Centuries ago, the major part of your life would have been spent gathering, hunting, finding, or preparing food to keep you going! I’m sure it didn’t take Adam and Eve long to realize that the fruit from that tree was only delicious if eaten soon after being plucked; let it sit on the ground a few weeks and it was sure to smell and look awful, not to mention giving them a tummy ache! (To review our article on why and how food spoils, click here).
Let me divide food history into two informal epochs, with refrigeration as the watershed. To make it easy, you can jump to certain sections. We’ve also included links if you want more information on particular individuals, but be aware that they will take you to new web sites.
Since commercial refrigeration as we understand it today didn’t come into use until the 1800s, there is a lot of history to cover, so I’m just going to focus on some basic ideas. Any means of keeping food cold – from the stream by the back door to the cooler in the supermarket – is refrigeration. Doing it by scientific means changed food safety so significantly that it is good to know what came before.
People of all times and cultures have recognized that bad food can make you sick. Even Confucius, in 500 B.C., warned against eating “sour rice.” Such practical advice from a spiritual leader illustrates how important healthy food was.
Ancient Egyptians were possibly the first to develop the silo, a storage tank designed to hold grain harvested from the fields. Storing grain in a silo kept it cool, dry and able to last into the non-harvest months or longer.
The Bible speaks of the Hebrews receiving manna from heaven every morning. Manna would have been similar to a flat wafer or cracker – quick to gather every day, nourishing, and easy to carry as they traveled around in the wilderness. We’re told that it tasted like wafers made with honey or like cakes made with oil. We’re also told it spoiled (“bred worms and stank”) after twenty-four to forty-eight hours. They just couldn’t make it last any longer – but that’s another story.
Ancient Rome was the first recognized society to focus on freshness in fruit and other food. The rich Romans would often have fresh food delivered to their homes, where the cooks (probably slaves or servants) would prepare the meals. Without a doubt one would want to stay on the cook’s good side; poisoning has been a weapon from time immemorial! Don't you wonder if the masters realized how much power their slaves had over them when it came to food?
The Romans were also famous for salting their foods to preserve them – a practice still used today in some cultures. The salting process dries out the food; one of the things we know now, although the Romans may not have, is that most germs need moisture. In addition to salting, there are other methods of drying food, many of them still used today.
People have long recognized that keeping some foods cold could make them last longer. Some people put meat or fish in the creek or waterfall to try to keep it fresh. Others recognized that snow and ice were natural refrigerants, and would leave food outside to let the weather chill it. So the fish you had to salt in the summer you could just freeze in the winter. In addition, your great-great-grandma may have had a fruit cellar or root cellar where she stored not only fruit but veggies, jams, jellies, pickles, and other foods that needed cool storage without becoming frozen.
In the early 1800s Napoleon Bonaparte , ambitious for territory and power, offered a reward to anyone who could figure out how to keep the food his soldiers needed from spoiling as they traveled about warring against other European countries. The solution of Nicolas Appert was to put the food into jars with lids on them, and boil the food until he thought it was cooked. It was the first version of canning, and it worked – although Appert may not have realized that what the cooking was doing was killing any germs that may have been on the food.
Actually, it was not until the 1600s that scientists isolated germs as a source of illness. Even then, it was unclear what actually caused people to get sick.
Before the microscope changed the way we looked at the world, many scientists believed that living things could arise spontaneously from non-living matter. Well, that’s the way it looked to them. In 1668, Francisco Redi , an Italian physician, was among the first to demonstrate that life actually came from other life – that maggots (fly larvae) were not created by decaying meat itself but rather by flies that laid their eggs in the meat. He did this by putting out raw beef in several jars, some that were covered and some that weren’t. The uncovered meat had fly larvae growing in them within a few days; the covered did not. This might also be the first demonstration of why you don’t want flies landing on your hamburgers (see our picnic food safety section for more information).
There was still great debate about this matter, however, until the latter part of the nineteenth century, when the experiments of Louis Pasteur, Ferdinand Julius Cohn, and August Gartneu began to demonstrate that, although people couldn’t see them, there were organisms in the air, soil, animals and water – we call them microorganisms – that can and will make us sick.
Parasites were already known; in 1835 James Paget and Richard Owen described the pig parasite Trichenella Spiralis, which we know as the cause of Trichinosis today.
