Space: The Unlikely Origin
of Modern Meat and Poultry Law

Ways to keep food safe for astronauts led to safety systems that seek to detect invisible pathogens.

By Teresa Lostroh

Text Size: - +

What began as a way to keep food safe for astronauts has become the backbone of modern regulations for meat and poultry.

In 1963, NASA decided space was perhaps the worst place to contract food poisoning. So with the Gemini and Apollo missions the agency required companies that made food for astronauts to reduce pathogens by outlining “critical control points” on how to prevent food contamination and eliminate threats.

NASA made companies keep extensive records of their processes, down to the origin of raw materials and names of workers involved in production.

Fast forward to 1993 when E. coli O157 — a virulent strain — killed four children in two states who had eaten Jack in the Box hamburgers. Some food companies by then had adopted safety systems similar to what NASA required, but they weren’t mandatory.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service, which oversees meat and poultry under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ensured food safety at the time by inspecting every animal carcass with sight, smell and touch. That approach, in place since 1906 after Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” exposed dirty meatpacking plants, could not detect invisible pathogens.

With support from scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, the industry and consumer advocates, FSIS mandated in 1996 that meat and poultry companies implement plans, much like those used by NASA contractors three decades earlier, that address potential contamination.

Under the same regulation that requires these Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plans, plants also must write and follow standard sanitation procedures and test for pathogens to prove their safety systems are working. FSIS also tests meat and poultry for pathogens.

Federal consumer safety inspectors review safety plans and company records that show workers are following procedures. Meanwhile, government line inspectors still check every carcass individually.

The government and industry applaud the safety plan system for shifting the responsibility for food safety to meat and poultry companies. But consumer advocates and some inspectors argue the system has given the industry too much power to regulate itself.

One Response to “Space: The Unlikely Origin
of Modern Meat and Poultry Law”