While it may seem that the incidence of foodborne illnesses increases year to year, the reality is people have been getting sick from foodborne illnesses since the beginning of time. Indeed, many food preparation techniques, such as cooking, salting, canning, and fermentation, were borne out of a motivation to reduce foodborne illness. The enhanced capabilities of the modern food safety system to detect pathogens and issue recalls has only increased our awareness and actions to mitigate food safety emergencies.
Historical accounts of foodborne illness date back to antiquity. The first suggested documented case of a known foodborne illness dates back to 323 B.C. According to doctors at the University of Maryland who studied historical accounts of Alexander the Great’s symptoms and death, the ancient ruler is believed to have died from typhoid fever, which was caused by Salmonella typhi.
Food Safety Through the Years
Although the science and technology we benefit from today did not exist hundreds of years ago, people have long been concerned about food quality and safety. is believed that the first English food law – the Assize of Bread – was proclaimed by King John of England in 1202, prohibiting adulteration of bread with ingredients such as ground peas or beans. American colonists enacted a replica of the Assize of Bread regulation in 1646, and later passed the Massachusetts Act Against Selling Unwholesome Provisions in 1785, which is believed to be the first U.S. food safety law.
Major food safety developments include:
1862 – USDA and FDA Formed
President Abraham Lincoln formed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and appointed chemist Charles M. Wetherill to lead the Division of Chemistry, which would become the Bureau of Chemistry in 1901 and the Food and Drug Administration in 1906.
1906 – Pure Food and Drug Act and Federal Meal Inspection Act Passed
The first U.S. laws addressing the safety of our food supply were passed – the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act. The Pure Food and Drug Act prevented the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors. The Federal Meat Inspection Act prohibited the sale of adulterated or misbranded meat and meat products for food and ensured that meat and meat products were slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions.
1938 – Pure Food and Drug Act Revised
Congress passed a complete revision of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act in 1938. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938 contained several new provisions, including: requiring safe tolerances be set for unavoidable poisonous substances, authorizing standards of identity, quality, and fill-of-container for foods, authorizing factory inspections, and adding the remedy of court injunctions to the previous penalties of seizures and prosecutions.
1949 – “Procedures for the Appraisal of the Toxicity of Chemicals in Food” Published
The FDA published its first guidance to industry: "Procedures for the Appraisal of the Toxicity of Chemicals in Food." This gave the FDA a way to influence industry actions without mandating specific requirements.
1957 – Poultry Products Inspection Act Passed
Congress passed the Poultry Products Inspection Act which mandated the inspection of poultry products sold in interstate commerce, in response to the expanding market for ready-to-cook and processed poultry products.
1958 – Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938 Amended
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act of 1938 was amended to include the Food Additive Amendment, due to consumer concerns about the impact of unknown chemicals in the food they consumed. The amendment ensured the safety of ingredients used in processed foods.
1962 – Consumer Bill of Rights Introduced
President John F. Kennedy proclaimed the Consumer Bill of Rights, which stated that consumers have a right to safety, to be informed, to choose, and to be heard. These rights have a direct correlation to the many food safety acts and amendments that preceded it, and that were yet to come.
1967 – Fair Packaging and Labeling Act Enacted
The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act was enacted to prevent unfair or deceptive packaging and labeling of many household products, including foods. The Act requires the identification of the commodity, the name and location of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor, and the net quantity of contents in terms of weight, measure, or numerical count.
1970 – Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Began Keeping Records on Foodborne Illness
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began keeping records on foodborne illness related deaths in the U.S., marking the beginning of modern data collection on foodborne illness outbreaks.
1973 – First Major Food Recall in U.S.
The first major food recall in the U.S. occurred, following a nationwide illness outbreak from canned mushrooms. More than 75 million cans of mushrooms were removed from store shelves.
1977 – Food Safety and Quality Service Created
The Food Safety and Quality Service was created to perform meat and poultry grading and inspection. It was later reorganized and renamed the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in 1981.
1996 – Pathogen Reduction/HACCP Systems Landmark Rule Issued
FSIS issued its landmark rule, Pathogen Reduction/HACCP Systems. The rule focuses on the prevention and reduction of microbial pathogens on raw products that can cause illness. HACCP was implemented in all FSIS- and state-inspected meat and poultry slaughter and processing establishments across the nation, between January 1997 and January 2000.
1997 – Food and Drug Modernization Act Amended
In 1997, the Food and Drug Modernization Act amended the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Among the major provisions in the Act is an expansion of the FDA’s authority to regulate health and nutrient content claims, and to establish processes related to the food contact substances in new products.
2000 – Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) Created
Food industry leaders created the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) to collaboratively drive industry improvement to reduce food safety risks and increase consumer confidence in the delivery of safe food.
2011 – Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Signed Into Law
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law. FSMA enables the FDA to focus on food safety preventative measures rather than being reactionary when an outbreak occurs. The FDA will have a legislative mandate to require comprehensive, science-based preventive controls across the food supply, including: mandatory preventive controls for food facilities, mandatory produce safety standards, and the authority to prevent intentional contamination. In addition, FSMA provides the FDA with the necessary tools for inspection, compliance, and incident response.
2019 – Blueprint for a New Era of Smarter Food Safety
The FDA announced its intention to develop a Blueprint for a New Era of Smarter Food Safety addressing several areas including traceability, digital technologies, and evolving food business models.
Despite Progress, More Work to Be Done
Food safety has come a long way since Abraham Lincoln formed the USDA more than 150 years ago. And still, an estimated 48 million Americans become infected from foodborne illnesses every year. As bacteria, viruses, and parasites continue to evolve and adapt, everyone who comes into contact with food must be vigilant to prevent the proliferation and spread of these dangerous microorganisms.
September is Food Safety Education Month
Throughout the month of September, we’ll be sharing helpful information, tips, and resources on IFT’s Brain Food blog, as well as on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.. Follow us and be sure to share these resources with your networks to help spread the word about the importance of food safety education and how we all can make sure our food is safe to eat. And be sure to use hashtags #foodsafetymonth and #foodsafety when you do!
University of Maryland Medical Center. "Intestinal Bug Likely Killed Alexander the Great." ScienceDaily, 22 June 1998. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/1998/06/980622061325.htm.
State Library of Massachusetts. "1784 Chap. 0050 An Act Against Selling Unwholesome Provisions." State Library of Massachusetts. 10 May 2011. https://archives.lib.state.ma.us/handle/2452/104170?show=full.
Young, J.H. 2014. Mercury, Meat, and Milk In Pure Food: Securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906. Vol. 1004, Princeton University Press, 2014.
United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service. "FSIS History." 21 Feb. 2018.https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/informational/aboutfsis/history.
North Dakota State University. "Milestones in U.S. Food Law." 28 June 2018. https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/foodlaw/overview/history/milestones.
Federal Trade Commission. "Fair Packaging and Labeling Act." https://www.ftc.gov/enforcement/rules/rulemaking-regulatory-reform-proceedings/fair-packaging-labeling-act.
Michigan State University. "History of food safety in the U.S. – part 1." 30 Sept. 2014. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/history_of_food_safety_in_the_us_part_1.
Michigan State University. "History of food safety in the U.S. – part 2." 2 Oct. 2014. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/history_of_food_safety_in_the_us_part_2.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Background on the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)." 30 Jan. 2018. https://www.fda.gov/food/food-safety-modernization-act-fsma/background-fda-food-safety-modernization-act-fsma.
Global Food Safety Initiative. "What is GFSI?" https://www.mygfsi.com/about-us/about-gfsi/what-is-gfsi.html.