Is Food Safety Just a Scam?

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During the food safety training I held a couple of weeks ago, I was asked why food safety is such a big deal and why we hear about foodborne illness outbreaks more now than in the past. In order to answer these questions, it’s important to have a quick history lesson. I promise I’ll keep it short and interesting.

Food safety laws have been around for more than a century. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (now the Food and Drug Administration) was passed to regulate foods, not just meat and poultry, and ban the sale of food misbranded or tainted with chemical preservatives (back in the day formaldehyde and borax were used to cover up unsanitary production methods – gross). Thanks to Upton Sinclair’s fictional novel “The Jungle,” which exposed the meat packing industry in Chicago, the Federal Meat Inspection Act was passed the same year, which set sanitary standards for butchering, as well as daily inspections of slaughterhouses by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

While similar acts and laws were established in the years following the Pure Food and Drug and Meat Inspections Acts (mainly monitoring food additives and the labeling and marketing of food), it wasn’t until 1969 that sanitation programs for the food service industry as a whole were created. This was about 45 years after what is considered one of the worst outbreaks of typhoid fever. The basis of data on modern-day foodborne illness outbreak came about in 1970 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began keeping records of outbreaks. In 1973, the U.S. experienced its first major food recall due to a nationwide illness outbreak from canned mushrooms, leading to the creation of the National Botulism Surveillance System.

In 1997, a $43 million food safety initiative was enacted that created many of the regulations we know today. This initiative also created a program to help track and determine the source of outbreaks as well as a collaboration between the CDC, FDA, USDA, and local agencies to detect and respond to outbreaks. Today we have the Food Safety Modernization Act. The most significant difference between this act and past acts is the focus has moved from responding, to contamination, to prevention. Prevention is key to food safety.

Unfortunately, there is no one answer to the questions asked, but one of the main reasons are improvements in science. While food safety has been around for over 100 years, the science side is still fairly new. Less than 50 years ago, the technology was not available to detect illness-causing bacteria that has been around for centuries. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s or later that many of the illness-causing bacteria were linked to human illness or identified as a foodborne pathogen. Better technology/equipment, more quality testing techniques, and more testing in general has brought bacteria into the spotlight and, thus, foodborne illness has ignited local, national, and global awareness.

For more information, please contact Jessie Jones, Extension Food and Consumer Sciences Agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Robeson County Center, at 910-671-3276, by email at, or visit our website.