Botulism to Salmonella - America's Most Notable Food Safety Scares
By Sylvia Anderson, AHJ Editor --
Published: June 01, 2009
to know the quickest way to scare someone? Take them to your local super
market. No, I am not talking about the rising prices on food, although that
is enough to make most individuals’ blood pressure rise! I am talking about
all the contaminated food products that have surfaced in the past century,
most recently the peanut and pistachio debacle. If you’ve ever wondered what
some of the most notorious food scares have been over the past hundred or
more years, we’ve got the low-down.
From mad cows to salmonella in peanut butter, such instances can leave even
the most intelligent individual scratching his or her head wondering how one
of the most technologically advanced and highly regulated countries like the
United States could let so many contaminated items fall through the cracks.
In fact, the USDA now estimates that food safety problems account for 76
million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths annually. Here
are some notable “milestones” in the U.S.’s food safety history.
It all started when . . .
As you look back into history, you can see that while there has been an
increase of food contaminates in recent years, food preparation and
sanitation has improved dramatically in the past hundred or so years. It is
interesting that the phrase “food poisoning” did not appear on the public
stage until the 1880s when scientists first made the connection between
animal illnesses and meat-poisoning outbreaks. This prompted better
sanitation practices but it was also the beginning of 100-plus years of “food
The next major food scare did not happen until the publication of Upton
Sinclair’s novel The Jungle in 1905. This book shed light on the disgusting
practices of Chicago’s meatpacking district and prompted then President
Theodore Roosevelt to set new standards for food processing. The President
was instrumental in enacting the Meatpacking Act and the first Pure Food and
Drug Act this country has ever seen.
In 1963 the tuna industry was devastated when two Detroit women died of
botulism they contracted eating canned tuna. Tuna sales fell a whopping 35
percent nationwide as a result and prompted the industry to form a “Tuna
Emergency Committee.” Botulism also surfaced as a problem in 1971.
Manufacturer Bon Vivant fell victim to the effects of the toxin when an
elderly couple was paralyzed after eating contaminated vichyssoise. Bon
Vivant filed bankruptcy within a month and spent the next many years trying
to identify the toxin’s source.
Skip ahead to 1982 when seven people in Chicago died from taking
Extra-Strength Tylenol that was laced with lethal amounts of cyanide. While
the manufacture Johnson & Johnson was not at fault for this scare, they
did pull the product from all retail shelves across the country. During this
time more than 35 million bottles of Tylenol were returned and inspected by
Health Department officials. Although the actual culprit has never been
captured, this did prompt pharmaceutical companies to introduce stricter
manufacturing practices and new tamper-proof packing to keep consumers safe.
One ongoing food scare is the possibility of beef being contaminated with
mad-cow disease, which can lead to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans (both
diseases essentially attack the nervous system). Although the United States
has only seen a handful of cases of either the human or bovine form of the
disease, a case of possibly-tainted school lunchmeat prompted the largest
beef recall in United States history to date with a total of 143 million
pounds recalled in April of 2008.
The most recent scares happened at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009
with salmonella being found in both peanuts and pistachios. Almost 700
illnesses and nine deaths were recorded as of March 2009 due to this
outbreak. In both cases the causes seem to be unhygienic practices. The
outbreaks forced Peanut Corp of America to shut down in January of 2009 and
Kraft foods to reevaluate their storage and roasting processes.
Other instances over the years include beef containing E. coli, frozen
strawberries spreading hepatitis A, and tomatoes and jalapeno peppers tainted
While these food scares were the cause of many illnesses and in some cases
death, they did prompt radical improvements in sanitation and the handing of
food. While there will always be food safety issues, if manufacturers learn
from their mistakes (and we’re hoping they do) they can prevent future
outbreaks and major food scares.