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HACCP: The Space Program’s Contribution to Food Safety

In the years since man landed on the Moon, there been one solution whenever there has been a true food safety crisis on Earth: HASSUP.

It is the Mount Rushmore of food regulation, and rarely does anyone break out the chisels to brush and clean it.

The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, or just plain old HASSUP for short, is the fix to restore confidence in food safety just as consumers and politicians have just about lost it.

And once implemented, change is rare. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is out with its first “updated guidance” for HACCP systems validation since 1996. It means large plants have six months and small and very small establishments have nine months to get their HACCP plans “properly validated.”

Time and time again, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and FSIS have required HACCP plans be put in place so the public would again feel confident about their purchases of seafood, juice, meat and poultry.

What is it about this particular set of regulations that inspires such confidence? It’s simple. HACCP was a product of the U.S. space program at a time when men wearing horn rip glasses and pocket protectors achieved the goal of putting a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth within the same decade.

Food safety in orbit was one of the thousands of problems that NASA had to solve. It could not risk having any pathogens or parasites in space with America’s astronauts. The man the space program turned to for help was Dr. Howard E. Bauman, a microbiologist for Pillsbury in Minneapolis.

NASA wanted food that wouldn’t crumble when floating around the spacecraft but also wouldn’t harm the electronics and would be safe for the astronauts to eat. Food safety was a problem because it could not be guaranteed under existing manufacturing practices.

That led the team Dr. Bauman was working with, including Paul Lachance from NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston and the U.S. Army’s Natick Laboratories to look at microbiological standards, including strict temperature and humidity controls.

The practices developed first for Project Mercury were continued for the Gemini and Apollo programs. It led to NASA food contractors being required to identify their critical control points. By April 1971, HACCP was ready to be rolled out to an audience beyond NASA at the National Conference on Food Protection in Denver.

Later in the summer of the same year, a deadly outbreak of botulism was linked to eating Bon Vivant’s cold potato soup and spurred doubts about whether FDA was up to the job of protecting consumers. Dr. Herbert L. Ley, Jr., FDA’s Commissioner at the time, seemed to be the one having most of the doubts. He lost his job.

But unlike some who are forced out, Dr. Ley continued to speak out and FDA had to acknowledge that it had not had an inspector in the Bon Vivant plant in four years. Then botulism turned up at Campbell’s.

Investigations found Bon Vivant soups undercooked and not much in the way of record keeping. A Bon Vivant problem sealing cans apparently went back to 1959. Then the botulism toxin was discovered in canned green beans manufactured by Stokley-Van Camp.

At that point, there was a full blown crisis in the U.S. canning industry and the long story short is that FDA turned to Pillsbury to train its supervisors and inspectors in HACCP so that it could impose the new regulatory scheme on the industry a short time later.

Low acid canning was first to get HACCP.

On its own, Pillsbury implemented HACCP at all its facilities by 1974. The company’s CEO gave Bauman the go ahead after glass was found it a creamy white baby food known as farina. Pillsbury’s HACCP plans were put into its food processing facilities and Burger King restaurants.

Under FDA’s tutelage, after low-acid canning, HACCP came to juice and seafood. Then early in the Clinton administration came the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak, which sickened nearly 700 and killed four children. It was the worst publicity for the American hamburger in its long history.

The label “USDA Inspected” was ridiculed as it came to light that our only defense against deadly pathogens in beef was the “poke and sniff” method of inspection.

Meat and poultry were put under HACCP in 1996 and President Clinton made the announcement on his Saturday morning radio program.

The updated guidance FSIS has come out with for validation is intended to help meat and poultry plants comply with HACCP.

“The guidance puts into writing FSIS expectations in regard to validation, which it had not clearly defined before,” says Anne Wells, director for science , technical education, and outreach for the North American Meat Association (NAMA). “It does not change the requirement for validation, which is part of the original HACCP rule.”

In HACCP-speak, validation is the process of demonstrating that the system as designed can control the hazards and produce a safe product. It might involve using scientific or technical documents or records showing how it works.

Wells told Food Safety News that validation is an important part of any HACCP program, and on that there’s never been any disagreement between the industry and FSIS. She said the initial draft of the new validation guidance did become an issue because it seemed to put unreasonable expectations on individual establishments with a focus on in-plant microbiological testing.

“FSIS has since clarified and changed the document to show microbiological testing is only one of many tools that can be used to show a HACCP plan achieving the desired results,” Wells added.

FSIS is accepting written comments on the new validation guidelines until July 25, 2013.

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