My leafy green conundrum

Caesar salad isn’t even the best salad.

It’s the kind of salad you expect at a sports team banquet or during lunch at an all-day meeting.

It’s a safe menu choice.

Except for the past month when foodborne illness outbreak investigators have focused on Romaine lettuce as the culprit of an outbreak of E. coli O157 linked to over 170 illnesses in 32 states.

E. coli O157 historically was once only associated with ground beef making it’s first appearance as what was thought to be a rare strain in 1982 after an outbreak was traced to McDonald’s. In 1993 over 500 illnesses and 4 deaths were linked to Jack-in-the-Box restaurants , an event that brought foodborne illness to the national stage. Fast forward 35+ years and the devastating pathogen has caused illnesses after being consumed in cookie dough, hazelnuts, alfalfa sprouts, soy nut butter, chicken salad – and a whole bunch of fresh produce including leafy greens.

The very type of food we should eat more of betrays us at a higher rate compared to other foods: Fresh produce is believed to be the source of almost half of all foodborne illnesses in the U.S.

Because it is consumed raw, anything that fresh fruit and vegetables come in contact with from the field to the home can really only increase risk. Washing and rinsing can remove at most 99% of what’s there. Microbiologically speaking, because there may be tens of thousands of cells on a leaf of Romaine, that’s not a whole lot. Often produce-related outbreaks are linked to poop getting into the food somewhere — wildlife on the farm; water used for irrigation or rinsing; soil and/or manure; or, the people who harvest, pack, handle and prepare it.

The problem with this outbreak is that the world of food safety sleuths have yet to figure it out. This one is particularly hard because the supply chain is mess and  investigators are trying to piece together what the farms and packing facilities looked like, food safety-wise, retroactively. Partners in figuring out outbreaks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have only been able to trace the problem to a specific geographic location – Romaine that was grown in the Yuma, AZ region.

Having a good sense of the supply chain for food, so outbreaks and incidents can be solved, is something that the industry has struggled with for decades. Even with the increased use of electronic records and the promise of blockchain, the data that gets recorded and shared relate to location and how food safety is managed from production to distribution to the grocery store still relies on people to input it.

Better traceability is often held up as a magic bullet but can’t really stop outbreaks from happening alone. Being able to trace a product is wholly reactive. While it is part of a good food safety culture even a good traceability program doesn’t raw poop off of foods.

What keeps food safe is vigilance by the food industry, learning from past outbreaks and focusing on carrying out best practices daily. Lots of food companies talk about food safety. Implementing it daily is much harder. It takes system throughout the entire company from the front-line staff all the way to the CEO that values food safety. Everyone needs to understand why food safety matters, what their role is and care about the folks who eat their products.

Where I grew up, there was a small tailgate farmers market Saturday mornings in the parking lot adjacent to the grocery store. I never really wondered whether the food sold there was safe. I didn’t think a whole lot about food safety and regulation until years later. I figured that if someone could sell it, they must know what they are doing, and I didn’t have to worry about it.

Food safety is all about trust, and I had lots of it.

I still do.

But over 75 outbreaks linked to leafy greens since 1995 is eroding that trust.

 

90 sick: Salmonella in Flanders

At least 90 students in the west and east of Flanders have contracted Salmonella and have become ill. According to the Agency for Care and Health, at least thirty schools have already been affected by salmonella contamination.

The Federal Food Agency FAVV has closed the company that supplies meals to 120 schools as a precaution. On Thursday, at least fourteen students were taken to the hospital.

It is not certain whether the company is responsible for the contamination. FASFC has not found a cause at the supplier for the time being. Samples were taken that are examined in a laboratory. Next week, new tests will be conducted and the agency will decide whether the caterer may reopen.

Food Safety Talk 154: Poop Finger Quote

Today’s show opens with some quick beverage talk and then moves to a discussion of podcasting (and teleconferencing) gear.  A brief segue into pop-culture is followed by a deep dive into how to develop science-based advise to consumers.  The safety of bed-side water, the ongoing romaine outbreak, and Listeria in mashed potatoes round out the food safety news.  Listener feedback and a promo for the upcoming live podcast at MSU end the show.

It’s Not the Mayonnaise: Food Safety Myths & Summertime Food

Matt Shipman, Research Communications Lead at NC State News Services (and all-around great guy) writes,

When folks get sick after a picnic, people often blame the potato salad. Or the chicken salad. Or whatever other side dish was made with mayonnaise. But that’s usually not the culprit.

