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Former NASA Food Coordinator Pioneered the HACCP System
by Lori Valigra
While the rest of the world focused on the space race between Russia and the United States, Paul Lachance, PhD, an Air Force Aeromedical Laboratories biologist, worried about the safety of the food astronauts were eating during a mission.
“I did not want a telephone call at 2 o’clock in the morning from Chuck [Charles A.] Berry, who was the chief medical officer of NASA, telling me that his astronaut or astronauts were sick and had stomach problems and were having a hard time holding things down,” Lachance told interviewer Jennifer Ross-Nazzal in a May 2006 interview for the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project. “We have to realize that this was the first time in the history of the American—or of the food industry in the world, in fact—but for the United States, that zero pathogens in foods [was required].”
This started Lachance, a former NASA flight and food coordinator from 1963-1967 and a PhD professor emeritus of nutrition and food science at Rutgers University, on the road to being a pioneer developer of HACCP, a method NASA has referred to as “the most revolutionary institutional innovation to ensure food safety of the 20th century,” according to a 2009 profile of him in the Saint Michael’s College Magazine.
HACCP, which aims to identify potential food safety hazards and apply critical control points to reduce threats, has since expanded well beyond NASA to become a staple safety method at consumer food processing plants worldwide. Lachance, a native of St. Johnsbury, Vt., has been credited with developing HACCP, along with his collaborating scientists at the U.S. Army Laboratories in Natick, Mass., and Howard Bauman, PhD, a microbiologist who led Pillsbury’s work to develop space food for astronauts.
Keeping Space Crews Safe
While completing a tour of duty with the U.S. Air Force Aeromedical Laboratories at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, Lachance became aware of the issues involved in producing astronaut food. That lab also supported the pre-flight feeding of Mercury mission astronauts, according to historical information from NASA, which recruited him to become the flight food and nutrition coordinator at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. While there, he revamped the food systems for both the Gemini and Apollo space programs.
When Lachance arrived at NASA in September 1963, he started evaluating the Gemini and Apollo food systems, which were still in early development. A NASA history book, “How Space Food Standards Impacted the Food Industry and Changed Food Safety Standards,” described Lachance’s contributions. Most of all, he wanted to avoid putting the crews at risk, “and he began thinking about the potential microbiological, physical, and chemical dangers space foods might pose. Microbiological hazards became an overriding concern after NASA found that many of the ingredients they purchased were contaminated with viral or bacterial pathogens. There had to be some way to minimize or eliminate these hazards, Lachance explained.”
Pillsbury had been a NASA contractor since 1959, working on cube-sized foods that would not crumble in zero gravity but provided adequate nutrition to the astronauts. Lachance added strict microbiological requirements for space food, including limits on pathogens. It had become clear to him, Dr. Bauman, and the Natick lab scientists that traditional quality control methods couldn’t meet the standards, so they searched for a better system to assure food safety. At the time, no one knew how to conduct a thorough hazard analysis, but eventually a suitable model, called the “modes of failure,” was adopted. Microbiologists examined each food item and analyzed the potential areas of concern during manufacturing, then scoured publications to make a list of potentially hazardous ingredients that contained viral or bacterial pathogens, heavy metals, other hazardous chemicals, or physical hazards.
“As [we] bought ingredients, we checked the microbiological, which was the key or the most important issue in terms of safety, would be whether they would get sick. I mean, [could] there be a [food poisoning] problem?” Lachance said in NASA’s Oral History Project. “We found that some categories, such as spices, were heavily contaminated [microbiologically], and we had to find a way to make sure that we processed them before they would be used so that they would have no pathogens. They were loaded with pathogens. In fact, [would preserving assure safety]? Then, of course, you have the problem [indicators] that are known. Salmonella is associated with chicken and eggs, milk products, so we needed to screen that.”
Taking Critical Control
Lachance asked for assistance from the Natick lab, saying, “Well, what can we measure that we can [use] as biomarkers, that are true pathogens and yet we can use them as biomarkers, and also maintain the one that’s usually used by the industry? But that brought up the whole issue of the sequence of things you do and how you get contamination and the idea of critical control points.”
NASA was already using critical control points in engineering, and the process lent itself to food manufacturing. Pillsbury incorporated the system into its space food program, and later into its own food manufacturing for consumers.
Lachance was flight food and nutrition coordinator for NASA in the Crew Systems Division from 1963-1965, and held the same position in the Biomedical Research Office from 1965-1967, according to a NASA biography. He earned a BS in biology from Saint Michael’s College in Burlington, Vt., in 1955, and in 1960 he received a PhD in biology-nutrition from the University of Ottawa in Canada. After graduating, he joined the U.S. Air Force Aeromedical Laboratories in Dayton and was an aerospace food and nutrition scientist until 1963. In 1967, after his work at NASA, he became associate professor in the department of food science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., then director of the graduate program in food science, chair of the department of food science, and, finally, director of the school’s Nutraceutical Institute before retiring from that position.
Lachance won a Gemini Support Team Group Achievement Award (1966), Meritorious Achievement in Cereal Chemistry Award from the New York Section of the American Association of Cereal Chemists (1972), and a National Science Foundation International Food Safety Leadership Award for Lifetime Achievement in Education and Technology (2009), among others.
He has written more than 100 technical papers and 100 scholarly chapters, according to the Saint Michael’s College Magazine. He also is a consultant in the developing world: He instituted a program to feed vitamin-fortified tortillas to Guatemalan children that reduced mortality rates by 45%.
Valigra is a frequent writer for Food Quality. Reach her at email@example.com.