National Academies Press: OpenBook

Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow (1961)

Chapter: Applications of Science in Assuring Safety of the Food Supply

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Suggested Citation:"Applications of Science in Assuring Safety of the Food Supply." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
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Page 57
Suggested Citation:"Applications of Science in Assuring Safety of the Food Supply." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
×
Page 58
Suggested Citation:"Applications of Science in Assuring Safety of the Food Supply." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
×
Page 59
Suggested Citation:"Applications of Science in Assuring Safety of the Food Supply." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
×
Page 60
Suggested Citation:"Applications of Science in Assuring Safety of the Food Supply." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
×
Page 61
Suggested Citation:"Applications of Science in Assuring Safety of the Food Supply." National Research Council. 1961. Science and Food: Today and Tomorrow. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18719.
×
Page 62

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Applications of Science in Assuring Safety of the Food Supply GEORGE P. LARRICK Commissioner of Food and Drugs, U. S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Since the turn of the century, rapid advances in science and technology have, as you know, caused great changes in our social and economic organization. Nowhere has a developing technology had greater impact than upon our food industry. Basic agriculture has been drastically altered and made many-fold more efficient by the mechanization of equipment and the adoption of mass production methods. Improved fertilizers and modern, more efficient pesticides are available. Similar far-reaching technological advances have occurred in the preparation, packaging, and distribution of foods. Bacterio- logical and enzymic studies of the causes of decomposition and food spoilage have led to the development of heat processing with automatic controls, improved methods of pasteurization and refrigeration, and the phenomenal growth of the frozen food industry. New preservatives and mold inhibitors have come into use. Improved materials such as metal and plastic foils and container linings and coatings have resulted in more convenient food packages. Improved methods of transportation make pos- sible the safe and rapid distribution of perishable foods to our expanding urban population centers. To illustrate these profound changes, contrast a modern "supermarket" with the typical corner grocery of a former genera- tion. Some of you may remember the latter—the cracker, flour, and pickle barrels, the bins of dry beans and peas, the bulk 57

cheeses, the haunches of meat hanging in the old walk-in icebox— not to mention the ubiquitous sheets of fly-paper. Now walk into a modern, air-conditioned, fluorescent-lighted food market. There are literally thousands of competitive items—fresh fruits and vegetables in and out of local season, frozen meats and fish, and an array of canned, frozen, and "ready-to-serve" meals—all at- tractively packaged and displayed. Some foods, such as milk and bread, are supplemented or enriched with nutritional components they would normally lack. It can be truly said that applications of science and modern technology have made our food supply the most abundant and diversified in the world. But while this advance of science has contributed greatly to the abundance, variety, and wholesomeness of the American dietary, it has also brought entirely new problems of food law enforcement and new possibilities of hazards to health. Fifty years ago, food chemists were dealing with such crude and flagrant adulterations as copper sulfate in peas, watered milk, and powdered brick in annatto. Obviously, the detection of such abuses did not require elaborate scientific techniques. While fairly adequate balances, refractometers, saccharimeters, and microscopes (usually of European manufacture) were avail- able to the food chemist, simple physical operations or the classi- cal methods of gravimetric and volumetric analysis usually served the purpose. Contrast the primitive problems of food adulteration with those facing the modern food and drug scientist. He must now contend with such problems as the radioactive contamination of food crops by fall-out; the bacteriology of frozen precooked foods; organic pesticide residues in food crops, milk, and meat; the presence in foods of possibly carcinogenic food additives. These new problems are very extensively evident in the present regulatory programs of the Food and Drug Administration. Fortunately, the technological advances which have revolu- tionized our food and drug industries have also to some extent given the food and drug scientist new tools which he can apply to these new enforcement problems. He now routinely employs equipment which was unknown or unapplied in a former day; spectrophotometry; bioassay; paper, column, and gas chroma- 58

tography; electrophoresis; photofluorometry, to mention but a few. Merely for example, let us make brief note of the progress of "colorimetric" analysis during the past 3 decades. Older chemists usually compared colored solutions by sighting down Nessler tubes. For quantitative estimations they sometimes used a col- orimeter of the Dubosq type, equipped with plungers immersed in the colored solutions, which were held in cups mounted on movable stages. Spectrophotometry, as we know it today, was virtually unheard of, but during the 1930's it began to be applied. In 1936, the Administration acquired a Bausch and Lomb spec- trophotometer. It consisted of a light source and cell holder and a polarization photometer mounted in conjunction with a glass prism spectrometer and eye-piece. It cost $980 and we were very proud of it. However, it became obsolete with the advent of the photoelectric recording instruments. Nowadays, the scien- tist watches while the magic pen draws accurate spectral curves, not only in the visible region, but also in the heretofore unused ultraviolet and infrared regions of the spectrum. We have been able to acquire a number of these instruments for our Washington laboratories and field districts. They have become essential in our work on the many products for whose identity and purity we are responsible. Chromatography is another new and extremely useful analyti- cal tool. In one or another of its forms it has been applied to the analysis of foods for pesticide residues and to the separation of drug mixtures and of fatty acid esters. Paper chromatography enables the analyst to separate and identify as little as one micro- gram of certain pesticides such as DDT. We have recently established a tissue culture laboratory in our Division of Nutrition. Tissue culture technique permits the growth and reproduction of human and animal cells in an arti- ficial medium. Then the effect on growth of a variety of chemi- cals (food additives, for example) may be observed in what is essentially a test tube manner. Sometimes nutritional changes too subtle to be detected in the intact animal may be noted. Another technique which we have used to good advantage in testing for residues of the chlorinated organic pesticides is a bio- assay using ordinary house flies. Flies react to virtually all the 59

