Baltimore proposes inspection disclosure

My little boy turned 2 yesterday and my family and I went all out to make this a memorable event. He’s into Paw Patrol (cartoon about dogs who rescue) and so the house was littered with Paw Patrol posters, napkins, plates, everything and dad’s wallet was depleted.
Worth it when I saw the look on his face.
I was in charge of picking up cake and food for the evenings’ BBQ from a local grocery store. In Manitoba (Canada) there is no on-site disclosure system to inform me how the place fared on their latest health inspection but I have done enough of them in my time to understand what to look for when I am shopping/dining and I ask questions, it’s the food safety in me. I observe behaviors; it gives me a more comprehensive picture of a food establishment’s culture. The City of Baltimore is proposing that restaurants post their latest inspection report to increase public transparency. Anything to better inform the public on food safety is better than nothing. I am curious to see if patrons will actually read the report and accurately assess the risk.

Baltimore Sun reports

At least once every year each of Baltimore City’s approximately 5,700 restaurants and eateries must pass a health department inspection in order to stay in business. Those checks are essential not only to ensure that minimum standards of cleanliness are observed in food preparation and service but also to prevent the spread of serious foodborne illnesses such as Norovirus and Salmonella. Yet until recently the public had virtually no way of knowing when a restaurant failed to pass muster or the reasons officials shut it down. Baltimore needs to make the process more transparent so that citizens can be more confident making up their own minds about where and what to eat.
A bill last year sponsored by City Councilman Brandon Scott would have required health department officials to assign a letter grade to restaurant inspection reports and display the results in a prominent place. Many other cities, including New York, have adopted similar grading systems over the initial objections of restaurateurs who argued consumers would confuse it for an endorsement of some restaurants over others. That appears not to have happened in the Big Apple, where the restaurant industry is still booming. Yet Mr. Scott’s initiative ultimately failed in the council, even though the debate did convince Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen to post restaurant inspection reports on her department’s website.
Now Mr. Scott is back this year with a new proposal that would require restaurants to post their latest health inspection reports in plain view outside their shops. Unlike his earlier effort, this one wouldn’t require inspectors to give restaurants a letter grade. We appreciate restaurants’ objection to such a system but also the value an easy-to-understand rating would have for diners. Though it may be unlikely that potential patrons would be as inclined (or equipped) to judge the contents of an entire inspection report as they would a simple letter grade, posting them would still represent a vast improvement in transparency. Diners could look up a restaurant’s inspection report on the Internet, but they’re much more likely to consider the issue of food safety if reports are posted in plain sight.
“We need to join the rest of the civilized world on this issue,” Mr. Scott says. “The city inspection reports are already on line, and there are only a handful of major cities that don’t require restaurants to show their health department reports on site. In Baltimore, for some reason, we’ve been slow to do that.”
The federal government estimates that about 1 in 6 Americans are sickened by a foodborne illness each year, which adds up to about 48 million cases nationally. Though the American food supply is considered one of the safest in the world, foodborne illness account for an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths every year. Young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are at greatest risk for contracting such diseases, but they can strike anyone of any age with deadly effect.
That’s why we urge the City Council to revisit Mr. Scott’s proposed legislation with the aim of helping consumers judge for themselves whether the food they are offered is safe to eat. Some restaurant owners object that posting inspection reports prominently on site could confuse diners who may not know how to interpret the results or who may become alarmed by a reported problem that appears to be more serious than it really is. But that’s a cause to educate the public, not to hide important information. If a report prompts consumers to ask questions about a particular food safety issue, it’s probably something the restaurant owner ought to be paying more attention to anyway.
Would any requirement that establishments post their inspection reports in a prominent place make customers less likely to patronize a particular restaurant or eatery? We doubt that any of the city’s top-tier dining places would see much, if any, change in consumer attitudes, not least because they’ve spent years developing reputations for excellence in all aspects of their business, including food safety and cleanliness. It’s the smaller, more informal neighborhood establishments that are most likely to feel the effects of a change in the law, but they’re also the most likely to be cited for health code violations. By encouraging them to strive for a clean bill of health every time Mr. Scott’s proposed legislation would give them more than enough incentive to offer fare that is not only tasty but safe to eat as well.
As for the criticism this proposal is bound to receive that restaurant inspections are a minor issue compared to Baltimore’s epidemic of violence, we would note that Brandon Scott is the last city official who could be accused of paying insufficient attention to the crime rate. On the contrary, no member of the council has been so consistently at the forefront of efforts to develop strategies for improving public safety and for ensuring accountability. He’s allowed to do more than one thing at a time. In fact, the taxpayers who pay his salary should expect it.

