Food safety was as much an issue in 1927 as it is today. It’s just the focus that has changed. The very first issue of Food Manufacture, published in May 1927, carried an article titled: ‘Bacteria and the canning industry’.
It was the first of several articles in that first year relating to food safety risks – real or perceived – associated with canned foodstuffs.
They covered subjects as diverse as the risk of spoilage from micro-organisms and arguments about the loss of nutritional properties and potential contamination from tin, iron and lead in canned foods, to fears of botulism.
One article even dealt with what it called “the ‘glass poisoning’ bogie” – basically, fears held by some people about the health risk posed by glass packaging.
Daily household milk distribution methods in the UK were not considered too hygienic by our American cousins either. See the cartoon from Food Manufacture’s very first issue called ‘Death on the Doorstep’, which accompanied a piece about concerns from across the pond.
To get an expert view on what have been the biggest food safety changes over the past 90 years, Food Manufacture spoke to Kaarin Goodburn, secretary general of the Chilled Food Association (CFA).
We asked her what she thought were the main food safety challenges today compared with 1927.
“The biggest non-safety challenge is feeding a burgeoning global population and securing the natural resources to do so as the climate changes,” said Goodburn.
‘Associated food safety challenges’
“There are associated food safety challenges as microbial populations can be expected to change with the climate.”
Goodburn suggested the introduction of the home fridge was probably the most significant technical advance boosting food safety during the 20th century.
She explained that the first true fridges, which generated cold by compressing gases as ours do today, were introduced in the 1920s.
While only 2% of households in Britain owned a fridge in 1948, by 1970, the majority owned an electric fridge (58%), she said.
However, the percentage owning a fridge-freezer was still zero. “It was only in the late 1990s that we caught up with where the US had been ‘fridgewise’ in the 1950s,” she said.
“The widespread availability of refrigeration in the home and, of course, the development in the 1960s, in particular, of the chill chain, are the basis of the UK’s chilled prepared food sector,” said Goodburn. She explained that the UK market for chilled food had increased about 25-fold since 1989.
From a chilled food industry perspective, she explained that traceability and supplier quality assurance schemes for retailer own-label products, particularly for high-risk foods, had helped to improve food safety.
‘We need something better’
“But we need something better than one-up, one-down traceability.” She also called for a broader requirement for good agricultural practice than at present.
The increase in life expectancy at birth (56.9 for males and 60.95 for females in 1927 compared with 79.5 and 83.2 today) could be partially attributed to a safer food environment today, together with better water sanitation, medical care, working conditions and education, suggested Goodburn.
Furthermore, big advances that had occurred in analytical methods over the past few decades had also contributed to our improved understanding of food safety, she claimed.
“The development of analytical methods has enabled substances to be found even at minute levels that previously passed by unnoticed,” she said.
The CFA was established in 1989 in response to more than 200 cases of food poisoning and more than 17 deaths in the UK between 1987 and 1989, caused by Listeria monocytogenes in imported pâté.
“Although not UK-made, and not within our product scope, this led to establishment of CFA and GHP [good hygiene practice] standards, together with the supporting accreditation scheme, which ultimately morphed into British Retail Consortium Global Standard,” she said.
Over the next few years, whole gene sequencing analytical techniques are likely to become far more widely used for analysing food safety outbreaks, Goodburn said. “How it is applied and the conclusions that are attempted to be drawn are real issues of concern, however,” she added.
Key milestones 2001–2017
- EU General Food Law regulation 2002
- European Food Safety Authority established 2002
- Pasteurised filtered milk 2002
- Guideline daily amounts (GDAs) 2006; front-of-pack labelling
- Safe and Local Supplier Approval (SALSA) standard for small firms 2007
- Government Sustainability Strategy 2008
- Salt reduction targets
- 92% microwave oven ownership
- Campden BRI 2008
- Public Health Responsibility Deal
- 11% of household income spent on food and drink
- Food and Drink Federation (FDF) members achieve 10% salt reduction