The early seventies were a challenging time in the US. Sandwiched between the landing on the moon (1969) and the end of the Vietnam war (1974) was a period of stagflation, recession, price and wage controls, the birth of Earth Day and the launch of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Pathogens and their control were not top of mind, and we had no diagnostic technology to help us find and kill them. I was a food science student during this era. We spent scant time in class discussing the risks of salmonella, listeria or allergens — and even less time on environmental cleaning. We learned about pathogens in a clinical sense in our microbiology classes, but they were obscure and not urgent to studies relative to food safety.
We learned about food outbreaks associated with unique bathtub cheeses or meats in the 1970s but never learned to understand the risk of pathogens or allergens in a modern food processing plant. I took an elective called Sanitation Techniques, a two-credit course held on Saturday mornings. We never talked about pathogen controls; most discussions were around CIP systems and cleaning chemicals. We also had a course titled Meat and Meat Products. We visited several RTE meat plants, but the topic of listeria control was never discussed or even mentioned.
As children in my rural community, we went to a local dairy farm and drew milk from a raw milk tank. About six gallon glass jugs, which cost three bucks, would do us for about three days. We never thought of this as a pathogen risk — only that it was healthful and, because it was not homogenized, hard to get out of the jug when the heavy cream blocked flow. In college, I worked in the school’s dairy processing plant. We pasteurized milk and made ice cream for the cafeteria, with never a mention of focused cleanup because of a listeria-positive finding or control failures.
These were the good old days. Or were they?
Fast forward to 1985: the year the food industry had a brutal wakeup call when Jalisco Products’ Mexican-style soft cheese was associated with the worst outbreak of food-borne illness in modern time. Twenty-eight people lost their lives, and 142 fell sick with listeriosis. Unfortunately, 65% of the cases involved pregnant women and their unborn children.
Jalisco held that dubious honor until 2011 when it was eclipsed by Jensen Farms, whose cantaloupe recall has the unfortunate distinction of claiming more lives than the Jalisco cheese incident.
Jalisco and Jensen Farms are examples of listeria being found in food products and causing death. Unfortunately these pathogens have colleagues such as salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 among others. They have a tendency to prey on the weakest among us, including pregnant women, the elderly and the immunocompromised. In fact, with the Jensen Farms case, the average age of those affected was 84.
Decades ago may seem like the good old days because food recalls caused by pathogens or allergens were infrequent. But those times were fraught with danger because the lack of knowledge and advanced technology meant most food safety incidents went undetected.
With recent increases in food recalls, it would appear the industry is producing less safe food, but the contrary is true. The way I see it, we are living in good times for the food industry. We have better technology to detect what we were unaware of 30 years ago. Let’s take advantage of it and make the safest food supply in the world even safer.