Nacho cheese botulism was likely linked to retail practices

Lots of folks must like to eat gas station food; even the nacho cheese and nacho combos. I figure they are good sellers since so much retail space is dedicated to the snack. Earlier this year, according to a memo from the California Department of Public Health, ten people became ill with botulism after eating nacho cheese from Valley Oak Food and Fuel gas station in Walnut Grove, CA.

The memo highlights three notable things that came out of the investigation:

  • The 5 pound bag of nacho cheese collected at the retail location on May 5, 2017 was being used past the “Best By” date.
  • Records were not being maintained by the gas station employees indicating when the bag of nacho cheese was originally added to the warming unit.
  • The plastic tool designed to open the bags of cheese (provided with the nacho cheese warming and dispensing unit) was not being used by employees.

So the cheese was in the dispenser for a while, no one knows how long, and folks were using some other means to open the bag. Maybe some utensil with some soil ended up inserting bot spores deep into the anaerobic cheese bag.

 

Chicken sashimi is risky; and gross

A year ago I was in Japan for a few days and my hosts took me for sashimi every night. I think they thought it was funny taking a food safety nerd for a bunch of raw seafood. I did my best to be polite and steered towards more cooked foods. And lots of rice.

Earlier today Sara Miller at Live Science and I exchanged emails about chicken sashimi, a food that has been popular on twitter over the past couple of days. The same food that was linked to 800+ illnesses in the spring of 2016. Even Japanese public health folks were urging against eating it.

It’s not uncommon to find raw foods on a restaurant menu — think sushi or steak tartare — but if you see uncooked poultry as an option the next time you’re dining out, you may want to opt for something else.

Several restaurants in the United States are serving up a raw chicken dish that’s referred to as either chicken sashimi or chicken tartare, according to Food & Wine Magazine. Though the “specialty” hasn’t caught on much in the U.S., it’s more widely available in Japan.

Eating chicken sashimi puts a person at a “pretty high risk” of getting an infection caused by Campylobacter or Salmonella, two types of bacteria that cause food poisoning, said Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist and an associate professor at North Carolina State University.

Chapman noted that eating raw chicken is different from eating raw fish, which can be found in sushi dishes. With raw fish, the germs that are most likely to make a person sick are parasites, and these parasites can be killed by freezing the fish, he said. Salmonella, on the other hand, “isn’t going to be affected by freezing.”

Chicken sashimi is sometimes prepared by boiling or searing the chicken for no more than 10 seconds, according to Food & Wine Magazine.

But these preparations probably only kill off the germs on the surface of the chicken, Chapman said. “But even that I’m not sure about,” he added. In addition, when a chicken is deboned, other germs can get into the inside of the chicken, he said.

It’s podcasts all the way down: I talk food safety stuff with Food Safety Magazine

Don and I started podcasting because it was kind of fun to chat with each other about nerd stuff every couple of weeks. It all started as part of IAFP’s 100 anniversary meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where we recorded a 40 min conversation with each other for NPR’s StoryCorps (which we now refer to as Episode Zero). 133 episodes later, Food Safety Talk is still going strong with about 3000 subscribers.

Early on in our podcasting we appeared as guests on lots of other shows, including a bunch from Dan Benjamin’s 5by5 network. Others have joined us in the food safety podcasting world including the good folks at Food Safety Magazine who started Food Safety Matters a while back.

A couple of weeks ago I recorded a fun episode with Barbara VanRenterghem and we talked about how I got into food safety; some of the research we’re doing; and, evaluating safe food handling messages.

Check it out here.

Farmers’ market peas in Green Bay linked to salmonellosis cases

When our group started working with farmers markets a few years ago we created a strong partnership with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Together, with funding from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund, we developed best practices and engage directly with market managers and vendors through workshops and on-site visits. Since 2010 the curriculum we developed has been delivered to over 1000 managers and vendors and we’ve got some data that shows it led to some infrastructure and practice changes. Since then we’ve been working with others at Virginia Tech, University of Georgia, University of Arkansas and the University of Houston to take our vendor stuff national and couple it with other materials on that colleagues have developed.

Both of these projects were a result of wanting to help protect public health – and the farmers’ markets – from outbreaks. There haven’t been many farmers’ market-linked outbreaks reported. But one popped up today.

According to the Green Bay Press-Gazette, four cases of salmonellosis have been linked to shelled peas from a vendor at a couple of farmers’ markets.

Authorities believe the cases stem from consumption of peas sold at a July 22 farmers market in Green Bay, said Anna Destree, Brown County’s health officer.

County authorities are reminding people to follow proper procedures for washing and preparing vegetables, but say there is no need to panic.