“It’s not always the potato salad…except when it’s the potato salad,” says Ben Chapman, a food safety researcher at NC State University. “There are lots of other foods at a cookout that can also lead to illnesses.”

Potato Salad

When it is the potato salad, the culprits are usually Staphylococcus aureus or Clostridium perfringens. And a combination of factors can lead to problems. In most “salads” of this type, low-acid potatoes, chicken, pasta or hard-boiled eggs are added to the mayonnaise. The mayonnaise is acidified to make it safe, but the low acidity of the potatoes (or foods) offsets the acidity of the mayonnaise, creating an environment where bacteria can thrive.

That sets the stage. Then poor hygiene comes into play. S. aureus, for example, can often be found on our faces, particularly around the eyes or nose. So, S. aureus can be introduced to salads when people touch their face and then – without washing their hands – touch the food.

However, in order for bacteria to become a problem, there also has to be “temperature abuse,” meaning that the potato salad isn’t kept below 41°F.

“For example, above 90°F, foodborne pathogens in potato salad increase tenfold in as quickly as an hour,” Chapman says. “In ideal temperatures for bacteria, such as body temperature, bacterial populations can double in less than 20 minutes.”

So, it’s rarely the mayonnaise. Instead, it’s the combination of mayonnaise and other salad ingredients, plus poor hygiene and poor temperature control.

But, in rare cases, it can be the potatoes. An outbreak of botulism poisoning in 2015 stemmed from potato salad made using potatoes that had been canned improperly by a home cook.

“Potatoes need to be ‘pressure canned,’ using a boiling water bath,” Chapman says. “These potatoes weren’t, which led to 29 illnesses and two deaths – the largest botulism poisoning in 40 years.”

Why It’s Not the Mayonnaise (And When It Could Be)

A big reason that mayonnaise rarely causes foodborne illness these days is that most people buy their mayonnaise, rather than making it from scratch.

“Commercially produced mayonnaise is acidified to reduce spoilage and kill off human pathogens,” Chapman says. “It’s really low risk on its own.”

However, many mayo recipes for the home cook don’t include acid, which makes it possible for pathogens – like S. aureus, C. perfringens and Salmonella – to grow and become a health risk.

“So, if you’re making mayonnaise at home, pick a recipe that uses pasteurized egg products and incorporates acid – such as vinegar or lemon juice – to reduce risk” Chapman says. “And refrigeration is still incredibly important, as recipes may not incorporate enough acid to address risks.”

More Likely Culprits

If it’s probably not the mayonnaise salad, what are the more likely culprits behind foodborne illness? The answer may surprise you.

“Fresh fruits and vegetables are responsible for more outbreaks of foodborne illness than any other type of food; they’ve been linked to 46 percent of foodborne illnesses between 1998 and 2008,” Chapman says.

That does not mean that you shouldn’t eat your fruits and veggies. Just beware of risks.

Unfortunately, in most cases, contaminated produce was contaminated before the consumer bought it – at any point between the field where it was grown and the shelf where the consumer picked it up.

That said, you can still take steps to reduce risk

First, you really want to avoid cross contamination, which is when pathogens from uncooked food (like raw meat) are transferred to food that’s ready to eat. That can happen if you don’t wash your hands, for instance, or if you use the same cutting board for cutting chicken and preparing salad.

You can also reduce risk by washing your produce – though that won’t eliminate risk altogether.

And, if you are growing your own fruits and vegetables, make sure you’re that you are following some fundamental food safety guidelines for gardeners: using a clean water source (not your rain barrel); keeping wildlife from contaminating your garden; keeping your hands and gardening gear clean; and not using uncomposted manure.

As for grilling, check out our “5 Things You Should Know About Grilling Burgers (To Avoid Getting Sick).” There are good tips in there!

Bon appétit!

Modeling food held out on a hot day

The unofficial start of the summer is this weekend in the U.S. – Memorial day. Folks will be bbqing, cooking out, grilling out, whatever.

There’s a recommendation from USDA that on a hot day, above 90F/32C that food shouldn’t sit out for more than an hour. I couldn’t find a good reference for this. So I started texting Don.

He wasn’t answering. (I found out later it was because he was doing an interview with CBC, that’s a radio/TV network in Canada).

I started looking at a Conference for Food Protection document on how to handle food decisions at retail when the power goes out. Not exactly what I was looking for – all the modeling starts at 41F and doesn’t get as hot as I was looking for.

