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.

Origin of hepatitis A virus decoded

Hepatitis A virus – like HIV or Ebola as well – is likely of animal origin, according to a new large-scale study with nearly 16,000 specimens from small mammals from various continents.

hedgehogHepatitis A virus, which is found worldwide, has previously been considered to be a purely human pathogen which at most is found in isolated cases in non-human primates.

An infection with the hepatitis A virus can trigger acute inflammation of the liver which generally does not cause any symptoms in children and resolves without major complications.

“In tropical regions, nearly all young children are infected with the hepatitis A virus and from that time on, they are immune to this disease,” said Jan Felix Drexler from the Institute of Virology at the University of Bonn Medical Centre and the German Centre for Infection Research (DZIF).

By contrast, if adults become infected with the hepatitis A virus, the symptoms can be more serious, and the disease can even have a fatal outcome.

The virus has been found to date only in humans and a few non-human primates. Its origins were unknown.

Virologists from the University of Bonn Hospital, together with their colleagues, searched for viruses related to the hepatitis A virus.

They studied a total of 15,987 specimens from 209 different species of small mammals – from rodents to shrews and bats to hedgehogs.
Viruses from these mammals are very similar to the human hepatitis A virus with regard to their genetic properties, protein structures, immune response and patterns of infection.

“The seemingly purely human virus is thus most likely of animal origin,” said Drexler.

The findings may even hint at distant ancestry of the hepatitis A virus in primordial insect viruses.

“It is possible that insect viruses infected insect-eating small mammals millions of years ago and that these viruses then developed into the precursors of the hepatitis A virus,” Drexler said.

The researchers assume that small mammals were important hosts for the preservation and evolution of the viruses.

“Otherwise the hepatitis A virus would actually have gone extinct long ago in small human populations due to the lifelong immunity of the persons once infected with it,” Drexler said.

“However, patients need not fear that they could contract a hepatitis A virus infection through bats or hedgehogs,” he said.

“It has likely been a very long time since humans first contracted the hepatitis A precursor virus from animals – moreover, such incidents are very rare,” he added.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Location is no substitute for food safety data

An after-effect of outbreaks of foodborne illness is the geographic segmentation of counties and countries such as, ‘my spinach doesn’t come from California so it’s safe,’ or my melons aren’t from Colorado so they’re safe.

This is a logical consumer rationalization in the absence of actual information; it’s not like people can buy food on the basis of microbiological safety. reports that Ohio retailer Heinen’s Fine Foods has become the first retailer in the country to use third-party verification for sourcing and labeling meats. The chain partnered with Integrated Management Information, Inc. (IMI Global) to launch the WhereFoodComesFrom labeling program, designed to give customers more information about the source and origin of Heinen’s Own beef and pork products.

“The program helps us to provide our customers information about the source of our beef and pork products and lets consumers learn firsthand about where, how and by whom their food was raised,” Tom Heinen said in a press release.

The program incorporates a quick response (QR) bar code that allows consumers using a smart phone to scan the product and quickly access detailed information about the product’s origins.
“We’ve been offering verification services to farmers and ranchers for food marketing claims for 15 years and WhereFoodComesFrom is our effort to connect that program with the consumers who are looking for information about the food they buy,” said Leann Saunders, president of IMI Global.

I don’t care where food comes from, whether it’s around the corner or around the globe: I care that it is microbiologically safe.