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A History of Food Safety

Posted by Schaumburg Specialties on


People have always tried to preserve food to make it last longer, even in the early hunter-gatherer days. Drying meat and fruit, fermenting foods, and storing grain have all been ways that early people attempted to keep the precious food that they had grown or gathered. There has always also been an awareness around spoiled food, and that improperly stored food can make us sick. We will explore the history of food safety from early recorded history until the present day, and how it has shaped the regulations that restaurants, bakeries, and commercial kitchens now follow.


The majority of history stored food without refrigeration, a relatively new concept that didn’t come into use until the 1800’s. While modern refrigeration was not available, the idea of keeping foods cool in a river or stream, or storing grain in a cool silo like the ancient Egyptians did, were early ways to stop the spoilage caused by heat. The Romans used salt to cure and preserve foods, a practice that some cultures still use today. Whether or not the Romans knew it, the salt was pulling moisture out of the preserved foods, and it is the moisture that can become a breeding ground for bacteria. Drying foods has the same effect, and foods that contain moisture are prone to spoilage. Confucius warned in 500 B.C. against eating “sour rice” that could make you sick, and to be able to store, transport, and safely preserve foods, they needed to have the moisture removed.

While there were warnings against eating spoiled food, and practices put in place to keep food safe, there was no real understanding of why the food was spoiling in the first place. Bacteria was not understood, and before the introduction of the microscope the idea that unseen organisms could make us sick was unheard of. In the early 1800’s Napoleon Bonaparte offered a reward to anyone who could find a way to keep food safe for his soldiers as they traveled the European countryside. Nicolas Appert found a solution when he put food into jars with lids and boiled them, an early version of canning. This worked, but no one understood the reasoning behind it: The heat was killing the unseen bacteria in the food.

In the 19th century strides were made in unravelling the unseen world of bacteria, and Louis Pasteur, Ferdinand Julius Cohn, and August Gärtner demonstrating that there were microscopic organisms in food and water that could make us sick. James Paget and Richard Owen described Trichinella Spiralis, the pig parasite, which is the cause of Trichinosis. Pasteur used both pasteurization and fermentation to kill disease causing bacteria in food, and his research impacted the medical and food safety worlds. Gärtner’s research into the food-borne bacteria Bacillus Enteritidis demonstrated that a sick animal can transfer that illness to humans, and highlighted how important the handling of raw meat was for food safety. M.A. Barber took his research to a very personal level, and drank spoiled milk to demonstrate how food poisoning worked. The link between bacteria in food and human illness was becoming more clear, and the foundation for food safety and handling practices was being laid.


Refrigeration and Regulation

At the same time that researchers were understanding that spoiled foods could make us sick, it was becoming clear that keeping food cold could combat spoilage. This knowledge, combined with strides in refrigeration development, led to the technologies we enjoy today. From using blocks of ice to store and ship food, to the advances John Gorrie was making in air conditioning, the first commercial refrigerants were developed. The late 19th century saw refrigerated train cars bringing food around the country, and the early 20th century saw refrigeration brought into residential homes.

Along with refrigeration came increased growth in food processing, packing, distribution, and unfortunately foodborne illness. A huge turning point in the meat inspection industry came in 1905 when Upton Sinclair published his famous undercover work, The Jungle. The filthy conditions of the Chicago meatpacking industry were revealed, and the hazards they pose to those consuming meat products, and this led President Roosevelt to sign both The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) into law. These laws both prevented the sale of adulterated or misbranded foods, and the FMIA mandated that meat would be slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions. In 1931 the Bureau of Chemistry became the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and later that decade Congress gave the FDA the authority to issue food safety standards. During the last half of the 20th century, the growth of food manufacturing spread out of the cities, and manufacturing was becoming more complex and producing a larger variety of products. While more regulation was put into place, there were also notable cases of foodborne illness, and cases such as a 1993 outbreak of E. coli that caused hundreds of illnesses and four deaths led to public outcry. The previous standards for testing were mainly based on sight, touch, and smell, and there was a call for a more scientifically based system to regulate food processing, storage, and handling.


The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) was a huge change for food safety and the philosophy behind U.S. food inspection. This systematic approach identifies hazards, assesses risks, and establishes controls. The food industry uses HACCP to ensure that food is safe for the consumer. The HACCP grew out of a movement to provide safe food for space expeditions, and provided a template for analyzing and assessing the conditions of different types of food manufacturing plants. HACCP and now Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Control (HARPC) are intended to identify problems, both present and future, and eliminate the risk of contamination in the foodservice industry.

The FDA states that about 48 million people get sick and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases, and these are largely preventable. There is continual innovation in food safety regulation, and our last blog covered the introduction of the FSMA in 2011. The purpose of all of the regulation is to establish a unified system for identifying, responding to, and hopefully preventing any foodborne illnesses. While all of this regulation can be confusing for those in the foodservice industry, Schaumburg Specialties works hard to ensure that the racks we provide for your business help you stay compliant with current rules. We can help you understand how to store and transport your products safely, and we specialize in durable bakery and commercial kitchen racks that prioritize safety and sanitation—contact us today to learn more!

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