Norovirus is hard to get rid of, especially in a shelter

I’m still here, just like norovirus.

I can’t really imagine what it’s like to have your community and homes destroyed by fire. I really struggle to find the words or feelings to describe what residents of California are going through. Viewing the social media posts and videos of folks fleeing the flames is emotional.

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.

Getting into a shelter or temporary housing because of the fires and then acquiring norovirus is a terrible situation.

Butte County Public Health Department says that over 140 individuals housed in a Camp Fire shelters likely have norovirus. 

Since the shelters opened to house Camp Fire evacuees, 145 people have been sick with vomiting and/or diarrhea. As of Wednesday evening, there were 41 people experiencing symptoms at the following shelters:

Neighborhood Church: 179 total evacuees at the shelter, 21 currently experiencing illness

Oroville Nazarene Church: 352 total evacuees at the shelter, 10 currently experiencing illness

Butte County Fairgrounds: 142 total evacuees at the shelter, 9 currently experiencing illness

East Avenue Church: 200 total evacuees at the shelter, 1 currently experiencing illness

The number of sick people is increasing every day. Twenty-five people have been to the hospital for medical support. Staff serving the shelters have also been sick.

Norovirus can quickly go through a food shelter with many people living in close quarters. Once the virus is there, it is hard to get rid of.

As one friend of the blog posted on social media, having norovirus and using a public bathroom to deal with the symptoms must be particularly degrading.

English pub slapped with zero rating after 60 people got food poisoning turned around to get five stars

Heather Pickstock of Bristol Live reports the Old Farmhouse in Nailsea is now under new management and has been issued with a five start rating for its food hygiene.

A pub where dozens of diners suffered food poisoning after eating there on Mothering Sunday has been issued with a five star


food hygiene rating.

More than 60 people fell ill, suffering from sickness and diarrhoea in March this year after eating at the Old Farmhouse in Nailsea.

The kitchens at the pub, off Trendlewood Way, were temporarily closed while officials from Public Health England and North Somerset Council launched an investigation into the cause. It was given a zero food hygiene rating after an inspection.

Stick it in: Australians urged to buy accurate thermometers

Me and Ben, my hetero lifemate, broke up.

He was worried about a blog post I wrote, with university types to answer to, I  disagreed, so the is now totally mine.

It’s expensive for an unemployed ex-prof, but I understand.

Ben can still post when he likes, but it’s about 5 per cent of the content.

And the offending post will soon be up again, and if someone wants to sue, go ahead.

I know what happened.

Sometime in 2004 I went to the Gold Coast in Australia with my soon-to-be-stalker girlfriend.

I went on one of the morning shows, and was going to talk about the importance of thermometers, and the government food agency type said, you can’t do that, Australians just use their fridges to keep beer cold.

The chef at the restaurant we filmed the piece in had a tip-sensitive digital thermometer in his front pocket and said he wouldn’t cook without one.

Eighteen years later, the Australian government, as part of Food Safety Week – shouldn’t it be every day – has endorsed the use of thermometers, rather than the British standard of piping hot.

Testing by Choice has found a number of meat thermometers on sale in Australia were out by 2°C. Food Safety Information Council is urging people to pick up an accurate meat thermometer, using Choice’s survey as a buying guide, after their own research found 75% of Australians surveyed reported that there wasn’t a meat thermometer in their household and only 44% of those with a thermometer reported using is over the previous month.

AI and food

Chris Mahon of Outer Places writes that despite the frightening implications, most people aren’t surprised anymore when it’s announced that China has a new virtual news anchor powered by AI, or that companies are programming artificial intelligence to recognize when people are lying at airports. We’ve pretty much resigned ourselves that a dystopian future is on its way, but at least we’ll have extremely smart toilets, according to Micron CEO Sanjay Mehrotra. In fact, he says we may be able to phase out regular doctor visits in favor of an artificially intelligent commode that analyzes our urine and stool.
Speaking at the recent Techonomy conference in San Francisco, Mehrota claimed: “Medicine is going toward precision medicine and precision health. Imagine smart toilets in the future that will be analyzing human waste in real time every day. You don’t need to be going to visit a physician every six months. If any sign of disease starts showing up, you’ll be able to catch it much faster because of urine analysis and stool analysis.”

He certainly has some interest in this becoming a reality—Micron is one of the world’s leading producers of memory chips and related hardware, which would be necessary to create something like an AI toilet. Artificial intelligence has already proven itself capable of diagnosing medical issues—in fact, a combination of AI methods has proven itself even more effective at spotting breast cancer than humans. The only question is whether the data gained from smart toilets will be private…or monetized like your browser and purchase history.

