Published on

September 5, 2022


Nick Halliday

How the canning industry kick-started modern food and safety  

As food manufacturers, we spend much of our effort ensuring our facilities stay on top of the ever-changing food and safety regulations. It's just part of the job, but it hasn't always been. The first regulation ever put on food was the Assize of Bread and Ale in the 1200s. This was necessary to stop bread and beer from being adulterated to cheat consumers. But it wasn't until food was mass-produced and preserved that modern hygiene standards started to appear. In this article, we look back at the product that instigated modern food processing regulations – canning.  

The invention of canning  

In 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte and his government desperately needed a better way to feed their troops. His armies often marched on an empty stomach "when an invaded country was not able or inclined to sell or provide food." He felt his military tactics would be more effective if troops were well fed. So, he announced a prize of 12,000 francs for whoever could solve the problem.  

French chef Nicolas Appert, who had already been working on something for fifteen years, won the prize with his innovative preserving and canning process. His method involved placing food inside glass jars, corking them like wine bottles, sealing them with wax, wrapping them in canvas, and boiling them. Even though Louis Pasteur took another 50 years to explain the science behind his heating and sealing method, Appert knew it would work – he just didn't know how.  

Soon after, the French army carried Appert’s canned food, and a few years later, Peter Durand patented tin-coated iron cans in England. By 1820, Durand supplied huge quantities of canned food to the Royal Navy. When canned food reached America, the USA quickly became the world leader in automated canning production.  

Botulism – rare but stealthy

Canning was the beginning of processed or preserved food, so canners were learning on the job. In terms of health and safety, no one was keeping records, and there was still little understanding about food safety. It meant nothing to manufacturers until major, widespread issues came to their attention.  

One of those issues? Botulism, caused by the bacteria botulinum, is the most lethal toxin known to humans. It thrives in oxygen-free environments – like a sealed can of food. And because it dies in oxygen, it only became a problem with the invention of canning. If the canning process doesn’t adequately kill botulism, it can survive (and thrive) inside the can, causing serious harm to whoever eats the food.  

In 1920, 100 years after canning was invented, consumers were slowly growing used to the idea of processed foods. Still suspicious of its safety, their worst fears were realized when 18 people throughout America died from eating canned black olives contaminated with botulism. The deaths were widely publicized and threatened to destroy the entire canning industry.  

The start of modern food safety procedures

The botulism food scare lit a fire under the National Canners Association and California Canners League to save their emerging industry. They decided to invest in a botulism research and inspection campaign that would become the foundation of modern food safety systems.  

Anna Zeide, a historian for Oklahoma University, says, "The findings led to strict regulations for the processing of olives—240 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 40 minutes—and a state-wide inspection service, funded by the industries but overseen by the impartial California State Board of Health. By 1925, many standardized practices had expanded to other food products, covering sardines, tuna, and all vegetable products except tomatoes."

Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t until 1970 that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began to keep track of food-related deaths in America.  

During the 60s and 70s, more lethal cases of canned botulism were found in canned mushrooms, salmon, and soup. The mushrooms triggered America's first major food recall, with 75 million cans removed from the shelves. After this outbreak, the National Botulism Surveillance System was created to collect data for each confirmed botulism case in America. More regulations ensured proper heat treatment of canned foods.  

The measures put in place back in 1970 have been incredibly effective. There have been no reported botulism cases linked to canned foods for the past 50 years in America.

Science, government, and a constant need for improvement

Eliminating botulism from canned food was no accident. Despite the scares, the canning industry has now earned the complete trust of its customers, thanks to diligence, scientific research, and a clear set of practices.  

But even with today's stringent guidelines on food processing, plenty of food safety issues still slip through the cracks. According to the World Health Organisation, "an estimated 600 million – almost 1 in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food, and 420,000 die yearly." The risks place responsibility on food manufacturers to make sure their products are safe to eat.  

As we know, manufacturing candy and chocolate bars has extremely strict health and safety procedures. After all, accidental cross-contamination of certain ingredients, like nuts, can be deadly for people with severe allergies.  

For these reasons, we design PTL machinery with a strong focus on hygiene. Our equipment allows a more thorough cleaning, minimizing the risk of contamination or cross contamination. Get in touch today to learn more about PTL's best-in-class technology and equipment.