How A Tainted Can Of Olives Led To The US Food Safety System

Back in the day before immortal McDonald's hamburgers, and other highly preserved foods, most of what people ate came straight from the source. It had to, because before the advent of refrigerators, perishable foods were stored in naturally cool spaces or preserved through pickling, jarring, and smoking (via Discover) — a reality that's hard to imagine in a time when food is shipped globally.

One of the most profound leaps in the realm of food preservation was the creation of canned foods. Per History, canned foods were invented in France in the early 1800s and made their way to the United States after the Civil War. As the outlet explains, canned foods played an important role during various wars in the 19th century, as they provided soldiers with not only food but a connection back to their home countries.

As miraculous as this invention was, though, the idea of eating food that had been sealed in a metal container took some time for consumers to accept. According to Smithsonian Magazine, some of the hesitance came from the slimy texture of early canned foods, which prompted canned food pioneers to work quickly in collaboration with the agricultural and shipping industries to produce food that could withstand the long boiling times it took to properly seal the cans.

Safety concerns were also still an issue. Canning technology wasn't as reliable as it is today, and improperly sealed cans could cause severe illnesses. The worst of these was the bacterial infection known as botulism. One deadly outbreak, caused by a tainted can of olives, would lead to the death of nearly 20 people, and nearly ruined the canning industry.

A bad batch of olives

As Smithsonian Magazine explains, beginning in 1919, a series of botulism outbreaks occurred due to a batch of poorly canned olives. The briny treats had been shipped from California, and were unknowingly harboring the deadly bacteria Clostridium botulinum. Botulism is a rare, but serious illness. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the cells of Clostridium botulinum thrive in low-oxygen environments, making improperly canned food the perfect breeding ground. Botulism causes a variety of symptoms due to muscle paralysis, which if left untreated can result in death.

In the 1919 botulism outbreak, nearly 20 people across three states died after contracting botulism from the tainted batch of canned olives (via State Food Safety). Per Smithsonian, the National Canners Association, the California Canners League, and other parts of the canning and olive industries responded quickly, working together to create a solution to the food safety crisis. These entities would create the Botulism Commission which would draft heavy regulations for canning olives.

The group also created a statewide inspection service overseen by the impartial California State Board of Health. These safety measures were one of the first forms of the modern U.S. food safety system. Today, there is little to no risk of getting botulism from canned foods, and modern technologies have also extended the life of canned foods even further.