“There’s no need for people to say, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t buy peas,'” Flynt said. “They just need to follow proper washing and food-handling procedures.”

Officials said any shelled peas purchased from downtown Green Bay farmers markets between July 19 and Aug. 5 should be thrown out.

Flynt did not have any word on the conditions of the county residents who were infected.

I don’t know who Flynt is, but blaming consumers isn’t a good idea. There’s no info as to whether these peas were consumed raw, whether cross-contamination was a factor – and c’mon, can someone show some data that says washing peas would be an effective risk reduction step here?

Here’s an infosheet on asking questions at farmers’ markets. Stuff like how do you keep Salmonella off of my peas.

Meal kits and food safety

I like shopping for groceries. A couple of times a week I take my youngest kid (who also likes to shop) to a variety of stores and pick up a bunch of ingredients for the next few meals. Not everyone is into pushing a cart around and fighting the masses over the best avocado enter the meal kit market. After discussing online meal kit companies on Food Safety Talk with Schaffner a couple of weeks ago, Don shot me a free week invite.

Our first Blue Apron shipment arrived Friday afternoon. I missed out on the temperature check when it arrived, Dani just said it was ‘cold.’

Don was on WRVO pubic radio talking about some of the food safety concerns with meal kits – stuff like transport temperatures, stuff delivered to the wrong address or boxes opening up.

So the meal kit companies need to consider a lot of factors, Schaffner says, in order to ensure the food being shipped remains fresh:

The perishability of the food itself
The kind of box and packing materials they ship it in
The kind of cooling device – dry ice, gel packs or regular ice
The nature of the delivery service
Clearly labeling the outside of the package that its perishable
Schaffner says it’s the food company’s responsibility to make sure its product is shipped in a way that ensures it is safe to eat upon arrival. Common shipping carriers — like UPS, FedEx or the U.S. Postal Service – don’t take responsibility for handling perishable food.

So is it safe to eat food that’s traveled via a non-refrigerated shipping truck? Schaffner says, like many other issues regarding food safety, “it’s complicated, and it depends.” Because there are so many variables, there’s really no definitive answer.

After our meal kit stuff arrived most of it ended up in our fridge for a couple of days. Yesterday I made a tasty and fairly easy cheese, pepper and olive grilled sandwich and a salad. Tonight’s challenge was a bit more involved.  Warm potato salad, marinated cucumbers and chicken cutlets – and that’s where it all fell apart for me.

The food safety instructions sucked. 

The raw chicken package had the USDA safe handling instructions to cook thoroughly. Damn. No other info, like what temperature thoroughly might be (right, exactly as shown).

I went to the step-by-step meal instructions, figuring I might see a temperature. Nope. Just cook until golden brown. And cooked through (below, exactly as shown). Damn. Nothing about cross-contamination either. A missed opportunity, but not surprising. Katrina Levine, Ashley Chaifetz and I wrote about how shitty cookbook instructions are when it comes to food safety. And we weren’t the first.

There’s lots of anecdotal conversations about how folks don’t know how to cook. Millennials and otherwise. Meal kits might make cooking easier – but won’t help with food safety.

Health inspections are not easy

The field of public health inspection is not easy; it is a difficult job, yet gratifying. I remember inspecting restaurants that were notorious for non-compliance and trying to work with them to improve their food safety behaviors. I believed in quality inspections and not quantity as health inspections are essentially a snap shot in time and I wanted to make a difference.

Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t and it is frustrated when you feel like you haven’t made a difference. So I get the ideology of fines as a method to increase compliance.
But do fines actually work or is it the cost of doing business for some operators? What will the establishment look like in a month or two, did we influence change or not? I have done this in the past where I charged a facility for a number of significant non-conformance’s and they subsequently cleaned up, but a month later, they regressed to the same state that I initially found them. Our department did not have a risk-based approach at that time and so the operator wasn’t expecting me for another year…surprise…

It is all about behavior and behavior change.

The owner of an East Tilbury sandwich bar has been slapped with a fine of almost two-and-a-half thousand pounds.
The owner of Nancy’s Sandwich Bar has been ordered to pay £2,353 for failure to comply with food safety legislation.
Daniel Wood appeared at Basildon Magistrates on Monday July 24, 2017 and pleaded guilty to 11 food hygiene offences, following a visit by Thurrock Council’s food safety team in September last year.
Inspectors visited the premises and found a makeshift kitchen had been set up in a room previously used for storage without consideration to food hygiene or public safety.
As a result, the food outlet was rated with a ‘1’ on the Food Standards Agency’s food hygiene rating scheme.
But the owner has since made improvements and the bar’s rating has gone up to ‘4’.
The bar was fined £1,230 and ordered to pay £1,000 costs and £123 victim surcharge.
Portfolio Holder for Neighbourhoods, Cllr Sue MacPherson said: “During the visit, the premises and equipment were found in a filthy condition, but I am pleased to see that improvements have since been made.”