organic pesticides, and the fly toxicities of many of these parallel their mammalian toxicities in a quite remarkable manner. Thus, as we apply the test, 10 micrograms of DDT, 26 micrograms of methoxychlor, 0.8 micrograms of lindane, or 0.6 micrograms of heptachlor epoxide will consistently kill about 50 out of 100 flies. The operations of our Division of Pharmacology, the largest of our Washington scientific groups, are, I am sure, familiar to this group. It is of interest, however, that in addition to conducting normal procedures, new methods of detecting toxicity potential and evaluating safety are being explored by this Division and in other laboratories both in and out of the Food and Drug Administra- tion. I have already mentioned the application of tissue culture techniques. Metabolism and other biochemical procedures may be capable of detecting adverse biological effects long before any pathology appears. Microbiological procedures—the use of bacteria as test animals—may be useful in this area. Such proce- dures as these, if successful, might be substituted for the long, costly animal feeding tests. We are endeavoring to explore this possibility to the extent possible with our limited research staff. A comparatively recent problem concerns the contamination of foods by radioactive fall-out. During the past several years, we have examined about 6000 samples of about 50 different foods by a count of the "total beta radiation" of the ashed samples. Large-scale nuclear weapons testing ceased in October 1958, and recent analyses by the total beta method indicated a general decline in the total radioactivity of foods. However, significantly high values for tea, alfalfa, and spinach, harvested in 1959, have been maintained. Surveillance will be continued, and it is now planned to anlayze some samples of all foods for individual long- lived nuclides such as strontium-90 and plutonium. Testing of foods for radioactivity involves entirely new techniques and, of course, some expensive apparatus. Corollary to the surveillance of foods for radioactivity is the use of radioactive tracers. We have used radioactive carbon-14 to trace the metabolism of certain pesticides and also to check the efficiency of the extraction procedures we use to remove pesticides from leafy vegetables prior to analysis. 60

There is hardly a scientific discipline which we do not employ in our work of safeguarding the Nation's food supply. A roster of our scientific personnel would list biochemists, nutritionists, bacteriologists, cicroscopists, statisticians and biometricians (whose advice assures more adequate sampling and proper evalu- ation of results), physicists (including electronic experts), color- ists, toxicologists, pathologists, X-ray technicians, entomologists, radiologists, doctors of medicine and of veterinary medicine—all in addition to our staff of analytical chemists. In fact, some of our operations have become so specialized that they are not in the ordinary college curriculum. It has sometimes been necessary to conduct special training programs, or to send our people back to school for special courses. Starting with the premise, which we accept, that neither legi- timate business nor agriculture is out to poison the public, why do we need the personnel and equipment of the type I have just described? We think there are several perfectly valid rea- sons. In the first place, we believe there is no real disagreement with the view that industry both needs and wants rules by which it shall conduct itself to comply with the terms of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. We must make those rules. In some cases, for example, food additives and pesticide chemicals, we make the rules largely on our review and evaluation of extensive scientific data presented to us in support of specific proposals. These rules are formally announced in the Federal Register. We have several devices for being sure that these are readily available to those who may be affected. Having made and an- nounced the rules, however, our job has really only begun. In the field, there is the problem of constant educational methods and investigational operations, the latter being designed to find out whether the rules are being met. Where they are not, we must take legal action as provided in the statute. In any action we start, however, we must first be convinced that we have a sound set of facts based on good scientific principles which will enable us, if challenged, to convince a court and jury that we are right. I recall that former Commissioner Dunbar used to philosophize that it was the God-given right of every taxpayer to criticize the 61

way Government officials go about their jobs. I can assure you that we get our share of that criticism. Some growers criticize us because we have not established tolerances which permit them to use specific pesticides on their crops, overlooking the fact that we probably never have been presented with data which would enable us to consider such tolerances. Growers who misuse pesti- cides and find themselves in the toils of the law feel that they have been discriminated against. Consumer groups often feel that we do not do enough checking to enforce the rules I mentioned. People who are honestly interested in complying with the law, as well as those who are merely curious, object because we are unwilling and, in fact, are not authorized, to examine samples at their behest, since we are not operating a service laboratory. Some complain that our laboratories do not do enough basic research, when the limited facilities we have are not even enough to get the answers to the immediate problems we need solved in order to do a better job of enforcement of the law. We can stand these criticisms. Where they point up things we can do something about, we are the first to want to do some- thing about them. On the other hand, we hope that our critics will understand the fact that there are areas where we are lim- ited by the terms of our law and by the facilities available to us so that we cannot do all that they may suggest at any given time. We are firmly convinced that sound effective administration and enforcement of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in this area of pesticide chemicals, food additives, and color additives is not possible without an accompanying strong scientific research program directed and conducted by top-flight scientists who are equipped with proper facilities including the more modern in- strumentation. It has been gratifying to us to note the increasing recognition by the Congress that these needs are paramount. Certainly, they will cost more money as science in these fields progresses, and we must demonstrate that we need to continue to go forward in these areas for the benefit of consumers, farm- ers, and manufacturers alike. I am sure that if we base our needs on sound programs we will be able to keep on acquiring the necessary tools and trained personnel. 62

Next: How the Food Industry Meets the Demands of the Consumer »
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