Texas Environmental Health Association and Austin

There are exactly five cities I could live in. Portland, Madison, Toronto, Raleigh.

And Austin.

I grew up in one of these, and currently live in another.

The only problem with Austin is a lack of hockey. 

Today I gave a talk to the Texas Environmental Health Association about a bunch of food safety stuff. Got to catch up with old friends and tell folks about some of the fun things we’re working on.

Also got to eat some brisket, listen to good music and drink some Texas beer.

Good times.

20 sick: Salmonella outbreak linked to Texas restaurant, owner stands up

Julia Deng of ABC 7 News reports a popular Odessa restaurant is temporarily closed pending an investigation into a foodborne disease outbreak involving two confirmed cases of Salmonella and at least 18 probable cases, Ector County Health Department officials said Tuesday.

ajuua's.mexican.restThe owner of Ajuua’s Mexican Restaurant, located at 2120 Andrews Hwy in Odessa, voluntarily halted restaurant operations after the confirmed Salmonella infections were traced back to his establishment, according to Health Department Director Gino Solla.

The source of the infection and original point of contamination within the restaurant remained unknown Tuesday.

Officials revealed the two patrons suffering from foodborne illness positively linked to Ajuua’s dined at the restaurant Wednesday, June 1.

Results of lab tests and medical exams were not yet available Tuesday for the 18 additional patrons with “probable” Salmonella infections, Solla said.

Julian Rubio, the owner of Ajuua’s, said he “is deeply sorry” to patrons sickened at his restaurant and plans to cover their medical bills related to Salmonella treatment.

“This isn’t the kind of thing you prepare for as a restaurant owner… but we’re going to do everything we can to better train our employees and make sure this never happens again,” he said.

Some Austin food trucks are not alright, alright, alright according to inspection reports

In 2014 Dani and I visited Austin, Texas – the land of moon towers, SXSW, City Limits, beef BBQ, Wooderson & Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd and daytime drinking – and ate our way through the city.

We had breakfast tacos, a bloody mary garnished with a rib and sausage and about 9 meals at food trucks. With complex foods (other than the standard just reheating cooked meats) in a mobile kitchen comes complicated preparation and handling steps.IMG_4002 Multiple raw ingredients need to be kept at the right temperature; operators have to avoid cross-contamination; clean and sanitize their equipment; and, keep bacteria and viruses off of their hands. All within the confines of a cart or trailer. It can be yummy, but making the meals safely is a tricky activity.

KEYETV in Austin detailed the increasing challenge of regulating food safety at over 1000s mobile kitchens – and that many have inspection issues.

Austin can’t get its fill of food trucks. More than a thousand roving restaurants are wheeling around the city, and the latest reports from Austin/Travis Co. Health and Human Services show 15 to 20 percent of them are failing their inspections.

“We have events every single weekend,” said Environmental Health Supervisor Marcel Elizondo.

Elizondo says inspectors have one goal. “Looking out for food safety,” said Elizondo. “To help keep them on the straight and narrow.”

During two weeks in March inspectors drove around Austin checking 97 food trucks. 15 were shut down for health violations and reopened after fixing the problems listed on the food inspection report.

Inspectors also keep an eye on temporary food booths. Last year, during SXSW, 318 inspections uncovered a few vendors operating without permits. The biggest problem was having no way for workers to properly wash their hands. This year inspectors found the same problems at an East Austin food trailer court.

“He didn’t have any kind of proper hand wash set up, which is basically a water jug with an open tap on it where he can wash both hands at the same time,” said Harris.

Greg Parish runs the gourmet popcorn booth and blames bad timing.

“We have it set up. It’s just that, we were just in the middle of setting it up and I just hadn’t pulled it out,” said Parish. “Going to go get this done and get ready to get started.”

“I think the biggest challenge is the temperature thing,” said Chef Charlotte Gordon with Pink Avocado Catering. “Making things like ice chests work and keeping them filled and keeping everything nice and cold.”

10 years ago Austin only had one inspector keeping tabs on the city’s mobile restaurants. In 2016 there are six.

 

42 sick: Cyclospora outbreak in Texas

My aunt contracted Cyclospora from basil in Florida about a decade ago.

It’s not fun.

pesto.basil.cyclosporaThe Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department is investigating an outbreak of Cyclospora, an intestinal illness caused by a microscopic parasite.

As of today, the department has 15 confirmed and probable cases and 11 new cases that are currently under investigation. Within the past week, 42 cases of Cyclospora infection have been reported to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Cyclospora is spread by people ingesting something – such as food or water – that was contaminated with feces (stool). Cyclospora needs time (days to weeks) after being passed in a bowel movement to become infectious for another person. Therefore, it is unlikely that Cyclospora is passed directly from one person to another.

In the United States, foodborne outbreaks of cyclosporiasis have been linked to various types of imported fresh produce including berries and leafy greens. At this time, no particular food item has been identified. It is recommended that residents thoroughly wash fresh produce.

Washing doesn’t do much.

Austin, TX Whataburger food handler diagnosed with hepatitis A

If I were a food business owner I’d be worried about hepatitis A. Individuals can shed the virus without showing symptoms and even a Hep A positive handwashing superstar will result in lineups outside the business or at the health department while patrons get their post-exposure shots.images-7
Authors of a 2000 Journal of Food Protection  paper on the cost effectiveness of vaccinating food handlers arrived at the conclusion that the public health benefit of vaccinating for hep A doesn’t equal the costs – but doesn’t factor in all the bad publicity, hassle and incident management costs.
According to KXAN, an Austin outlet of Whataburger the famed Texas fast food chain is going through the crisis stuff right now – and it will cost them business even without patrons getting sick.
Health officials are wanting to alert the public about possible hepatitis A exposure at a Whataburger in Central Austin. A restaurant employee there at the 2800 Guadalupe St. location has been diagnosed with the hepatitis A virus.
 
