The History of Health Departments

Public health departments play a vital role in everything from food safety to managing pandemics. Health departments are tasked with anything and everything that can affect public health. The modern public health department system began about 150 years ago.

Early Origins

Even in ancient times, there has always been an overseeing body to address public health issues like food safety. Since ancient Greece and Rome, there has been someone tasked with addressing potential health threats to society.

In the US, the modern health departments did not address food safety until the 20th century. At first, health issues were left up to individual states. It then became more apparent that diseases were a contagion that needed to be controlled. Food safety, in particular, was spurred by the publication of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair in 1905, a book that exposed food and health information in the meat industry, which fell under federal jurisdiction.

The Food and Drug Administration

One year after the publication of The Jungle, Congress passed acts that formed the Food and Drug Administration. This health department would grow and evolve over the years into the organization as we know it today. The first restaurant inspections began in 1934 and regular updates to the Food Code began in 1993.

Education is a major focus of these departments. As new understandings in science are learned, food codes and safety procedures are updated accordingly. Health departments never stop learning. Getting the word out about diseases, transmission, prevention, and, yes, food safety are all important functions of these departments. Food safety training, such as ServSafe training, is now required in many states to help ensure proper food handling.

The Importance of Health Department

Despite the efforts of health departments, we are still struggling with the same problems. WHO (World Health Organization) reports that about 1 out of 10 people will get sick from eating contaminated food this year. That is about 600 million people. That means that the work health departments do today is just as important as it was hundreds of years ago.

Health departments are the center of vaccination programs, food and nutrition programs like WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), and other valuable community-focused health services. Health departments have been there through every epidemic, pandemic, and outbreak. They provide key support services that help to keep people healthy. Health departments are also a great resource for ensuring food safety in your establishment.