 

Levine writes: Investigating shoppers’ perceptions of risk

Katrina Levine, extension associate and lead author of Consumer perceptions of the safety of ready-to-eat foods in retail food store settings writes,

While I was grocery shopping one day at my regular store, I noticed that one of the doors to the dairy refrigerator case was missing. There was no sign or notice to explain the gaping hole where the door should have been in front of the shredded cheese, nor was any attempt made to compensate for the absent door, such as by relocating the items in that section or putting up a temporary covering.

After first being a bit confused when trying to reach for a non-existent handle, these questions popped into my head:

• how can the food in this section be at a safe temperature, as well as the foods on either side of it? and,

• doesn’t this missing door affect the ability of the case to maintain its temperature?

I’m a food safety nerd. Most people just want to shop and get on with whatever they are doing, but I’m subconsciously always looking for food safety behaviors. The person standing behind me was probably more interested in which brand was the least expensive or which package looked the freshest, or just wanted me to get out the way so they could buy their cheese and leave.

Does the lack of a door on a normally enclosed refrigerator case pose a food safety risk for dairy the products in that case? Depends on whom you ask. The average consumer (interpret this as you choose) often doesn’t see the same food safety risks when shopping in grocery stores compared to food safety folks.

Our group from North Carolina State teamed up with John Luchansky and Anna Porto-Fett at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service to investigate this difference between consumers and food safety folks in food safety risk perception when shopping at grocery stores.  We conducted a national survey and several focus groups where, instead of just describing a situation, we showed pictures of a food safety situation someone could actually encounter while shopping. In addition to asking questions about whether each photo was safe or unsafe, we wanted to know about the actions, if any, people would take to do something about a situation they thought was unsafe. We prodded them further with questions about how their perceptions of safety would affect their shopping behaviors.

We found that consumers and food safety folks don’t always see the same food safety risks. There were some situations consumers perceived as risky but that weren’t actually risks, like seeing an insect on the floor. There were also some risks that food safety folks saw but consumers missed, like food not properly stored within the refrigerated area.

I was explaining our study to a friend the other day, and she flat out told me, “I look for food quality when I’m shopping – is it fresh, is there mold or signs of damage, does it look ok?” This is exactly what we found. Consumers are looking for those quality aspects, but aren’t always seeing the warning signs that the safety of the food could be at risk. The viruses, bacteria, and other things that cause foodborne illness such as Listeria monocytogenes, might be present on foods in the grocery store at high levels by not storing soft cheeses at the proper temperature, allowing bacteria to grow more quickly.

Our research team will be taking this one step further to better understand the mind of the shopper and see things through their eyes. Everyday consumers will become our secret shoppers, and we plan to arm them with the information they need to be food safety detectives every time they shop. #citizenscience for the win.

Consumer perceptions of the safety of ready-to-eat foods in retail food store settings

Katrina Levine, Mary Yavelak, John B. Luchansky, Anna C. S. Porto-Fett, and Benjamin Chapman

Journal of Food Protection

August 2017, Vol. 80, No. 8, pp. 1364-1377

DOI: doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-16-417

Abstract:

To better understand how consumers perceive food safety risks in retail food store settings, a survey was administered to 1,041 nationally representative participants who evaluated possible food safety risks depicted in selected photographs and self-reported their perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors. Participants were shown 12 photographs taken at retail stores portraying either commonly perceived or actual food safety contributing factors, such as cross-contamination, product and equipment temperatures, worker hygiene, and/or store sanitation practices. Participants were then asked to specifically identify what they saw, comment as to whether what they saw was safe or unsafe, and articulate what actions they would take in response to these situations. In addition to the survey, focus groups were employed to supplement survey findings with qualitative data. Survey respondents identified risk factors for six of nine actual contributing factor photographs >50% of the time: poor produce storage sanitation (86%, n = 899), cross-contamination during meat slicing (72%, n = 750), bare-hand contact of ready-to-eat food in the deli area (67%, n = 698), separation of raw and ready-to-eat food in the seafood case (63%, n = 660), cross-contamination from serving utensils in the deli case (62%, n = 644), and incorrect product storage temperature (51%, n = 528). On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 was very unsafe and 5 was very safe, a significant difference was found between average risk perception scores for photographs of actual contributing factors (score of ca. 2.5) and scores for photographs of perceived contributing factors (score of ca. 2.0). Themes from the focus groups supported the results of the survey and provided additional insight into consumer food safety risk perceptions. The results of this study inform communication interventions for consumers and retail food safety professionals aimed at improving hazard identification.