While health officials say transmission of the infection to customers is not likely, the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department is recommending people contact their doctor if they ate at that specific Whataburger between Aug. 7 and Tuesday and fit the following criteria:
  • are 75 years old or older
  • are immune-compromised
  • have chronic liver disease or have had a liver transplant
  • have clotting-factor disorders
  • are experiencing hepatitis A symptoms
A bit out of the norm; the usual public health response is to administer protective post-exposure IgG shots to all.

Operation Meat Locker is latest attempt to ax meat thieves

Elizabeth Weise of USA Today writes today that with food prices escalating, meat thieves — organized groups who target steaks and high-end cuts at supermarkets for resale to unscrupulous restaurants and markets — are a growing problem. They’re also hitting meat lockers, cattle pens and even 18-wheelers.

In a comprehensive follow-up to the July 29/11 arrest of six men in Austin, Texas, Weise explains how police officers took fresh meat to more than 28 area restaurants to offer for sale. It wasn’t an easy sting to carry out because unlike the thieves, they had to abide by food safety regulations. "The meat had to be kept under 41 degrees, so we didn’t have much time to work," says Sgt. David Socha, who took part in the investigation.

None of the 25 restaurants chosen at random would touch the meat brought to their back doors and offered at half off, but the three restaurants who’d been fingered by the shoplifters "bought it again and again and again," Socha says. It wasn’t just staff looking to make money on the side, but management who were involved, "so we knew it wasn’t a fluke," he says.

After each restaurant had bought more than $1,500 worth of stolen meat, making it a felony, police moved in and made arrests July 28.

This sort of organized retail crime is a common and growing problem, says Joseph LaRocca, who focuses on asset protection for the National Retail Federation. A recent poll by the group found 95% of retailers falling victim to it in 2010, up from 89% in 2009. More than two-thirds of members say "these groups are getting more brazen and they’re getting hit harder," LaRocca says.

Organized retail crime rings consist of professional shoplifters, called boosters, who take "orders" from fences who buy the pilfered product. "Their entire job is to go out and steal. It seems that they stay within their realm — meat thieves will steal meat," says officer Scott Stanley of the Tacoma, Wash., Police Department. Stanley is also the founder of the Washington State Organized Retail Crime Alliance.

In his experience, most of the boosters are drug addicts. Many are even paid in drugs. "They say ‘You go out and steal me $150 in tri-tip (roasts), and I’ll give you enough crack for a week," he says.

The meat gets sold to unscrupulous restaurants or out of the back of a van at swap meets. Sometimes it goes to mom-and-pop convenience stores. "We’ve gone into a Shell (gas) station and found steaks with the Safeway sticker still on them," Stanley says.

"The lack of refrigeration is a serious food safety concern; so is the suspect handling," says Douglas Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. "And if restaurant owners are willing to cut corners and buy street meat, what else are they cutting corners on in the back kitchen? It doesn’t inspire confidence."

The organizations aren’t all small-scale. Thieves made off with $11,000 worth of meat from Sedlacek’s Wholesale Meat Co. in Melbourne, Iowa, in February.

Owner Barry Sedlacek came in one morning to find his cooler door open and 2,500 pounds of top-quality meat missing.

Texas has already had between 700 and 800 cattle rustling cases this year, says Larry Gray, law enforcement officer for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association in Fort Worth. "There’s been an uptick in cattle thefts, first because of the economy and also because cattle prices are so high," he says.

An 800-pound steer is worth about $880 right now, he says. Thieves will pull up to a feeding pen, load up their truck and "be out of there in 10, 15 minutes," Gray says. They sell them at livestock auctions for quick cash.

3 Austin restaurants closed for selling stolen supermarket meat

Eater reports that 60-year-old East Austin barbecue legend Sam’s BBQ, Willie’s Bar-B-Que and La Morenita all had their business licenses revoked as a result of Operation Meat Locker. Austin police had been working with HEB for the past three months to bust meat thieves — it’s a "growing crime" in Central Texas.

Apparently thieves shove meat down their pants to sneak it out of grocery stores and "walk long distances or ride the bus" in order to sell it to restaurants.

Shockingly, investigators discovered "food safety was not a priority."

Officers posing as meat thieves approached 25 restaurants with the stolen meat, and only the three listed above went for it. Five arrests have been made. The restaurants can apply to have their permits reinstated but must remain closed until that happens.
 

Trendy trailers in trendy Austin face food safety changes

Trendy trailers and mobile food vendors are now facing tougher regulations in Austin, Texas.

KVUE News reports that late Thursday afternoon, Health and Human Services subcommittee members approved new regulations to regulate an industry that has doubled in popularity during the past four years.

Council member Laura Morrison, who serves on the Health and Human Services subcommittee, was quoted as saying,

“The bottom line is if you have people serving food on a shift for eight hours a day, it’s important to make sure there are accommodations for them to have safe hygiene and wash their hands. Public health is what we are all about when we look at this. We want to make sure there is enough controls in place to make sure we aren’t subjecting the public to foodborne issues.”

Some mobile food vendors choose to rent commercial kitchen space to prepare food. Under the new regulations, the formal agreements must be certified by a notary to ensure food safety.

The City of Austin is forecasting more than 1,600 mobile food vendors in 2011.