, people would keep food cool by storing it on blocks of ice, burying it in the yard or storing it on an exterior window sill in the winter months.

Continued Vigilance

The first concerns about food safety in the United States began with the founding of the U.S. Department of Agriculture by Abraham Lincoln in 1862. From the USDA sprang the Division of Chemistry, renamed the Bureau of Chemistry in 1901, which would later evolve into the Food and Drug Administration in 1927. The Food Safety and Inspection Service, also branching from the USDA, began monitoring the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry and egg products.

Since the 1970s, changes in food processing from crop management and agricultural practices to globalization of the food supply have introduced new threats from foodborne pathogens and require ongoing changes in legislation to continue protecting the nation’s food supply. Recent statistics from the CDC indicate approximately 48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from food poisoning each year. In many cases, these could be prevented. On January 4, 2011, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law by President Obama. The Act’s regulatory focus will be the prevention of food poisoning.

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