Telling people there’s no risk is irresponsible

There’s some dumb stuff in this interview with author Jack Gilbert (who wrote, Dirt is Good: The Advantage of Germs for Your Child’s Developing Immune System) about eating dirt and the hygiene hypothesis.

I get it, expose your kids to lots of things, boost their immune system. But why say things like this:

Unless you dropped it in an area where you think they could be a high risk of extremely dangerous pathogens, which in every modern American home is virtually impossible, then there’s no risk to your child.

and

As long as they’re properly vaccinated, there’s no threat, and they will actually get a stronger, more beneficial exposure.

There’s always a threat. There’s no zero risk. There’s a pretty good chance that foodborne pathogens, that sometimes kill folks, are in every kitchen.

Idaho food bank recalls foods after cooler temperatures reviewed

A few years ago an outbreak linked to a Denver homeless shelter made it into the barfblog new and notable category. Forty folks who depended on the emergency food were affected by violent foodborne illness symptoms after eating donated turkey. Fourteen ambulances showed up and took those most affected to area hospitals.

Earlier this year while speaking at the Rocky Mountain Food Safety Conference I met one of the EHS folks who conducted the investigation and temperature abuse of the turkey after cooking was identified as the likely contributing factor.

The very folks who need food the most were betrayed by the system they trust.

I can’t imagine how hard it is to be homeless or not have enough money to feed my family. Focusing on safe, nutritious food is moot if the money isn’t available to buy groceries. Or if there’s no home to take them too.

Volunteering as a food handler at a food bank, mission, shelter or soup kitchen and having a good heart and intentions doesn’t automatically lead to safe meals. An understanding of risks and having systems how to reduce them may.

Yesterday, a recall (we’re not recall net, others can do that) popped up as new and notable. The Idaho Food Bank recalled a few items that had been distributed to pantries  community meal sites and senior centers after someone reviewing cooler documentation saw that stuff was out of temp.

The Idaho Foodbank is recalling approximately 27,000 pounds of Coconut Beverage, Broccoli Cheddar Soup, Eggs, and Cheese Product.

These products are being recalled because they were not continuously maintained or stored at the required temperature due to a malfunction in the cooler. This could result in contamination by spoilage organisms or pathogens, which could lead to life-threatening illness if consumed. The Idaho Foodbank discovered the problem after reviewing cooler temperature records during high heat.

Affected Products were distributed in Southwest and North-Central Idaho

The Idaho Foodbank is committed to consumer safety and takes all product quality concerns very seriously. This recall affects less than 2% of the 1.5 million pounds of food IFB distributes statewide each month. We are recalling the products out of an abundance of caution, and are instructing consumers who received them not to eat these products and to immediately dispose of them.

Don’t know what temperature the coolers got to, or for how long, but that broccoli cheddar soup stuff is the type of stuff that could lead to botulism if temperature abused for a long time.

Ashley Chaifetz did a bunch of great work in this area a few years ago:

Evaluating North Carolina Food Pantry Food Safety–Related Operating Procedures

Ashley Chaifetz, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Benjamin Chapman, North Carolina State University

Journal of Food Protection

Vol. 78, No. 11, 2015, Pages 2033–2042

DOI: 10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-15-084

Abstract: Almost one in seven American households were food insecure in 2012, experiencing difficulty in providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources. Food pantries assist a food-insecure population through emergency food provision, but there is a paucity of information on the food safety–related operating procedures that pantries use. Food pantries operate in a variable regulatory landscape; in some jurisdictions, they are treated equivalent to restaurants, while in others, they operate outside of inspection regimes. By using a mixed methods approach to catalog the standard operating procedures related to food in 105 food pantries from 12 North Carolina counties, we evaluated their potential impact on food safety. Data collected through interviews with pantry managers were supplemented with observed food safety practices scored against a modified version of the North Carolina Food Establishment Inspection Report. Pantries partnered with organized food bank networks were compared with those that operated independently. In this exploratory research, additional comparisons were examined for pantries in metropolitan areas versus nonmetropolitan areas and pantries with managers who had received food safety training versus managers who had not. The results provide a snapshot of how North Carolina food pantries operate and document risk mitigation strategies for foodborne illness for the vulnerable populations they serve. Data analysis reveals gaps in food safety knowledge and practice, indicating that pantries would benefit from more effective food safety training, especially focusing on formalizing risk management strategies. In addition, new tools, procedures, or policy interventions might improve information actualization by food pantry personnel.