Stories, not just statistics, matter in food safety

Back in grad school Doug told me how to give a successful talk: Present in a series of stories; get those stories right; be passionate; and, end early (because everyone goes over time).

Storytelling in food safety matters. Folks aren’t compelled by the fancy facts and figures that all of us nerds have access to. What connects are the weird stories about symptoms, contamination and tragedy of outbreaks. And there’s some stuff in the literature to back this up. Morgan and colleagues (2002) evaluated various safety messages targeted at farmers regarding the use of personal protective structures for vehicles by presenting combinations of different message delivery methods. Participants reported that messages based on stories, and those that were meant to elicit fear about individual practices, had more impact on their desire to use safe practices than presenting consequence-based statistics alone. Slater and Rouner (1996) found that folks rate messages with narratives as higher quality and perceived them to be the most persuasive when looking at alcohol risks. pickled+eggs6

A couple of my colleagues who are designing a course on acidified foods processing for regulatory folks asked me for some help in identifying stories to supplement the technical information they were teaching about. I went back through barfblog and FSNet files and pulled up some nice ones. Like the restaurant-linked botulism cases linked to a chopped-garlic-in-soybean-oil that was held at room temp for several months before being used on a sandwich. Or the home pickled eggs that lead to a 68-year-old man acquiring bot intoxication. The eggs were boiled, peeled and punctured with toothpicks and placed into a jar with beets, hot peppers and vinegar – and then held at room temperature for a week. While the pickling liquid had a pH of 3.5, bot toxin was detected in both the liquid and the yolks. Although the yolks had 1000x greater concentration. Best guess is that C. botulinum spores were driven into the yolk during the puncturing and the liquid never made it in to acidify.

Add stories on fermented seal flipper and native Alaskan meat preservation to the list. According to Discover Magazine’s Rebecca Kreston, many of the botulism intoxication cases seen in the U.S. annually are linked to changing processes for fermenting meat. She relates a story told to her in an bacterial pathogenesis class and goes on to investigate the anecdote.

[O]ur professor noted that several cases of botulism in Alaskan Natives occurred as a result of changing methods of fermenting meat. Professor, you had me at “fermenting meat”.

Investigating the veracity of this anecdote I found that tried and true Alaskan Native methods of burying meat underground to ferment had been modified by the introduction of Western conveniences. Tupperware containers and sealable plastic bags were now being used to create a meaty, anaerobic environment that C. botulinum was happy to vacation in. Oh plastics, you synthetic polymers, what have you wrought!

I also discovered the staggering statistic that Alaska ranks among the highest incidence of foodborne botulism in the world. Indeed, nearly half of all cases of foodborne botulism cases in the United States occur in that icy Northern state; the incidence of botulism in Alaska is 8.46 cases per 100,000 compared to Washington’s paltry 0.43 per 100,000 (see here, and here).

This is truly a public health dilemma! Botulism has been repeatedly referred to as an endemic “hazard of the North” but typically occurs in western Eskimo coastal villages and Native Americans regions in the southwestern region of Alaska due to their proximity to aquatic foodstuffs

The term “fermented” might be putting it kindly – many ethnographers have described these prepared foods as intentionally putrefied. And, in fact, the fermentation process cannot occur without a carbohydrate substance and these meats aren’t technically “fermented”. The researcher Nelson reported the preparation process quite evocatively in 1971:

“Meat is frequently kept for a considerable length of time and sometimes until it becomes semiputrid. This meat was kept in small underground pits, which the frozen subsoil rendered cold, but not cold enough to prevent the bluish fungus growth which completely covered the carcasses of the animals and the walls of the storerooms”.

The customary preparation process has since been modified from fermenting food in a buried clay pit, enclosed in a woven basket or sewn seal skin (known as a “poke”) for weeks or months at a time. Food is now stored in airtight, Western consumer goods such as plastic or glass jars, sealable plastic bags or even plastic buckets, and eaten shortly after in a week or month. Additionally, the food many be stored indoors, above ground or in the sun at milder, less optimal temperatures. This move towards storing meat in warmer, anaerobic settings for shorter lengths of time may expedite the fermentation process and, subsequently, enhance the risk of botulinum toxin production.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.