Poop-free cakes come from sanitary facilities, safety-minded bakers

I once watched a grandmotherly woman dipping her fingers in a big tub of donut icing and spreading them on fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, as she explained to me that her procedure was much quicker than the spatula-method I was using. That may have been so, but we were working in a retail donut shop where bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat products wouldn’t fly with the health inspectors.

You have the right to treat your own food in any manner you please. But when feeding others, you’re obligated to do all you can to make it safe.

A mom of three in Teaneck, New Jersey, wanted to bake and sell "mortgage apple cakes" to forestall the foreclosure on her home. When more than 500 orders for the $40 cakes came in, Angela Logan was ready to get baking.

But, according to the Associated Press, Teaneck’s health officer notified Logan that it was against state law to use her house as a commercial kitchen.

She would have to bake in a kitchen subject to food safety inspections.

The AP reports that, since the notification, "the Hilton Hasbrouck Heights has allowed Logan to cook in the hotel’s kitchen, where she can produce up to 10 cakes at a time."

That’s very generous of the hotel. I wonder if they gave Logan any food safety training, or just the use of inspected facilities? Both are important if Logan’s customers are going to have their cakes and eat them, too.

Nobody wants to eat poop.

Where to get germs while on vacation

I’ve walked down Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Chinese Theatre. I bought a $2 map of the stars’ houses and photographed the "foot prints" of Star Wars’ R2D2 and C3PO in the cement. But I didn’t touch anything.

That sidewalk made the list of the five germiest tourist spots in the world as determined by editors at TripAdvisor.com this summer:

1. Blarney Stone in Blarney, Ireland – Last year, about 400,000 people hung upside down to kiss this stone in their quest for the gift of eloquence.

2. Market Theater Gum Wall in Seattle, Washington – This 15’x50′ wall of gum began as a few sticky pieces discarded by college students waiting in line for movie tickets fifteen years ago.

3. St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy – For some reason, people love feeding the pigeons here, though city officials have been cracking down on the pooping menaces in recent years.

4. Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California – The celebrity handprints in the cement  out front encourage bare-hand contact with a city sidewalk, which, according to a Theatre tour guide, is mopped daily and pressure washed once a week to support the trend.

5. Oscar Wilde’s Tomb in Paris, France – Admirers of author and playwright Oscar Wilde don bright lipstick to kiss his tomb when they come to pay their respects.

CNN’s report of the list states,

"Though it is unlikely to get sick from visiting one of these places, health experts say germs are always a gamble. The more people who touch and visit a spot, the more germs there are in the mix, they say.

"Their traveling advice? Travelers should load up on hand sanitizers and wash their hands often on their trips."

Good advice, baseless assumptions. Now, what about the kissing? And the pigeons?

TripAdvisor travel expert Brooke Ferencsik was quoted as saying, "These places are great attractions regardless of the fact that they are germy."

I’d say they were good for a photo, maybe. But I’m passing on the hands-on (or mouth-on) participation.

The rise of the space toilet

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind on the surface of the moon forty years ago.

On this special anniversary, Craig Nelson, author of Rocket Men, released ten little-known facts about the Apollo 11 mission that took Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon and back. 

The list highlights several aspects of space travel that have been updated and improved upon since that time, including restroom facilities.

Nelson writes that in 1969 "urinating and defecating in zero gravity…had not been figured out; the latter was so troublesome that at least one astronaut spent his entire mission on an anti-diarrhea drug to avoid it."

The waste ejection predicament of the Endevour at the international space station just seems to pale in comparison.

Gambling with food safety messages

The food safety songs that Megan wrote about crack me up.

And they’ve been found effective at getting high school students to remember safe food handling messages, so they must be cool.

However, facts should not be sacrificed for the sake of coolness (since doing so simply leads to food porn).

The USDA FSIS has determined that, "A ground beef patty cooked to 160 °F is safe."  But UC-Davis’ "Stayin’ Alive" suggests burgers should be up to one-eighty-five to avoid hepatitis and gastroenteritis.

I suppose listeners could overcook their burger to be extra-safe and extra-dry, if they wanted to. But my personal favorite food safety song, a parody of Kenny Rogers’ "The Gambler" entitled "Don’t Be a Gambler," suggests the centers reach the USDA-endorsed 160.

