Although it appears that outbreaks of foodborne illness are increasing these days (partly due to extensive media coverage), they date back to the Stone Age. Based on historical accounts, researchers at the University of Maryland have traced the first recorded case to Alexander the Great’s death from typhoid in 323 B.C. Other notable victims of food poisoning include British author Rudyard Kipling, pioneer American aviator Wilbur Wright, and U.S. President Zachary Taylor.
In the 21st century, scientists and public health officials have a better understanding of the sources of pathogenic microorganisms and how to prevent them from contaminating the food supply chain. Of course, as yet another Salmonella outbreak has affected cut melon, the battle for food safety has hardly been won. Still, it’s useful to see how far we’ve come across time and across the planet, thanks to our culinary ancestors, scientists, and government leaders.
Over the course of a 3-part series, we’ll do just that: take a look at some of the most important milestones in food safety history. In this post, we’ll cover traditional methods of food preservation prior to the industrial revolution. In Part 2, we’ll focus on food safety milestones based in science and technology. Finally, in Part 3, we’ll survey milestones of food safety legislation and regulation.
Even before recorded history, ancient cultures around the globe accidentally discovered and purposefully invented techniques to preserve foods, including cooling, freezing, boiling, drying, salting, smoking, pickling, and sugaring. These methods are so successful that all are still practiced today, often with the help of modern technologies. Food historians believe that food preservation, along with agriculture, enabled human societies to form once food supplies could be safely stored in bulk, thereby diminishing the need to nomadically hunt and gather for sustenance. Rather than have to consume the kill or harvest immediately, preservation allowed for planning ahead for periods of potential hunger (for example, drought or winter).
Temperature Control: Cooling, Freezing, and Boiling
Fortunate as we are today with refrigerators and slow cookers, many ancient cultures exploited natural resources as their own highly effective forms of temperature control over food:
Simple observation of nature demonstrated to early humans that keeping certain food cold could keep them from spoiling. Chilling preserves food by slowing down the growth and reproduction of microorganisms and the action of enzymes that causes the food to rot. Hunters and fishers would often store meat and seafood in moving water, such as creeks or small waterfalls. With the development of housing, foods were moved from caves into structures specially designed for their cooler environments, such as root and fruit cellars.
In climates that experienced freezing cold, hunters and gatherers discovered that food buried directly under and in contact with snow and ice would preserve them throughout the winter. In some cultures, elaborate ice houses were constructed that could freeze foods for more than a year.
On the other end of the temperature scale, intense heat preserves food by the action of killing microorganisms, especially when boiled in a liquid, such as milk and water. The community stew pot became a permanent fixture on the fire for just this reason: any harmful microbes in the foods added to the mix would be eradicated in the bubbling broth.
The earliest form of curing meat to increase its edible life was simple dehydration using the sun or wind, which dates to the Middle East as far back as 12,000 BC. Much later, the Romans perfected the art of dried fruit, while European monks of the Middle Ages built “still houses” to dry vegetables and herbs in regions without strong sunlight or winds.
Smoking techniques improved upon natural drying processes by adding antimicrobial agents that aid in preservation. Particles in the smoke itself, called phenols, are deposited directly in the meat, not only adding protection, but also flavor. Early cave dwellers perhaps accidentally discovered the benefits of smoking meat after hanging it in caves where they had built fires for light and warmth.
In regions that had large salt deposits, such as ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), early cultures discovered that this tasty mineral necessary for survival was also a natural preservative. The Romans, once again, became famous for their salted foods, and in fact used salt as a form of money. Although they did not know that harmful germs need moisture to survive, they did know that meat desiccated by salt lasted much longer than fresh, with no ill effects.
Fermentation is perhaps the most creative form of traditional food preservation. Why? Because in the process of improving food safety, it also produced cheese, pickles, jam, wine and beer, each becoming a staple of many world cuisines. Through fermentation, these foods and beverages combat spoilage by using benign micro-organisms that keep pathogens in check by producing acid or alcohol to create a toxic environment that kills them. Two of the most widespread forms of fermentation are pickling and sugaring.
In fermentation pickling, bacteria in the liquid produce lactic acid that acts as a preservative agent. In chemical pickling, the preservative agent is an edible liquid (e.g. salt water, vinegar, alcohol) that inhibits or kills bacteria and other microorganisms. Pickling may have originated when food was placed in wine or beer that had soured, which lent it an appealing flavor. Indians were the first people in Asia to make cucumber pickles more than 3,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians pickled catfish, salmon, and goose. The Chinese used vinegar brines for pickling proteins, including eggs, rabbit, venison, and goat. Many cultures in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East were rolling and pickling grape leaves thousands of years before they became a Greek staple.
Preserving food in honey or the condensed liquid from sugar cane was known to the earliest cultures. Sugar draws water from microbes in a process known as plasmolysis, which dehydrates and ultimately kills them. Sugaring was especially a favorite method of preserving fruits, as we recognize today in our own jams and jellies lining the supermarket shelves. The ancient Greeks and Romans mastered the art of using heated sugar and fruit pectin as an emulsifier. This technique eventually spread through northern Europe, where sunlight is often too weak or infrequent to dry fruits, which instead were made into “preserves.”
As we will see in Part 2, with the rise of the scientific and industrial revolutions, all kinds of modern technologies vastly improved food safety, from pasteurization to probe thermometers. Yet the traditional methods live on in kitchens everywhere, primarily because they have preserved not only our health, but also our cultures. From smoking and drying to salting and sugaring, these techniques have become indelibly tied to particular culinary tastes, religious meanings, and ethnic identities. Food preservation and cultural preservation go hand in hand.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series. Subscribe to our Connected Insights blog to get weekly emailed updates about food service industry quality and safety issues.
Stay up-to-date with the latest news in food and pharmacy safety, facilities monitoring, and supply chain visibility.