Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a new series for Food Quality, Innovators in Food Safety and Science. The next article, which will appear in our April/May issue, will feature Louis Pasteur.
Just after the new year began, President Obama signed legislation for the most sweeping overhaul of America’s food safety system in more than 70 years, allowing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to impose new rules to prevent contamination. It’s a concern that dates back to Roman times, but food microbiology saw major advances starting in the late 1700s, spearheaded by no less than Napoleon.
Safe food meant strong troops and power to Napoleon, who noted aptly that “an army travels on its stomach.” His troops suffered more from hunger and scurvy than combat. In 1795, to be sure his men had safe rations, the French government under Napoleon offered a 12,000-franc prize to anyone who could come up with a food preservation method.
Nicolas Appert, the Parisian confectioner and distiller who ultimately claimed the prize, spent more than a decade discovering that boiled foods placed in airtight glass containers would not spoil. In 1810, Peter Durand, a British merchant who received the patent for the tin containers that were forerunners of the cans used today, further refined the concept, although controversy remains about that part of canning history, according to an article in the Institute of Food Technologies’ May 2007 issue of Food Technology.
Appert’s discovery provided the first reliable method for preserving many different types of foods for extended periods of time so that they could be used by troops on deployment. Some even say the method gave Napoleon a strategic advantage.
Today, Napoleon’s message isn’t so different from that of the food companies that have learned from the history of food microbiology. While not exactly on a military campaign to conquer other countries, they are on an international marketing campaign for their products. And businesses are fully aware they could be toppled by a large recall or by outbreaks that sicken or kill consumers. Millions of dollars are lost to product recalls as production halts, products sit on warehouse shelves and are then discarded, and the public hesitates to buy from the involved company again.