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Looking Back: 100 Years of U.S. Food Safety History

In the winter of 1924, oysters grown in polluted waters near Long Island, NY, caused an outbreak of typhoid fever from Salmonella Typhi that killed 150 people and sickened at least 1,500. To this day, it holds the record for the highest body count of any foodborne illness outbreak in U.S. history.

At the time of that outbreak, the oyster industry was very loosely regulated. But, in the aftermath, U.S. regulators honed in.

Much of the progress made in food safety during the past 100 years has resulted from reactions to crises, according to a panel of food safety experts who spoke Wednesday at the International Association of Food Protection (IAFP) conference in Indianapolis.

“We tend to wait until there are sufficient illnesses in our country to justify a control and eventual prevention strategy,” said Dr. Ewen Todd, a private food safety consultant and former director of the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center at Michigan State University.

In the past 100 years, we’ve made great strides in coming to understand and control the risk of foodborne pathogens, but not completely eliminate it. The human propensity to make mistakes still leads to millions of illnesses each year, Todd said.

Some threats have been conquered, while others have persisted and new ones have emerged. The threats of Salmonella Typhi, Mycobacterium and Trichinella have been significantly diminished, while Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli O157:H7 and other Salmonella species still cause pervasive illness.

One fact has remained constant: 100 years later, the top three sources of foodborne pathogens remain, in order, fresh produce, meat and poultry, and dairy products.

Microbiologist Dr. William Sperber, formerly at companies such as Cargill and Pillsbury, described the past 100 years as “a bumpy ride.” The century was first characterized by 50 years of industry reacting to public opinion and new federal regulations, followed by 30 years of industry-led progress in what he called “the golden age of food safety management,” and finally the past 20 years of “further progress hindered by complications and unproductive regulation.”

Sperber argued that the decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to classify E. coli O157:H7 as an adulterant in ground beef in 1994 was an example of overreactive regulation by the then-new Clinton administration.

The “golden age” of food safety progress, on the other hand, occurred around the time that large corporations realized that even if small companies caused foodborne illness outbreaks, it reflected poorly on the entire industry. That was when companies began openly sharing food safety information, he said, fostering a culture of cooperation on safety issues.

Dr. Robert Buchanan, director of the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland, outlined the regulatory side of the food safety evolution. Federal food safety regulation really started in 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt signed two bills, the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.

The Pure Food and Drug Act established what would eventually become the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, while the Meat Inspection Act established the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which assumed that meat was inherently unsafe unless inspected prior to release into commerce.

With the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946, regulatory agencies were required to ensure a scientific basis for regulations. And, in the wake of World War II, accelerated international trade gave way to World Trade Agreements establishing ground rules for the trade of food.

In 1996, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched PulseNet, a network of public health and food regulatory laboratories around the country that shares data on disease-causing microorganisms.

“You cannot understand the impact that PulseNet has had on how regulatory agencies detect, investigate and manage foodborne disease,” Buchanan said.

Overall, in the past 100 years, food safety developments have become “increasingly science-based, risk-based, transparent and quantitative,” he said, adding that trend is likely to continue for the next 100 years.

At least two of the panelists predicted that it might be another 100 years before humans learn to completely eliminate the threat of foodborne illness. However, based on the past 100 years of progress, the next generation of food safety specialists has at least been given a considerable head start.

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