FOOD: Transforming the American Table

Food Safety

The federal government has a long history of regulating food production to protect consumers from food-borne illnesses. As the industrialized food system expanded in the United States through the 1900s, concerns about food safety increased. By the early 2000s, several large-scale recalls of lettuce, melons, eggs, and meat—often due to E. coli or Salmonella contamination—riveted media and public attention. Government, organizations, and individual innovators adapted and developed new technologies for tracking food from the point of production to the point of purchase. These field data systems have helped identify the path of contamination. Contamination is still a significant concern in the American food system.

TrueTrac handheld scanner, antenna, and computer, 2008–2009

Gift of TrueTrac through Ray Connelly

These components are part of a prototype system that, using GPS, was able to pinpoint the exact spot in a field where a particular head of lettuce or crown of broccoli was harvested. The unit generated data that was packaged with the produce. In the event of a food-borne illness outbreak, public health officials could use this information to help them identify the origin of the produce and possibly the source of the contamination. Since this system was used, much smaller units have been developed.

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LIFE magazine, 1955

LIFE magazine, 1955

In the 1950s, popular media praised the contributions of science to new products and the expansion of the food supply. Scientists created hybrids for foods such as seedless watermelon, and devised new methods for raising livestock more quickly through the use of antibiotics and hormones.