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.
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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.
At the time, there were no fruits or vegetables on the ships, and food was smoked, dried, fermented, or salted. He got glowing reports from the French Navy.
—Joseph Marcy, PhD, Virginia Tech
Preventing Air Exposure
Appert, who was a jack-of-all-trades, used his experience as a candy maker, vintner, chef, brewer, and pickle maker to perfect his technique, according to the Can Manufacturers Institute, which wrote that Appert assumed that, as with wine, air exposure spoiled food. He experimented for 15 years and succeeded at preservation first by partially cooking food, including meats, and sealing it in glass bottles with cork stoppers, wire, and sealing wax, and then boiling the bottles for more than 12 hours in water, expelling potentially harmful air. Samples of Appert’s preserved food—18 different types—were sent to the French Navy at sea.
“At the time, there were no fruits or vegetables on the ships, and food was smoked, dried, fermented, or salted. He got glowing reports from the French Navy,” said Joseph Marcy, PhD, head of the food science and technology department at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Indeed, the troops could now enjoy partridges, fruits, vegetables, and gravy that tasted close to the food bought at local markets at home.
“Not a single substance had undergone the least change at sea,” Appert wrote of the trial. He was awarded Napoleon’s prize in 1810. As part of the government’s requirements, shortly thereafter Appert published a book called “L’Art De Conserver, Pendant Plusieurs Années, Toutes les Substances Animales et Végétales” (“The Book of All Households: or The Art of Preserving Animal and Vegetable Substances for Many Years”), the first modern food preservation cookbook, which detailed the canning process for more than 50 foods.