Hepatitis A, vaccination, handwashing and all that stuff: we all need someone we can lean on

My latest from Texas A&M’s Center for Food Safety:

I experimented in university.

powell's.food.safety.world.feb.15Who didn’t?

My experiments in the 1980s involved tomato plants, Verticillium resistance, using a midwife to deliver our children, and saying no to the pertussis vaccine.

My ex-wife and I prided ourselves on our evidence-based approach to things, but as pertussis vaccine safety improved, so has my advice to the two oldest kids who have kids of their own: (or are about to): get vaccinated.

A couple of weeks after U.S. Senator Bozo declared that handwashing in food service places like Starbucks could be voluntary, I’ve contemplated that position and concluded sure: with a couple of conditions.

I co-wrote a paper that declared food safety inspections and audits were not enough.

What I have always said is this: government inspections are a minimal standard but necessary to hucksters accountable. The best will always go above and beyond what is expected.

Consumers should seek out those who market microbial food safety and steer clear of hucksterism.

But retailers are reluctant to market food safety.

And it’s the retailers who are the burden in this food safety stuff: they preach but they don’t practice.

In addition to the personal tragedies, every outbreak raises questions about risk and personal choice.

It’s true that choice is a good thing. People make risk-benefit decisions daily by smoking, drinking, driving, and especially in Brisbane, cycling.

But information is hard to come by.

I went to a supermarket in Brisbane, after taking my daughter to school, and was shocked to find Nanna’s berries – those linked to a growing hepatitis A outbreak — on the frozen shelves.

I asked the woman at checkout, weren’t those berries recalled?

nannas-rasberriesShe said, only the mixed ones.

I said, the raspberries and blueberries you’re selling are coming from the same source.

She shrugged and said, not in the recall.

They were recalled the next day.

With at least 14 Australians now confirmed ill with hepatitis A from frozen berries apparently grown in China, the case presents a microcosm of intersecting interests of global food, vaccination fears, poor handwashing and xenophobia (which Australians are particularly good at; as John Oliver said, “Australia is one of the most comfortably racist places I’ve ever been in. They’ve really settled into their intolerance like an old resentful slipper”).

The complacency of Australian regulators is astounding when compared to other Western-style food safety agencies.

There was limited notice of the recall from state and federal food safety agencies until they all turned up for work on Monday: people eat seven days a week.

The company involved, Patties Foods in Bairnsdale in regional Victoria, repacks frozen berries grown who knows where (China and Chile in this case, apparently).

For those worried about Hepatitis A:

  • Get vaccinated. It’s been mandatory in Canada and several U.S. states for five years. It was mandatory for us to emigrate to Australia four years ago. It should be mandatory for locals. If I ran a restaurant, I’d want everyone to be vaccinated.
  • Wash your hands. Hepatitis A is one of the few foodborne diseases that is only spread human-to-human. And, like most foodborne illness, it’s fecal-oral. The typical U.S. scenario is a 20-something goes to Mexico or the Dominican for a friends wedding (and where hep A is endemic), comes back and is serving salad to a few thousand people at their part-time job. But it’s not just the person is positive: The same person also failed to adequately wash their hands after having a poop, and ended up making your lunch. And was not vaccinated.
  • Know your suppliers. I’ve talked with a lot of parents at my daughter’s school in the past few days and they are all concerned. But usually for the wrong reasons. It is incumbent on the supplier – and the retailers who market this crap – to provide safe food. They’re the ones who make money.

Food porn is everywhere, but microbiology involves some basics: that’s why there’s vaccines, that’s why milk is pasteurized; that’s why we don’t eat poop (and if we do, make sure it’s cooked).

That’s why I have a bunch of tip-sensitive digital thermometers for my daughter’s school.

If someone wants to promote public disclosure of handwashing compliance and is able to prove it, great.

Otherwise, you’re just a talker, not a doer.

Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety at the University of Guelph in Canada and Kansas State University in the U.S., who shops, cooks and ferments from his home in Brisbane, Australia.


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