NASA Apollo program helped boost US food safety

For those in need of a history lesson, a brief on the development of HACCP.

NASA’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system created decades ago for the lunar landing initiative is credited to this day with reducing foodborne illnesses.

Originally developed for astronaut food in the early days of the Apollo program – because no one wanted diarrhea in a space suit or barf in a space helmet — the HACCP system has been adopted by major players in the food industry

Sixty years ago, at what is now Johnson Space Center in Houston, a nutritionist and a Pillsbury microbiologist partnered with NASA to provide uncontaminated food for the astronauts on the Gemini and Apollo missions.

Instead of testing end products, Paul Lachance and Howard Bauman came up with a method that identified and controlled potential points of failure in the food production process.

To make astronaut food safe, the duo introduced hazards in the production line, observed the hazard and determined how it could be prevented.

In 1971, the deaths of two people from botulism, a severe foodborne illness caused by bacteria, prompted the National Canners Association to adopt stricter standards. The Food and Drug Administration and the canners association implemented the HACCP regulations for low-acid canned food.

In 1993, an outbreak of food poisoning at a fast-food chain prompted meat and poultry manufacturers to adopt to the HACCP regulations as part of an effort to restore public confidence in the industry. A decade after that, the FDA and the Department of Agriculture made HACCP regulations universal for meat, poultry, seafood and juice producers.

Standardization was further strengthened in 2011 when the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act came into existence. While HACCP applies to all U.S. food producers, all applications are unique to particular foodstuffs.

Thanksgiving in space

According to the food safety nerd historians (and every HACCP class) the world of food safety was revolutionized by a partnership between NASA and Pillsbury.

Jennifer Ross-Nazzal writes about the history in Societal Impact of Space Flight.

Concerned about safety, NASA engineers specified that the food could not crumble, thereby floating into instrument panels or contaminating the capsule’s atmosphere. to meet the outlined specifications, food technologists at Pillsbury developed a compressed food bar with an edible coating to prevent the food from breaking apart. in addition to processing food that would not damage the capsule’s electronics, the food also had to be safe for the astronauts to consume.

Thanksgivinginspac_3120060bAlmost immediately food scientists and microbiologists determined that the assurance of food safety was a problem. [Pillsbury microbiologist Howard] Bauman recalled that it was nearly impossible for companies to guarantee that the food manufactured for the astronauts was uncontaminated.

“We quickly found by using standard methods of quality control there was absolutely no way we could be assured there wouldn’t be a problem,” he said. To determine food safety for the flight crews, manufacturers had to test a large percentage of their finished products, which involved a great deal of expense and left little for the flights.

So HACCP was created.

Today, according to The Telegraph, American astronauts on the International Space Station are enjoying a risk-reduced and HACCP-inspired Thanksgiving meal including irradiated smoked turkey.

NASA Astronauts Terry Virts and Barry Wilmore cobbled together a festive feast by combining foods that are stocked on the station. 

The meal also includes candied yams, freeze-dried dressing, cranapple desert, mashed potatoes, green beans and mushrooms. 

Crew members get ‘bonus containers’ in which they are allowed to carry special items for specific holidays, like Thanksgiving or Christmas.

“The turkey they have available for Thanksgiving has been made shelf-stable by irradiation,” said Vickie Kloeris, ISS Food System Manager 

“So this product is ready to eat and they just warm it up and eat out of a packet with a fork.

Mine is still roasting.

The rise of the space toilet

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind on the surface of the moon forty years ago.

On this special anniversary, Craig Nelson, author of Rocket Men, released ten little-known facts about the Apollo 11 mission that took Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon and back. 

The list highlights several aspects of space travel that have been updated and improved upon since that time, including restroom facilities.

Nelson writes that in 1969 "urinating and defecating in zero gravity…had not been figured out; the latter was so troublesome that at least one astronaut spent his entire mission on an anti-diarrhea drug to avoid it."

The waste ejection predicament of the Endevour at the international space station just seems to pale in comparison.

Space toilet is plugged

The Associated Press reports today that one of the international space station’s toilets is out of order. As an often user of a plunger in my house, I know the embarrassment (or pride for some folks) that arises from plugging the commode.

While flight director Brian Smith declined to speculate whether overuse caused the toilet trouble, he was quoted as saying "We don’t yet know the extent of the problem. It may turn out to be of no consequence at all. It could turn out to be significant. It’s too early to tell right now."

The situation might get stickier as the space station guests, crew of the Endevour, are restricted to relieving themselves in their own vehicle. The AP says that the Endevour is parked next to the Japanese porch and can’t eject waste, Cousin Eddie-style, without spraying it all over the porch.

NASA, the food safety equivalent of the always-prepared Boy Scouts (without the funky green uniforms) was a catalyst in the creation of the modern food safety risk reduction system. In the 1960s NASA commissioned Pillsbury to rethink how to address risks in food processing and moved away from the use of end product testing as the only check. The result, hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) was created and seen as the best way to keep astronauts from acquiring foodborne illness and the avoiding awkwardness that would be created by explosive diarrhea in weightlessness.

The toilet repair work reportedly fell to Belgian astronaut/plumber Frank De Winne who wore goggles, gloves and a mask.