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Part 2: History of Food Safety in the U.S.

Opinion

(This article by Michelle Jarvie of Michigan State University Extension was originally posted here on Oct. 2, 2014, and is reposted with permission. Part 1 is here. Part 3 in her series will be appear later this month.)

Welcome to the second installment of the history of food safety in the U.S. This time we’ll take a look at food policy and legislation over time. As discussed in Part 1, the collection of foodborne illness data is relatively new. “The Jungle,” written by Upton Sinclair and published in February 1906, was a fictional novel that portrayed the lives of immigrants in industrialized cities of that time, but the book inadvertently raised public concern about the health, safety and sanitation practices of the Chicago meatpacking industry. Although the book was published as fiction, Sinclair spent nearly nine months in 1904, undercover, as an employee in a Chicago meatpacking plant.

Upon reading the book, President Theodore Roosevelt called on Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, which were both passed in June 1906. They were the first U.S. laws that addressed the safety of the public food supply. Both of these laws defined “misbranding” and “adulteration” in food, which primarily means they were concerned with truth in labeling and food additives. In those days, many food preservatives (such as formaldehyde and borax) were added to products to disguise unsanitary production processes.

One of the first major court battles involving the Pure Food and Drug Act was an attempt to outlaw Coca-Cola due to its excessively high caffeine content. This law was the precursor to the formation of what is now called the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Meat Inspection Act led to the formation of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service. Recorded U.S. deaths from food-related illness significantly dropped during the first decade after these laws were enacted.

Between 1906 and 1938, many more similar acts were created that monitored food additives such as colors and chemical additions, as well as labeling and marketing of foods. The winter of 1924-25 brought what is possibly the worst foodborne illness outbreak known to date. The outbreak was typhoid fever that had been spread through improperly handled oysters and was the first outbreak to gain nationwide attention. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 1969 that FDA began sanitation programs specifically for shellfish, as well as milk and the food-service industry as a whole.

In 1970, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began keeping records on foodborne illness-related deaths in the U.S. This is really the starting point for data on modern foodborne illness outbreaks. A nationwide illness outbreak from canned mushrooms in 1973 led to the first major food recall in the U.S., causing the removal of more than 75 million cans of mushrooms from store shelves. Due to this outbreak, the National Botulism Surveillance System was developed to collect reports and data from all confirmed botulism cases in the U.S. In the same year, processing regulations for low-acid foods were set forth to ensure proper heat-treating of canned foods.

In 1997, a few years after the Jack in the Box incident, the Clinton administration put $43 million into a food-safety initiative that created many of the regulations we see and hear about today. This initiative brought regulations on seafood, meat and poultry processing, and shell eggs. It also created a program for DNA fingerprinting that would help track outbreaks and determine sources of outbreaks. Finally, the initiative called for a cooperative detection and response effort between CDC, FDA, USDA and local agencies called FoodNet.

Today, we have the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which was signed into law in 2011 and is considered the most significant food-safety legislation in more than 70 years. The major difference between this act and those of the past is that the focus has switched from responding, to contamination, to prevention. The law gives FDA authority to regulate the way foods are grown, harvested and processed. Although the act is still in its infancy, many are hoping to see fewer illness outbreaks in the future due to tighter regulations.

Stay tuned for Part 3 in this series where we’ll try to finally answer the question: Why do we hear more about food safety issues today compared to the past?

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