Messages must be consistent to ensure clarity.

Both parodies were used in the evaluation conducted with high school students, but student’s knowledge of safe end-point temperatures for ground beef was not tested.

I’d bet the tools aren’t effective at relaying that particular message. Any takers?

Sprout producer found their own listeria

After Listeria monocytogenes was found in their sprouts at a retail store about two months ago, Chang Farms started looking for the pathogen themselves.

And now they’ve found it.

The recalled products are packaged in 10-pound bulk bags and 12-ounce retail plastic bags, labeled under the Chang Farm brand as soy sprouts. The products were distributed to retail stores and wholesalers throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.

Being the first to find a problem in your own product shows a certain degree of food safety culture.

Having a problem twice in two months says something a little different, but they’re moving in the right direction.

The best food producers, processors, retailers and restaurants should go above and beyond the minimal government standards, which, as the company pointed out after the discovery at retail, do not require L. monocytogenes testing for sprouts.

Now, they can tell consumers about the extra control measures they’ve got in place… should they one day have a website.

Watch where you’re sticking it in

I’ve loved Chicken with Broccoli and Cheese (of various brands) since childhood. These prepared-but-raw entrees mostly fell by the wayside when I started cooking like a grown-up. But just last week, the crunchy broccoli with melted cheese hidden inside tasty breaded chicken thingies called out to me and my inner child, and a box of them was soon in my home freezer.

A couple years ago (under the alias C. Wilkinson), I watched a bunch of people cooking products just like these in model kitchens. I was helping graduate researcher Sarah DeDonder, who was curious what could be contributing to the half-dozen Salmonella outbreaks associated with such products that occurred in the ten years before the study (and the two outbreaks after).

The raw, frozen chicken thingies I brought home last week were made by Antioch Farms (a Koch Foods brand). The box’s front label proclaimed, in half-inch-high letters, that the products were indeed raw. The back label warned me not to cook them in the microwave. It also showed me how to stick a thermometer in to be sure each one reached a bacteria- and virus-killing 165 F.

I found each of these label features fairly helpful. However, when I baked them for dinner last night, I modified the depicted thermometer-sticking method a little to determine the internal temperature of the chicken, rather than the filling.

I’m happy to report that the chicken read 175 F before it reached the dinner table. And it was as delicious as I remembered.

Salmonella not your fault? Prove it

The Associated Press reports that certain packages of Kowalke Organics alfalfa spouts are being recalled due to possible salmonella contamination.

The California Department of Public Health said the packages were mostly distributed at Gelson’s and Whole Foods grocery stores in Southern California. According to Kowalke’s owner, Mike Matthews, only one package purchased in a store as part of a "secret shopping" investigation by state agents tested positive for salmonella, and it had a sell-by date of June 21.

The health officials "looked at our paperwork and we’re 100 percent clean. The test we have for that batch was negative," Matthews said. "Since we know it was clean when it left our truck, the only way that it could have happened was in cross-contamination down the line in the store."

Officials disagreed with that deduction—and solitary test result (which came from a sample on Kowalke’s premises, according to Matthews, and not on the truck)—and recommended a recall of all of Kowalke’s sprouts with sell-by dates from June 18 to June 30. Public health spokesman Al Lundeen said most sprout contamination comes from seeds, so all the products that were grown from that seed lot should be recalled.

Cross-contamination at retail is certainly a possibility. I’d be more apt to believe it, though, if I knew more about the testing procedure, and perhaps found out that more than one sample was tested per batch. With the limited information Matthews has provided, I have to agree with the health officials’ recommendation to issue a broader recall.

If you’ve got a food safety plan in place, tell the public about it—all of it. The public can always handle more information about food safety, not less.

Bonnie Hunt knows cross-contamination

Ever since reading this infosheet on a study of the bacteria and viruses found on lemon wedges, I’ve ordered my waters without them. I learned today that Bonnie Hunt is also one whose knowledge of microbiology has heightened her awareness of cross-contamination.

An encore presentation of the Bonnie Hunt Show today included a bit about Bonnie’s background with microbiology and how it affects her experiences at restaurants today.

