20 Years in Food Safety: A Look Back and Beyond

20 Years in Food Safety: A Look Back and Beyond

In celebration of Food Quality’s (now FOOD QUALITY & SAFETY) 20th anniversary, and with the help of its Editorial Advisory Panel, we reflect on the events in food safety that has helped shaped today’s food and beverage industry and also look ahead to what future developments might bring to the market.

The first part of this article provides a food safety timeline spanning 20 years based on news reports as well as insights offered by members of the Food Quality & Safety Editorial Advisory Panel. In the second part, we asked members of the Panel to offer their predictions—hopes, wishes, challenges, fears—for various segments of the industry for the next 20 years.

Food Safety’s Past

A statement from Panel member Purnendu Vasavada, PhD, makes a good introduction to the timeline, “The past 20 years, in regard to food safety and food microbiology, remind me of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’”

Jan. 1993 – E. coli O157:H7 outbreak at Jack in the Box

This event brings food safety and foodborne disease emphatically to the attention of the nation and introduces the organism Escherichia coli into the public consciousness. The outbreak, traced to undercooked hamburger meat containing E. coli O157:H7 served by the fast-food chain, sickens more than 600 people in four western states. Four children die of hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS).

“It was the first time people focused on the pathogen E. coli 0157:H7, and that outbreak really created the urgency for the federal government to take action,” comments Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director, at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Feb. 1993 – “Assay for motile facultative anaerobic pathogens” patent

This patent, on a method to detect L. monocytogenes in a total time of 24 to 36 hours, is the first of several issued to Daniel Y.C. Fung, PhD, a charter member of the Food Quality & Safety Editorial Advisory Panel and one of the originators of rapid methods and automation in microbiology, and Linda Yu.

Late 1993 – Efforts begin to develop steam pasteurization of beef carcasses

The Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak prompts Panel member Craig Wilson, who at the time was working at Frigoscandia (Bellvue, Wash.), and others to begin discussion of ways to prevent such outbreaks. They begin development of steam pasteurization of beef. By late 1994, they file a U.S. patent application, “Method and Apparatus for Steam Pasteurization of Meats.”

20 Years in Food Safety: A Look Back and Beyond

Sept. 1994 – E. coli 0157:H7 declared an adulterant in raw ground beef

In a landmark speech to the American Meat Institute, Michael R. Taylor, then administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), states “we consider raw ground beef that is contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 to be adulterated within the meaning of the Federal Meat Inspection Act…We plan to conduct targeted sampling and testing of raw ground beef at plants and in the marketplace for possible contamination. We know that the ultimate solution to the O157:H7 problem lies not in comprehensive end-product testing but rather in the development and implementation of science-based preventive controls with product testing to verify process control.”

1995-1996 – Creation of several food safety networks

In response to the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak, several government initiatives to improve food safety intelligence were founded, including PulseNet, FoodNet, and NARMS.

PulseNet is a national network of public health and food regulatory agency laboratories coordinated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The name derives from the use of standardized pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) molecular subtyping (DNA fingerprinting) to identify and distinguish foodborne disease-causing bacteria. This allows ability to establish links among illnesses occurring in different times and locations.

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