In the 1860s Louis Pasteur began his work on pasteurization and fermentation, which has made an enormous impact both on the medical world and on food safety to this day. In 1888, August Gärtner diagnosed a food-borne illness bacteria, Bacillus Enteritidis. Fifty-seven people had eaten beef from a cow slaughtered while it was ill, and became ill themselves. He studied the symptoms of all the people who were sick, and concluded the bacteria must have come from the diarrhea of the cow. This was a window into how carefully and safely meat must be handled when being processed.
Probably one of the most dedicated scientists of the era, M.A. Barber , gave himself food poisoning in 1914 by purposefully spoiling milk. He and two associates drank it and recorded similar symptoms. Hopefully, he paid his associates extra for the subsequent sick days. At any rate, the connection between spoiled food and illness was becoming clearer.
Combining common knowledge about making food safer by keeping it colder with the understanding of germs and bacteria that scientists were gaining, inventors began to look for ways to keep foods cold anywhere. The change in society from an agricultural to an industrial one, plus a greater taste for beef and other meat in the U.S., created both a desire for freshness in shipped food and a need for safe cold food storage in the home. This led to the refrigeration technology we have today. Without reliable refrigeration, your favorite fast-food restaurant could never have been.
The first home coolers were metal-lined, insulated boxes filled with ice… thus, the term “icebox.” These were filled with blocks of ice provided by vendors who had developed ways to transport ice from rivers and streams to cities. Packing ice blocks with hay was one popular method for shipping ice without letting it melt. Ice became such a big business in the nineteenth century that ice-making companies developed, making "clean" (non-polluted) ice with refrigerants which weren't yet safe enough for domestic use. The "ice man" made house calls every day or two to keep the icebox working. (The desire for fresh, safe food at home led to flourishing home-delivery businesses through the middle of the 20th century; even when the ice man was a thing of the past, the milk man and the bread man were still in the safe food delivery business.)
In 1805, Oliver Evans had come up with the idea of an icebox cooled with vapor rather than ice, but never developed it. However, John Gorrie , a physician, came up with the idea to treat patients with respiratory illnesses by putting them in rooms that had been artificially made cold. This idea became the first work of mechanical refrigeration; in fact, Gorrie quit his practice and dedicated his time to developing this technique.
Alexander C. Twining noted Gorrie’s work and began to experiment with commercial refrigerants that would eventually be used in refrigerators for both meat processing plants and trains. He was successful, and from the 1860s on, refrigerated train cars transported food around the country. This led to new standards in the food processing industry, as meat and other foods were processed at large plants and then shipped all over the country.
In the U.S., mechanical refrigeration (in a safer form) was brought home, literally, as refrigerators began to supplant iceboxes (and ice men) in the 1930s. Today, of course, most households in the United States and Canada – as well as much of the rest of the industrial world – have refrigerators. Can you imagine life without a fridge? (Of course, I can remember a time when home computers and cell phones didn’t exist so I guess it’s possible!)
Food supply became a big business as more people moved to cities, buying food from markets, farmers and grocers instead of producing it or hunting for it themselves. Business owners began to develop ways to process the food and deliver it to the stores.
These ways were not always good ones. Canning was a popular method of preserving meats, but it was often so poorly done that, while only 379 soldiers died in combat during the Spanish American War, 1,000 or more soldiers died from eating the spoiled canned meat supplied to them. But you didn’t need to be a soldier to suffer; just buying food for your family was a risky business, especially if you were poor. Foods were often bug-ridden, adulterated, and advertised with exorbitant (read: lying) claims.
During this time there were few standards or regulations for either processing or selling food. Meat processing plants were filthy, and more than just food would get into your mouth! Upton Sinclair went undercover into one such plant to write his book The Jungle, which brought these conditions to light. While Sinclair’s focus was the preaching of socialism, his descriptions of plant conditions impelled U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt to order a full investigation of the meat-packing industry. This led to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 , beginning the thrust of the regulations that the U.S. (and, in their own versions, Canada and the rest of the world) follows today.
Forty years before Roosevelt’s presidency, in 1862, Abraham Lincoln had established the Department of Agriculture and its Bureau of Chemistry. This was the beginning of what came to be known (in the 1920s) as the Food and Drug Administration.
A very brief history of the FDA is here for your entertainment.
Today we still worry about food safety. While we know more about why food is good –or bad – for us, there undoubtedly will be more and more challenges to face in keeping the fuel for our bodies from being our “last meal.”