Wait a second, doesn’t all this sound strangely familiar? It does! That’s because Adult Swim made a surprisingly in-depth parody of this idea with their faux “Smart Pipe” infomercial, which envisioned a company installing a pipe attachment to your toilet that would collect data about your diet and waste. Despite some exaggeration (and a bizarre detour into some darker territory), Smart Pipe might be closer to reality that anyone expected. 

This one is weird, 21 boxes: Salmonella causes limited Cap’n Crunch cereal recall

I’ve seen a lot of recalls, this is the first time I remember seeing only 21 boxes distributed to five specific stores. I’d like to know the back story on this one (maybe some avid barfblog readers can help).

The Quaker Oats Company, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, Inc., today announced a voluntary recall of a small quantity of Cap’n Crunch’s Peanut Butter Crunch cereal due to the potential presence of Salmonella. While the potentially affected product only reached five specific Target stores and is limited to 21 boxes of one variety with two Best Before Dates, Quaker is initiating the voluntary recall to protect public health.

The recall was initiated as the result of a routine sampling program by the company, which revealed the finished product may contain bacteria.

The product being recalled was distributed in limited quantities only to the five Target stores listed below. This recall only includes 21 outstanding boxes purchased after Nov 5.

This is some Willy Wonka golden ticket type stuff. I wonder if this was a market withdrawal that happened, except all but 21 boxes were pulled before sales. On the shelf quick, than off the shelf. Except for 21.


Posting restaurant grades is a good thing; does it make food safer? It’s hard to tell

I’ve long been a fan of posting restaurant inspection scores, grades, happy faces, whatever. The philosophy I subscribe to is that the inspection work is done with public money and the public should have access to the results. Whether the info is posted on the door, or a website, it should be accessible.

For a while lots of folks have wondered whether the posting matters, public health wise. I want to believe it does, but I’m still not sure.

The biggest issue in real life experimentation and hypotheses is that there are lots of other factors that could lead to an outcome. And if the outcome you’re looking for is reduction in Salmonella illnesses, you likely can find it if you look. Like Melanie Firestone and Craig Hedberg did in their EID paper that was released this week.

But I’m not convinced that less Salmonella was a result posting grades alone. And I don’t think they are either, since Firestone and Hedberg  highlight the other factors in their limitations:

First, this was a quasiexperimental, ecologic study that represents an association and not a causal relationship. Second, the NYC restaurant letter grade program involved multiple changes to sanitation enforcement in addition to letter grade posting; changes included inspection frequency, greater risk for fines, improvements to online resources, and additional training opportunities.. As a result, we could not determine which factors contributed the most to the reduction in Salmonella infections.

It’s good stuff, we need more data on these things. Posting grades is good, and absolutely should be done. So is increasing consequences and oversight – but how much each factor matters is still unknown. And what about other pathogens like norovirus and pathogenic E. coli?

Putting food-safety detection in the hands of consumers

I always thought the MIT Media Lab would be the coolest place to work.

I have no idea whether this gadget will work, but it has coolnest factor.

MIT Media Lab researchers have developed a wireless system that leverages the cheap RFID tags already on hundreds of billions of products to sense potential food contamination—with no hardware modifications needed. With the simple, scalable system, the researchers hope to bring food-safety detection to the general public.

Food safety incidents have made headlines around the globe for causing illness and death nearly every year for the past two decades. Back in 2008, for instance, 50,000 babies in China were hospitalized after eating infant formula adulterated with melamine, an organic compound used to make plastics, which is toxic in high concentrations. And this April, more than 100 people in Indonesia died from drinking alcohol contaminated, in part, with methanol, a toxic alcohol commonly used to dilute liquor for sale in black markets around the world.

The researchers’ system, called RFIQ, includes a reader that senses minute changes in wireless signals emitted from RFID tags when the signals interact with food. For this study they focused on baby formula and alcohol, but in the future, consumers might have their own reader and software to conduct food-safety sensing before buying virtually any product. Systems could also be implemented in supermarket back rooms or in smart fridges to continuously ping an RFID tag to automatically detect food spoilage, the researchers say.

The technology hinges on the fact that certain changes in the signals emitted from an RFID tag correspond to levels of certain contaminants within that product. A machine-learning model “learns” those correlations and, given a new material, can predict if the material is pure or tainted, and at what concentration. In experiments, the system detected baby formula laced with melamine with 96 percent accuracy, and alcohol diluted with methanol with 97 percent accuracy.

“In recent years, there have been so many hazards related to food and drinks we could have avoided if we all had tools to sense food quality and safety ourselves,” says Fadel Adib, an assistant professor at the Media Lab who is co-author on a paper describing the system, which is being presented at the ACM Workshop on Hot Topics in Networks. “We want to democratize food quality and safety, and bring it to the hands of everyone.”

The paper’s co-authors include: postdoc and first author Unsoo Ha, postdoc Yunfei Ma, visiting researcher Zexuan Zhong, and electrical engineering and computer science graduate student Tzu-Ming Hsu.

