Got milk? How Pasteur made mass food production possible

Pasteurisation been instrumental in reducing morbidity and mortality from the consumption of bacteria-ridden food and drink. Doug Wheller/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The death of a three-year-old child caused by drinking unpasteurised milk late last year invited much commentary about food safety and regulation. But little has been said about the man who gave his name to the process that makes dairy products, and many other foods, safe for mass production: Louis Pasteur (1822-1895).

While the natural food movement insists sterilisation techniques destroy many nutritional benefits, there can be no doubt these same techniques have been instrumental in reducing morbidity and mortality from the consumption of bacteria-ridden food and drink. Of these, pasteurisation is one of the most important. It involves heating food or drink to a temperature where most harmful bacteria are eradicated. It’s particularly associated with milk, but is used across a wide range of products.

Most people probably don’t think about who or what lies behind pasteurisation. But it’s definitely a question worth asking because it emerged from one of the most important eras in the history of science. A time when our understanding of both life and disease was irrevocably changed.

An influential man

Pasteurisation, of course, commemorates one of the greatest members of science’s pantheon, the French microbiologist Louis Pasteur. But while Pasteur was responsible for the theory that underlay the process, it was only towards the end of his life that technology was developed to implement his principles on an industrial scale.

Pasteur was born of humble origins but rose to become one France’s most celebrated heroes. As one Pasteur critic said a few years before Pasteur’s death:

In France, one can be an anarchist or a nihilist, but not an anti-Pastorian. A simple question of science has been made into a question of patriotism.

Louis Pasteur identified the role of germs in disease and created a way of eradicating them from food and drink. Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

But what was this “simple question of science”? Today, Pasteur is mainly remembered for the discoveries that did so much establish the germ theory of disease, which posits that many diseases are caused by bacteria. We think, in particular, of his work on anthrax and rabies, which included the development of vaccines for both.

We might remember his ferocious competition with the German microbiologist Robert Koch (1843-1910), which led to so many pathogens being identified. We see the continued glory of the Institut Pasteur, which has continued the work of the great man for the benefit of humanity.

Pasteurisation was itself the by-product of discoveries that led to the germ theory of disease. Pasteur had started his scientific career in chemistry, working in the field of crystallography. From there, his interests broadened to explore the process of fermentation, particularly in wine and beer, industries that were critical to France’s prosperity.

A tangential discovery

Pasteur was a deeply patriotic and conservative man. He was a supporter, no less, of Louis-Napoleon III (1808-1873), who had grabbed power from the Second French Republic in 1851. While not overly religious, he was a supporter of the Catholic Church, and affirmed belief in a God-Creator.

What’s more, like many of his scientific contemporaries in France, he was hostile to the notion of evolution, even after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In particular, he was against the notion of spontaneous generation, the idea that life could organize itself from inert matter with no intervention from a supernatural force.

Spontaneous generation had been at the heart of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s pre-Darwinian theory of evolution. It was associated with materialism – the belief that life can be explained by natural forces – and atheism.

Milk pasteurising equipment at a dairy factory, Brisbane 1953. Queensland State Archives

During the late 1850s, Pasteur set out to explode the belief in spontaneous generation. He aimed to do it through an assault on the experimental methods of Félix-Archimède Pouchet (1800-1872), who had appeared to demonstrate that life could be created from inorganic materials.

Using a series of ingenious and exhaustive experiments, including the use of his famous swan-necked flasks, Pasteur was able to demonstrate that Pouchet’s spontaneous generation was actually the result of microbial contamination of the materials used in his experiments.

By 1864, Pasteur had not only been able to demonstrate that life could only emerge from life, but also that fermentation was a biological and not chemical process. A by-product of this research demonstrated that subjecting wine, beer, or milk to short burst of heat could mostly destroy the bacteria that caused them to sour.

This was nothing less than the birth of pasteurisation. But it would be many years before the technique was developed and implemented on the industrial scale required to make diary products safe.

Pasteurisation’s rise

At the time, not much attention was paid to food hygiene. Meat products might be infected with anthrax, and diary products with a variety of bacteria. Milk itself often contained the bacilli of bovine tuberculosis, or Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Pasteur’s ferocious competition with the German microbiologist Robert Koch led to many pathogens being identified. Wilhelm Fechner/Wikimedia Commons

And because the germ theory of disease had not been fully accepted, there was little impetus for state-driven intervention, even though the technology for industrial-scale pasteurization had existed since the 1880s. Indeed, even as late as 1900, there were many within the medical profession who argued the germs cholera vibrio, tuberculosis bacillus, or typhoid-causing bacteria, were not, in themselves, enough to cause someone to fall ill. The discovery that some people might be asymptomatic and, therefore seemingly healthy carriers of these pathogens, didn’t help the cause.

Against a back-drop of arguments about the risks of infection posed by microbes in the food supply, and counter-arguments about the negative impacts of pasteurisation upon the nutritional value of milk, the spread of the practice was slow and uneven. And legislative intervention in favour of pasteurisation was tardy.

In 1908, Chicago became the first municipality to demand compulsory pasteurisation, while Ontario, in 1938, demanded milk be pasteurised throughout the province. So powerful was the argument provided by the germ theory of disease, that more often than not it was consumer choice that drove pasteurisation, rather than state legislation. From the 1920s and 1930s, many dairies across the developed world instituted the practice voluntarily as the pro-pasteurisation lobby gained ground.

In some places, unpasteurised milk has never banned. Unlike Australia, where unpasteurised milk must be labelled a cosmetic product, in England and Wales it remains a matter of choice. But pasteurisation remains one of Pasteur’s greatest legacies, even if it sprung from the great man’s belief in an interventionist God, a dictatorial emperor, and the greater glory of France.

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