Editor’s note: As Food Quality & Safety celebrates 30 years of publication, we think it’s fitting to examine the major food safety events of the period and to highlight the extraordinary efforts to make food safer over the last three decades. In this important retrospective, you’ll hear food safety experts discuss—decade by decade—the monumental outbreaks, regulations, and technologies that played pivotal roles in advancing food safety, often sharing events they were there to witness and shape. In this article, we take a look at the 1990s. Our other articles look at the 2000s and the 2010s.
As the 1990s began, the focus of food safety in the United States was on preventing chemical residues in food. Pathogenic bacteria were considered normal flora of meat and poultry products and could only be controlled by consumer cooking, says Ann Marie McNamara, PhD, vice president of Food Safety and Quality, Supply Chain, at US Foods, Inc., a foodservice distributor in Rosemont, Ill.
But, in December 1992 and into 1993, an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, which originated in contaminated beef patties that were undercooked and served at 73 Jack in the Box restaurants in the western United States, changed the way the food industry, regulatory agencies, and consumers addressed food safety threats. Four children died and, of the 732 other people across four states who were infected, 178 sustained permanent injuries, including kidney and brain damage.
“Until this time, it was unimaginable that a child could lose their life from eating a hamburger,” says Mindy Brashears, PhD, associate vice president of research and director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, and former undersecretary for food safety at USDA. “It was a defining moment in food safety history.”
A Resounding Response
Proper cooking kills pathogens on the outside of meat patties, but has little effect on those in the interior, but Jack in the Box’s cooking times failed to consider cases of inaccurate grill temperatures. According to Mitzi D. Baum, CEO of STOP Foodborne Illness, a nonprofit public health organization focused on the prevention of illness and death from foodborne pathogens based in Chicago, “The Jack in the Box outbreak exposed the hidden dangers lurking in food to the entire nation; officials could no longer ignore that meat inspection methods—in place for almost 90 years at the time—were not sufficient to protect consumers from deadly bacteria. Food regulations needed to be transformed and be based on modern science to reduce risk.”
Scientists from government, industry, and academia stepped into the food space to study, develop, and validate mitigation strategies for the industry that are still practiced today, Dr. Brashears says. Processing strategies ranged from acid washes to hot water cabinets that reduced pathogen counts on carcasses during harvesting. For pre-harvest food safety, scientists extensively studied how pathogens were transmitted in cattle herds, what caused active shedding of pathogens during feedlot finishing, and the mitigations of vaccination and direct-fed microbials (probiotics).
Consumers also started paying more attention food safety. “They began to organize and speak out about their indescribable experiences with foodborne illnesses,” Baum says. “Consumers researched and discovered that the regulatory agencies charged with protecting public health were ineffective.” Public outcry put pressure on regulatory officials to respond with impactful and measurable interventions to prevent another tragedy, which contributed to USDA passing the Pathogen Reduction: Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Systems Final Rule in 1996.
E. coli Declared an Adulterant in Ground Beef
In September 1994, Michael Taylor, JD, the newly appointed administrator of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), declared E. coli O157:H7 an adulterant in raw ground beef. This was a bold move, not all pathogens are adulterants, and any product containing an adulterant must be destroyed. “From a public health standpoint, my decision was easy because an inspection program should ensure that a product is produced safely,” Taylor says. “If a dangerous bacteria exists in a product that, under normal cooking conditions, may not be heated to a point that eliminates the pathogen, then it should be considered an adulterant.”