Afraid of Your Food?
It’s hard not to dwell on food safety these days. Salmonella and E. coli have made numerous appearances in strange foods such as pistachios, spinach, peanut butter, and cookies as of late. Many Americans have lost confidence in the safety of their food supply as a result of these seemingly unusual outbreaks. But before you join the ranks of suspicious consumers let me give you a few things to consider.
Concerns about food safety are certainly nothing new. In fact, thousands of years ago Roman law prohibited the sale of adulterated food and punished offenders with mine duty or exile. Even in the unrefined atmosphere of the 13th century trade guilds for butchers and bakers had authority to monitor and confiscated unwholesome goods. These guilds were not necessarily looking out for the public’s wellbeing; rather they were looking out for their own best interests. The guildsmen knew that there was a direct correlation between product quality and marketplace profits. They understood that when customers have confidence in the safety of their food supply business booms.
It would seem logical to assume that as human knowledge has increased over the centuries that food safety has inevitably improved as well. Unfortunately that is not the case. Spidey’s Uncle had it right when he said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” During the last half of the nineteenth century significant advances in chemistry made possible an abundance of new food additives and colorants – countless novel ways to adulterate and basically poison food. It took some time, and many unfortunate events, for food regulations to catch up to science. Here are some of the stranger things you may not know about food’s shadier recent past.
Since food regulations were lagging behind scientific progress near the turn of the century, citizens starting taking matters into their own hands. In 1883 a man named Dr. Harvey Wiley, the head chemist at the U.S. Bureau of Chemistry, started documenting the extensiveness of food adulteration in the United States. He formed a “poison squad” made up individuals who willingly consumed suspicious food additives that were commonly used at the time, such as formaldehyde, and documented the ill effects on their health. Yes, just like lab rats. The atrocious symptoms of these volunteers helped fuel public outrage and awareness. But, despite growing public concern, questionable preservatives and colorants continued to make their way into food without any evidence of their safety. Regulatory change was on the way however; the last straw was the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which vividly depicted the unsanitary conditions in the meat-packing industry. Having read this book myself I can attest to the disgusting images it conveys. (Workers accidentally falling into vats = extra lard.) The Pure Food and Drug Act soon followed in 1906: the beginnings of modern federal food regulation.
Is that where our story ends? Was everything happy ever after? Ah…no. The Pure Food and Drug Act was crude by today’s standards and certainly not all encompassing, so more tragedy naturally followed.
In 1937 a drug company decided to make sulfanilamide, a new drug used to treat strep throat, more appealing to children by mixing it with diethylene glycol, a sweet tasting liquid. The drug company performed no safety testing on their new mixture. Within weeks of this product, Elixir of Sulfanilamide, hitting the market over a hundred deaths were reported to the FDA. But these weren’t just any fatalities; most of the unfortunate victims were children who died excruciatingly. The public was incensed. As a result of this horrible affair, in 1938 the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act was passed. Not surprisingly, this new law required drugs to undergo premarketing safety testing.
But that’s the end of it, right? After 1938 all foods were safe and wholesome? Not so. Despite the potential danger of food colorants, the Color Additive Amendment to the FD&C Act was not passed into law until 1960. This amendment finally required safety testing on color additives. In 1973 a large number of botulism outbreaks from canned foods resulted in low-acid food processing regulations. In 1982, after cyanide placed in Tylenol capsules caused multiple deaths, tamper-resistant packaging regulations emerged. And lastly, in 1990 the Nutritional Labeling and Education Act was passed and those nutrition labels we all depend on came into being; yes, those lovely things that have made it possible for me to determine that if I consume more than 0.0034% of a scoop of Haagen-Dazs ice cream I will morph into something that resembles the Stay Puffed marshmallow man.
What I hope you gleamed from this brief history is that the safety of our food supply has increased enormously over the last century. You don’t have to worry about the dye from your lollypop turning you into a tumor reservoir or getting served a slice of tubercular beef – both legitimate concerns for consumers a hundred years ago.
I also hope my synopsis has led to the realization that outbreaks of food borne illness are regrettably nothing new. You don’t have to glimpse far into the past to grasp this. What we have been experiencing lately is not that out of the norm. But don’t let that discourage you. Science is always progressing and regulations are always changing as they adapt to the current concerns of society. We learn. Perhaps you have concluded, in view of recent events, that food producers in general don’t take safety concerns seriously. That is definitely not the case. Food producers aren’t dumb, with a few exceptions, and just like the guildsmen of the 13th century they know that it is to their advantage to keep the food supply safe. Outbreaks and recalls are expensive and often have long-term economic consequences for companies. So they look out for your interests because it’s in their best interest – let the warm fuzzies begin.
I have worked for several food companies and all of them have been very diligent about insuring only safe and wholesome food is released into the marketplace. So don’t let the rare instance of an imbecilic CEO knowingly distributing tainted food alter your opinion of the food supply in general. Although change may be on the horizon and reform may be needed to make our food regulatory system less cumbersome and more capable of impeding the few morons out there, you don’t need to be afraid of your food.