150 Years of Food Safety and the Challenges We Face in the Future

The USDA is celebrating nearly 150 years of existence since their establishment on May 15, 1862 in a bill signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The agency has guided our nation’s food system from its infancy to today, as an all too globalized market faces the dangerous backlash of rapid growth.

At first the USDA had little power. In fact, it wasn’t until 1906, when public outcry from Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle meant new legislation.The original intention of the book was to portray the life of immigrants living in the U.S. but instead, the focus of the book became unsanitary conditions at a slaughterhouse in Chicago. The book opened American’s eyes to the horrors of the meatpacking industry. One story detailed a worker falling into a rendering vat and being sold as lard.

Public Fury Results in Change

When Sinclair was asked about the book he famously said, “ I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Public fury led to the an investigation and in 1906 Theodore Roosevelt signed the Federal Meat Inspection Act. The bill ordered mandatory inspection of livestock before slaughter and inspection of the carcass after slaughter. It also outlined sanitary conditions at slaughterhouses and meat packing facilities and enforced new regulations with regular monitoring and inspections of meat.

The Poultry Products Act, the Egg Inspection Act, and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act soon followed. Congress also passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which established the Bureau of Chemistry, today known as the Food and Drug Administration.

At first monitoring of food was largely done by sight and smell but between 1997 and 2000 the USDA began testing meat and poultry for listeria, salmonella, and e coli, amongst other food borne illnesses.

Factory Farming and Antibiotic Resistance

Food safety has come a long way in the past 150 years but new challenges have surfaced that threaten to have a ripple effect on a now much larger food system. In the past 100 years we’ve moved from locally driven agriculture to factory farmed agriculture. By 2005, factory farming accounted for 40 percent of the global meat supply.

Inhumane treatment of animals at large factory farms and slaughterhouses still persists but one of the most dangerous results of factory farming is antibiotic resistance. Roughly 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are fed to farm animals in order to promote growth and prevent rampant disease from striking animals that are kept in filthy, stressful environments.

Low doses of antibiotics allow for surviving bacteria to form a resistance and while we’re not sure about the connection between resistance in animals and in humans, today, 99,000 people die every year from antibiotic resistant bacteria acquired in hospitals.

The FDA is vigorously trying to deal with the problem both in testing meat products and most recently, by enacting a new rule that says farmers and ranchers will need a prescription from a veterinarian before using antibiotics on farm animals. And even more impressive, the use of antibiotics will no longer be allowed for the growth of animals. It remains to be seen whether the new rule will reduce antibiotic use or if farmers will find ways around it.

Imported Food Safety

The other pressing challenge facing American food safety is an influx of imported foods resulting from our new global food system. A USDA report found that imports have grown from $41 billion in 1994 to $78 billion in 2007. We import 85 percent of seafood and 60 percent of fresh produce, depending on the season--way too much for U.S. regulators to be able to control. The staff of inspectors at the FDA is overwhelmed at the expense of food safety. In reality, there are only enough evaluators to check 1.53 percent of food imports. That's scary stuff.

The CDC reported on the outbreaks using the Foodborne Disease Outbreak Surveillance System from 2005 to 2010, which showed 39 outbreaks and 2,348 illnesses. But here's the kicker--nearly half occurred in 2009 and 2010. While globalization can be a great thing, a globalized food system comes with a new set of food safety issues.

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150 Years of Food Safety and the Challenges We Face in the Future
The history of the USDA and FDA and the future challenges.

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