Blaming consumers, Australia edition: taxpayer money to make people feel guilty about foodborne illness that wasn’t their fault

Bad food safety information, like bacteria, has no respect for geographic boundaries.

Food safety isn’t simple; people argue about specifics all the time. But failing to acknowledge uncertainties, doubts or errors while making proclamations from on public relations high undermines the credibility of the message and the messenger.

Marnie McKimmie of The West Australian wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago that, in one special synthesis, contains a greatest hits of microbial food safety myths.

Juliana Madden, executive director of the Food Safety Information Council, Australia’s version of the equally tragic FightBac and other consumer education campaigns, shares these gems:

"You can be sloppy peeling the carrots if you are going to bake them, but if you are going to stir fry or have salads then you have to be a lot more careful because that little bit of dirt on the outside can still be there and can contain all sorts of things but particularly E. coli, which is one of the big ones and is just hideously awful.”

Any raw food can be contaminated. An outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 last year in the U.K. sickened 250 and killed one. Best guess was messy handling of raw potatoes and leeks. Carrots are the same. They’re grown in soil. Things poop on soil, and water with poop runs through soil. Careful with those carrot peels.

"The German bean sprouts outbreak was so unfortunate because it was a perfect storm. Those sprouts had actually been treated as properly as they could have been in regards to the regulations but there were two mutations – one made the E.coli a lot more toxic and the other made the E.coli a lot stickier and therefore difficult to wash off."

The contamination was probably in the seed, like in so many other sprouts outbreaks (a table is available at No amount of washing would have prevented the outbreak. And mutations happen all the time.

“Always wash pre-washed green vegetables. Despite what the label advises, these must always be washed again at home to reduce the risk of food poisoning from bacteria such as listeria,” warned Sophie Williamson, WA Health Department food unit acting manager.

Researchers concluded in a 2007 review that additional washing of pre-washed salads would increase the food safety risk because of potential cross-contamination in food service and home kitchens. As Don Zink of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration told USA Today last year, bagged lettuce and spinach were already washed in a sanitizing solution at the packing plant and it was probably a lot cleaner than your kitchen. Microorganisms bond to the surface of the food item. "You are not going to rinse them off, it simply won’t happen, they cannot be washed off.”

Or, as I said, All washing might do is "remove the snot that some 3-year-old blew onto the food at the grocery store.” Washing "lowers the pathogen count a little, but not to safe levels if it’s contaminated."

People can have their preferences – back it up with data.

“Bean sprouts. A high-risk food that must be washed thoroughly, Ms Williamson said.”

Again, washing does almost nothing except make people feel good. The U.S National Advisory Committee on Microbiological Criteria for Foods figured this out in 1999.

“Chicken. Still not enough families were ensuring it was cooked until the pink in the middle disappeared and the liquid clear, warned Ms Williamson.”

Color is a terrible indicator. Using a tip-sensitive digital thermometer is the only way to tell if food has reached a safe temperature. Even some Aussies are warming to the idea of thermometers.

Who funds this Food Safety Information Council? See for yourself at