From Botulism to Salmonella - America's Most Notable Food Safety Scares

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By Sylvia Anderson, AHJ Editor -- Published: June 01, 2009


Want 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 scares.”

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 with salmonella.

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.





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