Other sensors have also been developed for detecting chemicals or spoilage in food. But those are highly specialized systems, where the sensor is coated with chemicals and trained to detect specific contaminations. The Media Lab researchers instead aim for broader sensing. “We’ve moved this detection purely to the computation side, where you’re going to use the same very cheap sensor for products as varied as alcohol and baby formula,” Adib says.

RFID tags are stickers with tiny, ultra-high-frequency antennas. They come on food products and other items, and each costs around three to five cents. Traditionally, a wireless device called a reader pings the tag, which powers up and emits a unique signal containing information about the product it’s stuck to.

The researchers’ system leverages the fact that, when RFID tags power up, the small electromagnetic waves they emit travel into and are distorted by the molecules and ions of the contents in the container. This process is known as “weak coupling.” Essentially, if the material’s property changes, so do the signal properties.

A simple example of feature distortion is with a container of air versus water. If a container is empty, the RFID will always respond at around 950 megahertz. If it’s filled with water, the water absorbs some of the frequency, and its main response is around only 720 megahertz. Feature distortions get far more fine-grained with different materials and different contaminants. “That kind of information can be used to classify materials … [and] show different characteristics between impure and pure materials,” Ha says.

In the researchers’ system, a reader emits a wireless signal that powers the RFID tag on a food container. Electromagnetic waves penetrate the material inside the container and return to the reader with distorted amplitude (strength of signal) and phase (angle).

When the reader extracts the signal features, it sends those data to a machine-learning model on a separate computer. In training, the researchers tell the model which feature changes correspond to pure or impure materials. For this study, they used pure alcohol and alcohol tainted with 25, 50, 75, and 100 percent methanol; baby formula was adulterated with a varied percentage of melamine, from 0 to 30 percent.

“Then, the model will automatically learn which frequencies are most impacted by this type of impurity at this level of percentage,” Adib says. “Once we get a new sample, say, 20 percent methanol, the model extracts [the features] and weights them, and tells you, ‘I think with high accuracy that this is alcohol with 20 percent methanol.’”

The system’s concept derives from a technique called radio frequency spectroscopy, which excites a material with electromagnetic waves over a wide frequency and measures the various interactions to determine the material’s makeup.

But there was one major challenge in adapting this technique for the system: RFID tags only power up at a very tight bandwidth wavering around 950 megahertz. Extracting signals in that limited bandwidth wouldn’t net any useful information.

The researchers built on a sensing technique they developed earlier, called two-frequency excitation, which sends two frequencies—one for activation, and one for sensing—to measure hundreds more frequencies. The reader sends a signal at around 950 megahertz to power the RFID tag. When it activates, the reader sends another frequency that sweeps a range of frequencies from around 400 to 800 megahertz. It detects the feature changes across all these frequencies and feeds them to the reader.

“Given this response, it’s almost as if we have transformed cheap RFIDs into tiny radio frequency spectroscopes,” Adib says.

Because the shape of the container and other environmental aspects can affect the signal, the researchers are currently working on ensuring the system can account for those variables. They are also seeking to expand the system’s capabilities to detect many different contaminants in many different materials.

“We want to generalize to any environment,” Adib says. “That requires us to be very robust, because you want to learn to extract the right signals and to eliminate the impact of the environment from what’s inside the material.”

sick: Donated catered meal cause of a foodborne outbreak of Staphylococcus aureus at a hospital in Houston after Hurricane Harveyd

Lucila Marquez of Healio reports that 50 staff members — but no patients — suffered acute gastrointestinal symptoms after eating a meal that included pork sausage, pulled pork, brisket, chicken and yogurt, at Texas Children’s Hospital, and colleagues.

Experts warned that flooding caused by Harvey could put storm victims at a higher risk for infection, but Marquez and colleagues said exposure to flood water was not associated with illness in the patients involved in the outbreak. They noted that S. aureus is one of 31 known causes of foodborne illness and outbreaks.

According to their report, on Sept. 1, 2017, a catered meal was donated and served to staff of the unnamed hospital. After infection control staff were notified of several cases of gastrointestinal illness among staff who ate the meal, the Harris County Department of Health was notified about the suspected outbreak, leftover food was secured and samples were taken from the pork sausage, pulled pork, brisket and chicken for testing.

Staff at hospital in Houston were sickened in an outbreak of Staphylococcus aureus linked to a donated catered meal.

Of the 191 staff who were working when the catered meal was delivered, 48% (n = 92) reported eating some of the meal, according to Marquez and colleagues. Within 14 hours, 54% (n = 50) of those who consumed the meal reported acute onset of gastrointestinal symptoms. All recovered within 24 hours.

