The Highest Calling

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel detailing unsanitary conditions in the meat industry and led to sweeping reform.

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel detailing unsanitary conditions in the meat industry and led to sweeping reform.

Over the past 100 years, the ways in which our food is produced, distributed, and regulated have changed dramatically. We have witnessed the maturation of our nation and the industry that keeps it fed. And, today, the concept of food safety is at the forefront of our national discourse. To ensure success in the future, we must be committed to learning from each of the significant—and lasting—lessons learned from our past.

At the dawn of the 20th century, through advances in science and technology, the food industry began to better understand the processes through which food could be made more accessible. Indeed, the food industry was revolutionized with improved preservation techniques and the emergence of rapid transnational shipping. For the first time, food processors could produce and viably ship perishable products anywhere in the nation.

In the absence of a federal approach—there had not yet been a need—food laws were implemented primarily at the state and local level. As could be expected within a growing nation, industrial advances outpaced the limited state and local regulations. Laws defining “adulteration” or “misbranding” were determined, if at all, by individual states. Moreover, what was forbidden in one state was lawful in another. Without a national approach to food safety and a single set of rules, citizens could have no confidence in the origins or safety of the food they were eating.

Technological advances outside the food industry inspired incredible change as well. The emergence of inexpensive newspapers that reached across the nation gave individuals and consumer groups an opportunity to voice their concerns. Social reformers who otherwise would have remained unheard could now reach a broad audience. The most famous example was Upton Sinclair. In his 1906 novel, The Jungle, Sinclair described the unsanitary conditions prevalent in large meat-packing plants.

These conditions outraged the public, and the resulting demand for change became too loud for Congress to ignore. Reacting to the nationwide chorus urging reform, the federal government realized that a uniform food safety policy—a single set of rules—was essential to protect the national economy and the health of American citizens.

In 1906, Congress responded to these growing concerns by passing the Meat Inspection and Pure Food and Drugs acts. Enforced by the USDA and the FDA, these acts and their successors form the framework for today’s national food safety policy.

Food companies must understand that if their food products are contaminated with pathogens when they leave the company’s control, those contaminants will likely be found. This is because more and more food companies are sampling incoming raw materials and finished products before using or selling them. Even if such contamination is not detected through downstream testing, foodborne illness and outbreak surveillance has become so robust that, if a food product causes a foodborne illness or outbreak, investigators will be able to trace it back to the offending company.

Where Are We Today?

In recent years, the regulation of our food supply has moved from the old organoleptic-based inspection system embraced in 1906 (sight, smell, and touch) to a food safety system that relies heavily on science. In the 1990s, the USDA announced that all meat and poultry processors must adopt HACCP. Although this was a revolutionary change in the way food was regulated, it took only a few years before HACCP was being implemented and enforced successfully in thousands of processing plants across the nation.

More recently, recognizing the effectiveness of HACCP in increasing the safety of meat and poultry, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act. The new act will soon require all other FDA-regulated food companies to adopt and follow written HACCP-like food safety plans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *