Afraid of Your Food?

Posted by on August 27, 2009 at 9:26 pm :: 7 Comments

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.

Here's yet another visualization courtesy of Jason.

Here's yet another awesome visualization courtesy of Jason. Does he look terrified of that peanut butter wannabee?

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.

7 Comments

  • Cam says:

    Jason, I was wrong! This is my new favorite picture of you.

  • Jenn says:

    Rac,

    I find this really interesting. Just last night I saw the trailer for Food Inc., have you seen it yet? I want to, I just have to see where it is playing around here. It brought up the fact that we as consumers need to take the responsibility of monitoring what we eat as well. So my question is: Do you think we really are safer buying local and organic rather than the mass production that comes from who knows where?

  • Simone says:

    Interesting food safety facts. It’s interesting to read the timeline of the safety acts passed and the events that brought them about.

    Food, Inc. is actually opening at the Broadway Theater this weekend. I just wanted to let you guys know.

  • Jason says:

    hahahah this is a really funny picture of me. I should have suspended the almond butter so it looked like it really was attacking me. But still another funny pic of me! Good thing I enjoy doing the modeling for her blog entries 😉

  • Rachel says:

    Jenn,
    As I eat my delicious, juicy, fresh, local peach I have to say that local produce is the best! But seriously, I went and saw Food Inc. tonight. It’s playing at The Tower and, according to Simone, the Broadway too. Although this movie definitely had an objective, it was well worth the watch. Despite how one-sided it was, it made a lot of good points.
    The industry it most scrutinizes is the meat industry. Since I come from a family with a high percentage of vegetarians, I didn’t find any of the information on these corporations surprising, but you might. I wouldn’t recommend going to McDonald’s before watching this flick; you might not hold down your hamburger.
    I think the most valid points made by the movie are: 1. That consumers need to be more aware of what they put in their bodies. 2. That the food industry, like any industry, is in the business of providing what consumers will buy. If we want the industry, or the foods available to us, to change the best thing we can do is buy healthier foods and only purchase from companies that treat their workers, animals, and the earth with respect.
    Like I said, the movie is worth seeing but it shows a skewed perspective. I didn’t agree with everything it conveyed but I think it’s a good eye-opener for people that don’t really think much about what they put in their mouth. I would be happy to discuss it in more detail with you anytime.

  • Rachel says:

    Since I didn’t really answer your question about local foods, I should add that I LOVE local produce! Jason and I gorge ourselves on boxes of local peaches every year when they are in season. I don’t think local goods are necessarily any safer but they are so delicious and fresh! You just can’t beat them! Buying local also benefits the environment; it means less shipping and less gas. All in all you can’t lose buying locally!

  • Rachel says:

    I just went to an IFT (Institute of Food Technologists) meeting last week and a lecturer on food safety brought up a good point. He said that we probably haven’t been experiencing more food borne illness outbreaks lately than usual but our means of tracking and connecting epidemiological data has improved so much that we are catching more of them than we used to. So it may appear that our food has become more unsafe when really we have just become better at monitoring food pathogen outbreaks.

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