Leftovers were tested for S. aureus, shigatoxin-producing Escherichia coli, and Bacillus cereus —pathogens with a short incubation period, Marquez and colleagues noted. Brisket and chicken tested negative for any pathogen, but portions of pulled pork and pork sausage tested positive for S. aureus. Based on a questionnaire completed by staff members, Marquez and colleagues calculated a 1.47 relative risk for illness from eating pork sausage (95% CI, 1.06-2.04) and a 1.45 relative risk for illness from eating yogurt (95% CI, 1.05-2.01), although no yogurt samples were available for testing.

They said the disruption in public health services in the wake of the storm prevented the health department from immediately investigating the catering business that delivered the meal.

Frying does keep Salmonella out of donuts

I never really thought about Salmonella in donuts, but these folks did, and good for them.

This study validated a typical commercial donut frying process as an effective kill-step against a 7-serovar Salmonella cocktail (Newport, Typhimurium, Senftenberg, Tennessee, and three dry food isolates) when contamination was introduced through inoculated flour. The bread and pastry flour mix (3:1) was inoculated with the Salmonella cocktail, and subsequently dried back to original preinoculation moisture content, achieving a Salmonella population of 7.6 log CFU/g. Inoculated flour was used to prepare a typical commercial donut batter, which was fried using 375°F (190.6°C) oil temperature. No viable Salmonella was detected using an enrichment plating protocol in the donuts after 2 min of frying, resulting in >7-log reduction in Salmonella population.

The internal donut temperature increased from ∼30°C to ∼119°C at the end of 2 min of frying. The water activities of the donut crumb and crust after 2 min of frying, followed by 30 min of ambient air cooling, were 0.944 and 0.852, respectively. The donut pH after ambient-air cooling was 5.51. The D- and z-values of the Salmonella cocktail in donut dough were determined using thermal-death-time disks and temperature-controlled water baths. The D-values of the cocktail were 8.6, 2.9, and 2.1 min at 55°C, 58°C, and 61°C, respectively, whereas the z-value was 10°C.

This study validated that >7-log reduction could be achieved if donuts are fried for at least 2 min in the oil at 190.6°C, and calculated D- and z-values present the heat resistance of Salmonella in donut dough at the start of the frying processes. However, results from this study should not be extrapolated when donut composition and frying parameters are changed significantly.

Validation of a Simulated Commercial Frying Process to Control Salmonella in Donuts

Lakshmikantha H. Channaiah, Minto Michael, Jennifer Acuff, Keyla Lopez, Daniel Vega, George Milliken, Harshavardhan Thippareddi, and Randall Phebus. Foodborne Pathogens and Disease.

Corn-stuff may increase E. coli O157 in cattle

Inclusion of distillers’ grains (DGs) has been associated with
increased prevalence of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in cattle housed in
research settings. Our objective was to quantify the relationship
between inclusion of DGs in commercial feedlot rations and the burden
of E. coli O157.

A convenience sample of 10 feedlots was enrolled based on DG use in finishing diets; 1 cohort included 5 feedlots in which DGs were greater than 15% of the dietary dry matter and the other cohort consisted of 5 feedlots at a concentration less than 8%. 

Sampling occurred at each feedlot on four occasions at ∼6-week
intervals. At each feedlot visit, 4 pens of cattle within 3 weeks of
slaughter were selected and 24 freshly voided fecal pats were sampled.

Ten-gram samples were enriched in 90 mL of modified tryptic soy broth with novobiocin (20 mg/L) for 14 h at 42°C. Enrichments were subjected to immunomagnetic separation, plating onto chromogenic agar with novobiocin (5 mg/L) and potassium tellurite (2.5 mg/L), incubation for 18 h at 37°C, and latex agglutination of morphologically typical colonies. E. coli O157 was recovered from 16.7% of 3840 samples.

Adjusted prevalence was 14.3% after controlling for within-feedlot and
within-pen clustering. Prevalence during each sampling period was
19.9% (round 1), 21.0% (round 2), 14.1% (round 3), and 11.7% (round
4). Prevalence varied between cohorts, but this difference varied over
time (p = 0.06). Among those with greater than 15% of the diet as DGs, prevalence was greater than those with less than 8% inclusion for all rounds of sampling (p < 0.01). Averaged across time, prevalence was 23.9% and 9.4% for those with greater than 15% and those with less than 8% of DGs, respectively. While observational, these data provide real-world support of reports of increased E. coli O157:H7 burden associated with DG use in cattle diets.

Corn-based distillers’ grains in diets for feedlot cattle are associated with the burden of Escherichia coli O157 in feces

Foodborne Pathogens and Disease 15:298-405

Evan Chaney, Rebecca Maloney, Bradley J. Johnson, J. Chance Brooks, Mindy M. Brashears, and Guy H. Loneragan.