A brief history of food quality

It wasn’t until recent decades that food quality testing or sensory evaluation became more commonplace for the food industry. Historically, the idea of food “quality” testing was delegated to the Food Tasters of the 14th and 15th centuries. These individuals of pretty poor fortune were selected specifically for the purpose of testing the food of royalty to ensure it wasn’t poisonous or otherwise unsafe to eat.

Although this arcane role is still in practice today, food testing methods have become more formalized and far less inhumane, and those who do the testing have a job title of a very different pedigree! Food testers now have the role of ensuring consumer products are up to quality standards, ensuring the consumer experience is consistent.

The food testing field is now a scientifically rigorous practice where panels of highly trained individuals are tasked with quality maintenance rather than thwarting a “murder by poison” attempt, but getting here was no easy journey! Here’s the history that brought us to the current generation of consumer-based quality testing.

The Middle Ages, A Royal Guinea Pig?

Food taster sampling dishes in for Christian I of Denmark by artist: Romanino (1467): Wikimedia Commons

The story of Food Tasters in the Middle Ages is not a pretty one, but it did pave the way toward more legitimate practices of food testing and quality assurance. As previously stated, the primary purpose of a Food Taster (aka Royal Guinea Pigs), usually a slave, was to ensure the safety of the food that high-status individuals were about to consume. However, there was a bit of an upside to the gig, since the Food Taster was permitted to actually prepare and serve the food themselves. This was a clever way for royalty to ensure the safety of their food, after all, you wouldn’t eat something you yourself had poisoned!

You may or may not be surprised to hear that this is a practice that endures today. Testing food for poison is still used by royalty and government representatives of high-status, such as Vladimir Putin, who has a food taster as part of his security staff.

19th – 20th century, “An Army Marches on its Stomach”

Claude Gautherot [Public domain]: Wikimedia Commons

Though it’s unclear whether or not Napoleon actually said the above, it’s a bit of an ironic statement as some historical recounts of the 19th century have suggested that Napoleon was notorious for not providing enough food for his troops. The point of the statement is a good one, however, in that anyone doing hard labour – as an acting member of the armed forces or otherwise – will perform or “march” much better on a well-nourished full belly.

It was this sentiment that likely led to developments in military food and nutrition in the 20th century, such as the introduction of programs like “Meal, Ready to Eat” (MRE) introduced by the American Department of Defence in 1963. Though, the MRE program is more of an effort toward efficient food delivery to armies, than it is about ensuring the quality of food.

20th Century, Bring on the Standardization BABY!

Jeff McNeill [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The 20th century brought increasing standardizations across all scientific and business fields, including food sciences and processing practices. Many new quality testing methods and standards were introduced, such as Peter Drucker’s Modern Management Theory that stated: “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”.

Though Drucker’s work is not exclusive to the management of food testing processes, food sciences have found refuge in these principles as they assist in ensuring the highest quality of food as production is scaled. Measurement standardizations and best practices have greatly increased the ability to scale food businesses while retaining product consistency. Though there are those who now argue the level of legitimacy of Drucker’s statement, it’s still widely used and worth consideration in the scaling of your food business.

The Future Awaits Us

The late 20th century through to today has witnessed a tidal wave in the development of better quality control practices, including the recent upsurge in the Food Tech industries where there are many technologies and platforms being developed. The industry has ballooned so much that there are communities being formed around food science, with discussions on well-utilized hashtags such as #FoodTech, #AgTech, and #FoodInnovation.

Many companies have made it their mission to ensure the progress of quality tracking through innovative software, including our parent company, Compusense®, which has been leading the improvement of sensory testing tools and practices since the 1980s. And we aim to grow on that legacy of improving quality standards with our own focus on consumer-based quality testing, helping you bring your business into the 21st century.