“As stakeholders in food safety know, there is no “silver bullet” technology that will eliminate pathogens from the food supply. However, in the past several years significant advances have been made, both in improving existing intervention tools and in developing novel microbial inactivation technologies.”

– Food Safety Magazine

pizzaLike many other human endeavors, technological advances have effectively improved food safety in America and around the globe. Both “old” inventions, such as refrigeration, and newer ones, such as nonthermal processing, have significantly enhanced the quality and safety of the nation’s (and the world’s) food supply.

This article looks some of the most important innovations throughout the history of food production, specifically, the positive health outcomes manifesting from these inventions. Each has had a measurable impact in numerous ways—from consumer confidence in food safety, to expedited food processing and transport.

The following are the most important food safety inventions:

1. Refrigeration

Humans have been using refrigeration in various ways to preserve food since prehistoric times. While our ancestors collected ice to maintain food at safe temperatures, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the first commercial refrigerators became a household item. Refrigeration is arguably the most important food safety innovation in history. Without this method of cooling (and freezing), people wouldn’t be able to safely transport, eat, or store most foods.

2. Sterilization/Pasteurization

The process of pasteurization kills bacteria and other microbes in foods like canned goods—a primary dietary source in developed countries—and various dairy products, including milk. Louis Pasteur, the inventor of the process, discovered that heating spirits, such as beer and wine, to just under their boiling point was effective in preventing spoilage because it killed bacteria. Since Pasteur’s discovery, people have used pasteurization extensively to keep food safe to consume.

3. Canning

canned foodsPeople have been canning foods—insulating them in airtight containers—since the early 19th century as a means of food preservation. This sealing procedure extends the effective shelf life of various foods from one to five years. While the first jars used to store foods were made of glass, canning companies quickly switched to tin containers due to their low cost and light weight.

4. Fermentation

Fermentation is “the biochemical conversion of sugars, starches, or carbohydrates, into alcohol, and organic acids, by bacteria and enzymes.” This process kills off harmful bacteria that may contaminate foods and cause people who eat them to get sick. Foods that undergo fermenting include dairy products, fish, grains, and fruits and vegetables. As an added benefit, the fermentation process adds extra nutritional value to some foods and renders them more easily digestible.

5. Removal and Inactivation

Food processing companies can use a variety of techniques to reduce microbes in food products or render them inactive. Removal techniques, which employ a hydrostatic or hydrodynamic pressure gradient to reduce microbial loads, include centrifugation, filtration, and separation. On the other hand, inactivation processes involve several physical methods and chemical agents that have proven “bacteria and/or sporicidal effects.” Removal and inactivation, while not a new technology, is still considered a vital way to eliminate potentially harmful bacteria.

6. Microwave Ovens

microwaveFollowing the public health successes of pasteurization and sterilization, many researchers investigated new ways of heating food. One of these new technologies, the microwave, is now part of the American lexicon, and the microwave oven is considered a “staple” appliance in most modern households. For the past 30 years, commercial entities have been using microwaves to sterilize and pasteurize processed foods, quickly destroying pathogens and harmful microorganisms.

7. High Hydrostatic Pressure Processing

High Hydrostatic Pressure Processing (HPP) has been an irreplaceable method of neutralizing microbial bacteria since the mid-1990s. Foods that undergo HPP include substances that are sensitive to heat. Ready-to-eat meat products, fruit juices, guacamole, applesauce, salsas, and seafood are only a few of the commonly consumed food products that are safer to consume due to HPP.

In just 2 to 5 minutes, HPP administers a potent amount of hydrostatic pressure, capable of inactivating microbes. HPP has also been deemed “particularly effective when applied to high-acid foods to extend shelf life or improve food safety.”

8. Ultraviolet Light

According to Dr. Tatiana Koutchma, ultraviolet (UV) light is among the most versatile food safety applications in existence. Dr. Koutchma states that “UV light has been used for the decontamination of air in food factories, treatment of drinking water, water for food and beverage formulation, wash water and wastewater, and surface treatment of contact surfaces and products in the bakery industry.”

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the administration of UV light as a useful alternative to the ubiquitous thermal treatments of juice products. UV research and innovation continues to expand and includes cutting-edge technologies such as annular turbulent, thin-film laminar, and “Dean flow” intended for “a variety of preservation applications to treat raw and unfinished products.”