The other day a person younger than me (which doesn't eliminate much of the world's population) said to me it's too bad that the food we have today isn’t as wonderful as the food we had years ago. It made me think of the food we had 50 years ago. How safe was it, and how convenient was it? Were we really better off in days of yore?
I looked at some statistics on the frequency of health-related foodborne illnesses and relied a lot on my own memory. I knew my mother cooked pork for about 24 hours (or so it seemed) to ensure we didn't get trichinosis. But as recently as 1986 there were 51 cases of trichinosis reported versus only 15 cases in 2012. So it seems today pork is safer to consume.
Looking at other foodborne illnesses, I found the incidences of virtually every one has decreased over the years. For example, the number of people treated for salmonella in 1996 was 144/sample population versus 26/sample population in 2014. The rate of acute gastroenteritis went from 0.79 in 1999 to 0.60 in 2011. That translates to 33 million fewer people who reported acute gastroenteritis. Although the statistics were more difficult to find, it appears there were significantly more E. coli infections from milk in the past than there are today. However since as recently as 2007, E. coli cases dropped from 2.842 in 2007 to 1.348 in 2013.
What about all those “things” we add to our foods today that we didn't have years ago? Let's start with hormones in milk to increase milk production. The FDA requires a statement on any milk package that claims it is hormone-free to also include the statement, “No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones." Milk from rBST-treated cows is chemically similar to traditional milk. Both have very similar levels of protein, fat and sugar and comparable levels of vitamins and minerals -- so what is the issue? Some people contend the hormones found in milk contribute to the early development of young girls. It is true that girls are developing earlier every year but they have been doing so long before the introduction of the dairy hormone.
Quite frankly the food supply at least with respect to some of the more common infections is much safer today than it was years back. And while the Internet burns with accusations of how added ingredients are hurting consumers, there's little if any evidence to support most of these accusations.
If one considers that convenience is desirable to consumers, today's food supply is much more convenient than it was years ago. Maybe not everyone sees this as a positive improvement, but there are obviously millions of consumers who find it a positive step forward for the food industry. Simple products, like jarred spaghetti sauce, have allowed the Italian dinner to be prepared in minutes rather than hours (and hours). Bagged salad is another example. Who needs to buy a whole head of lettuce, packages radishes, carrots etc. when you can buy one bag and have everything you want?
In the 1960s people used about seven different ingredients for the family dinner, whereas today it is only one or two ingredients. The recipe for lasagna in the 1960s included 26 different ingredients whereas today it is only nine. Food today is more convenient.
Finally, what about taste? Has all of this processing, which created a healthier and more convenient food supply, negatively affected the taste of food? Taste, of course, is a matter of personal opinion, but there are a number of processing methods that have unquestionably made our food tastier. IQF has made frozen foods, particularly vegetables, as delicious as “fresh.” How about refrigerated cookie dough? Most people can't tell the difference between homemade chocolate chip cookies and some of the pre-made refrigerated cookie dough. They both taste great! And based on a sample of one, my mother found the jarred pasta sauce “almost” as good as her homemade sauce.
I try very hard not to be a “rah, rah” food industry guy. However I become vexed when I hear or read about people complaining about how bad the food industry is today. I certainly don't think the food industry is perfect and I could give a list of examples where we have dropped the ball. But if one really thinks about what food was like 50 years ago, and what food preparation was like 50 years ago, I think the food industry has done a great job.
I tell my students they should be proud to work in the food industry. We bring the safest, most convenient, tastiest and cheapest food in the world to American consumers. I tell them this is a noble profession.