Before her acting career took off, Bonnie worked for several years as a nurse. While training for that, she had to "look through microscopes" and "learn about handwashing"–particularly that friction is more effective than soap at removing bacteria and viruses.

When dining out, Bonnie said she notices when servers touch a refill pitcher to the rim of her glass… and then do the same with other glasses throughout the restaurant. She joked that it’s like making out with everyone there. 

She also related a story about a family eating near her at a local restaurant. The table the family was seated at had two ketchup bottles. A child picked up the first bottle, drank from it, and then set it back down on the table. Another child picked up the second bottle, tried unsuccessfully to pour ketchup out of it, and so used the straw from their drinking glass to get it flowing.

Knowledge is such a powerful thing.

Food safety is not in the eyes of the beholder

As someone with experience in microbiology, I have high standards for sanitation. (I always wash my hands after picking up a bag of raw chicken—even if it’s frozen—and I wipe down the counter, too.) My mother, on the other hand, focuses on visual cleanliness. Since she’s on her way for a visit, I’m doing all the things that I don’t find quite so important, like dusting and putting my husband’s toys away. While, despite my efforts, her house will always look better than mine, I’m content to think my family will get less diarrhea.

Michael McCain is the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, which allowed an undetected build-up of pathogenic listeria deep inside its slicing machines to contaminate deli meats that eventually killed 22 Canadians and sickened 57 more.

He stated yesterday that, despite concerns by the media and a meat inspectors’ labor union that overworked inspectors spend most of their time doing paperwork, more visual inspections would not have made a difference. Inspectors, without the aid of listeria-vision goggles, could not have seen the bacteria that contaminated the meats.

While regulators play an important role in persuading food producers to make safe products, it’s the culture of each organization that primarily determines whether they produce safe food.

In the case of Maple Leaf Foods, communication with consumers during the outbreak (as discussed by Doug and Ben) demonstrated that it was an organization that recognized the value of producing safe food. Their failure to detect L. monocytogenes in product samples led to a $50 million recall, settlements to victims totaling $27 million, and a loss of business that suggested they could do more to act out the food safety culture they had fostered.

No scrap of such a culture could be found at Peanut Corporation of America when the peanut products it was shipping sickened 714 people across the US. As of yesterday, claims totaling $202 million have been filed against PCA in U.S. Bankruptcy Court on behalf of the people who were sickened and families who lost loved ones in its salmonella outbreak, in addition to companies that bought contaminated PCA products for use in their own food products.

Smart food producers and preparers know that it pays to take responsibility for the safety of your products, no matter how closely an inspector (governmental or parental) is watching.

Safety is in the date in Northern Ireland

The Belfast Telegraph reports that,

“Four out of ten older people are putting their health at risk by not checking the use by date on food.”

This was determined by a survey of 780 people across Northern Ireland in April. At least the numbers were. I’m not sure why eating food past its use by date is considered risky?

Kathryn Baker from the Food Standards Agency says in the article that cases of listeriosis in the over-60 crowd have doubled in the UK since 2000. Is eating foods after their use by dates a contributing factor? The article doesn’t say.

Granted, use by dates in Northern Ireland mean something different than use by dates in the US.

I found that the Northern Ireland Food Labeling Regulations from 1996 require use by dates (as opposed to best before dates) on foods that are “microbiologically highly perishable and in consequence likely, after a short period of time, to pose an immediate danger to human health.”

As I scanned the list of foods included with that description, I noticed that several—soft cheeses, smoked fish, cured meats and prepared vegetable salads (such as coleslaw)—are products that Lianou and Sofos (2007) noted have been linked to outbreaks of listeriosis.

Has the FSA found it more likely that food contaminated with pathogenic Listeria will sicken someone after its use by date than before? It doesn’t take many Listeria bacteria to make an elderly person sick (less than 1,000 according to the FDA). Where is the data to support this stuff?

Baker told the Belfast Telegraph that the FSA was focusing an information campaign on food hygiene advice for this particular group of people. That campaign evidently includes telling everyone over 60 to follow food use by dates. Will they also be told why?

I’m certainly curious.