Then Don finally answered and suggested this paper on Salmonella in cut tomatoes.

Getting warmer.

I finally got into Combase and generated a couple of no-lag growth models for staph (in something like potato salad) and Salmonella. 

The staph model doesn’t go as high as 90F/32C so it’s a bit conservative different. But the Salmonella model shows a 1 log increase in just over an hour.

So yeah, hot days matter.

 

It’s not the water I’m worried about

The situation that Life Hacker’s Nick Douglas presented to me was (I’m paraphrasing here slightly): hey, I’m gonna leave a glass of water out over night and I know it’s not going to be a problem after a couple of hours, but I can’t leave that water there for a few weeks can I, because it will go bad, right?

My answer (paraphrased as well) I guess it depends what you mean by bad. The water will probably taste different the longer it sits there. Yeast, mold and algae might float into it, but as far as pathogens go, my take is that it’s really low risk.

I told him that the water wasn’t the issue, it’s what gets introduced to the water like food debris or some other nutrient source. And then a pathogen. Or poop. Poop has both.

My quote was, ‘What would matter is if, like, someone had poop on their finger and stuck it in there.’

It’s not like I thought water rots, OK? I just thought that there’s enough bacteria floating around a home, or in tap water, or on your lips when you take a sip, that given a month alone in a glass, it might grow and then make you sick. But, as food safety specialist Dr. Benjamin Chapman tells me in a mildly embarrassing phone call, it won’t.

But there must be some way it could, right? Yes, Dr. Chapman says, if you didn’t wash the glass properly, and left a nutrient like juice or other sugary remnants. 

But even if you’ve drunk out of the glass, getting your mouth on it, leaving a lip print, and then leaving out the glass — even then, he says, you’re not going to poison yourself with your own mouth bacteria.

Obviously, if the water supply is contaminated, all bets are off. If it was toxic when it left the tap, it’s still toxic after sitting out. But apparently, as long as it started out fine, even super-gross-tasting old water is healthy to drink, and I’m an ignorant hydrophobe. Fine. But I’m not alone. I only got curious because cooking blog The Kitchn asked the same question — or maybe they were stating the obvious for rubes like me.

‘I thought I had mono, but was just really bored’ Ohio hockey player, 20, finds a 25-inch tapeworm in his poop

Mary Kekatos of the Daily Mail reports that Carson Meyer had been feeling perpetually tired for almost a year.

The 20-year-old, who had recently been drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets hockey team, had been experiencing relentless lethargy along with pale skin and a loss of appetite.

Doctors, psychiatrists and trainers thought the Powell, Ohio, native might have depression, mononucleosis, and even cancer.

It wasn’t until a trip to the bathroom that Meyer figured out why he was sick – a 25-inch tapeworm had been living in his small intestine. ‘’

Febreze freshens up Alabama after ‘poop train’

Any hockey player knows the stench of equipment: Many of us carry around that stench with pride (although I’m not sure of the microbiological safety).

And when our partners or lab mates complain, we whip out the Febreze.

Magnify that problem.

How do you rid an entire town of the stench left by 200 poop-filled shipping containers? Apparently the answer is simple: you spray it with Febreze.

Carloads of the odor-eliminating products, produced by Procter & Gamble, were recently delivered to residents in Parrish, Alabama after a New York City “poop train” was hauled away on April 17. The disgusting cargo had been sitting in rail cars near Parrish for over two months while it waited to be transferred to a landfill 20 miles from the small town.

“At Febreze, we believe that no one should be immersed in stink and are confident that our lineup of odor-eliminating products could finally bring a breath of fresh air to the good people of Parrish,” Procter & Gamble’s Mandy Ciccarella said, via AL.com.

Many residents compared the overwhelming stink to trainloads of dead bodies. Some added that the smell was making them sick on a regular basis.

“The running joke was when the poop train came that we just needed to drop Febreze on top of the train,” a Parrish resident said in a video shared on social media by Febreze.

New York has been pushing its poop on other states after the federal government made it illegal for the city to dump waste in the ocean in 1988. The foul-smelling trains have been heading south after two landfills in Pennsylvania stopped accepting the sewage, according to CBS Sacramento.

Parrish officials have fought back against future “poop trains” entering their town by denying a business licence to the operator of Big Sky landfill. “The poop train brought the funk and Febreze came by to freshen us up,” one of the small town’s 960 residents added.