History of food safety in the U.S. – part 1

Historical foodborne illness outbreaks.

One question I am commonly asked when talking about food safety is why we hear more about foodborne illness outbreaks and food safety issues in general, more today than we have in the past. To answer that question fully, let’s take a look back in time to discover the history of food safety in the U.S. There are three main parts to examine: The history of foodborne illness itself, U.S. legislation surrounding the safety of our food supply, and the scientific and social aspects of these illnesses.

Let’s start with looking at the history of foodborne illness. As you can imagine, people have been getting sick from eating food for as long as we’ve been eating food. The first suggested case of a known foodborne illness was proposed by doctors from the University of Maryland, whom think that Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C. from a case of typhoid fever when he and his army stopped to rest in ancient Babylon. Typhoid fever is caused by the bacteria Salmonella Typhi, which can be contracted from contaminated food or water. Although this theory can never be fully proven, it goes to show that humans have probably been affected by these illnesses through all of history. Other well-known people throughout history are also suspect to have died from foodborne illnesses, including King Henry I, Rudyard Kipling, President Zachary Taylor and Prince Albert.

In the U.S. foodborne pathogens have played roles in settling territory and fighting wars. Many historians believe that the first English settlement in Jamestown, VA was decimated by typhoid fever many times between 1607 and 1699, ultimately leading to its demise. Also in the late 1600’s a toxic fungus changed the course of history and lead to the Salem Witch Trials. The fungus, which was growing on the rye they used for food, caused many symptoms that settlers were unfamiliar with, which lead to the accusation of witchcraft and killing of those infected. In 1898 typhoid fever struck again during the Spanish-American war, sickening over 20,000 American soldiers.

In more modern history, some of the biggest outbreaks occurred starting in the early 1900’s with streptococcus in raw milk, botulism in canned olives and Salmonella Typhi in oysters. Those outbreaks ultimately caused a few hundred deaths. Similar outbreaks continued to occur during the first half of the 20th century in America.

The latter half the century, and into the 2000’s have seen a major spike in the number of outbreaks across the country. Listeriosis was the culprit of one such major outbreak in 1985. It was responsible for the largest number of food related deaths since the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) started recording data. That year also saw roughly 200,000 people sick from contaminated milk. Possibly the most infamous outbreak, known as the Jack in the Box incident, happened in 1993, and four children died from E. coli contaminated hamburgers. Major outbreaks in the 2000’s include the 2006 E. coli outbreak from contaminated spinach that caused five deaths, a Salmonella outbreak in peanut butter that caused nine deaths and sickened 714 in 46 states in 2008-2009, and the 2011 Listeria outbreak on cantaloupes that caused 33 deaths and one miscarriage.

Nearly every day now you can read news about another foodborne illness outbreak or food recall somewhere in the U.S. Already in 2014 there have been eight major multi-state investigations done by the CDC, and countless other reports of localized illness. Every year the CDC estimates that about one in six people will contract a foodborne illness. Most likely we will all have had at least one in our lifetimes, most likely more.

Throughout history, there has been a multitude of sicknesses deriving from food. To prevent foodborne illness now and in the future, Michigan State University Extension recommends proper hand-washing when preparing/serving food or eating, as well as storing food at proper temperatures. The history of food policy is discussed in part two of this article.

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