Doug Powell

About Doug Powell

A former professor of food safety and the publisher of barfblog.com, Powell is passionate about food, has five daughters, and is an OK goaltender in pickup hockey. Download Doug’s CV here. Download C.V. »

Are computers better than epi at identifying foodborne illness? Gumshoes will always be needed

A new computer model that uses machine learning and de-identified and aggregated search and location data from logged-in Google users was significantly more accurate in identifying potentially unsafe restaurants when compared with existing methods of consumer complaints and routine inspections, according to new research led by Google and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The findings indicate that the model can help identify lapses in food safety in near real time.

“Foodborne illnesses are common, costly, and land thousands of Americans in emergency rooms every year. This new technique, developed by Google, can help restaurants and local health departments find problems more quickly, before they become bigger public health problems,” said corresponding author Ashish Jha, K.T. Li Professor of Global Health at Harvard Chan School and director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

The study will be published online November 6, 2018 in npj Digital Medicine.

Foodborne illnesses are a persistent problem in the U.S. and current methods by restaurants and local health departments for determining an outbreak rely primarily on consumer complaints or routine inspections. These methods can be slow and cumbersome, often resulting in delayed responses and further spread of disease.

To counter these shortcomings, Google researchers developed a machine-learned model and worked with Harvard to test it in Chicago and Las Vegas. The model works by first classifying search queries that can indicate foodborne illness, such as “stomach cramps” or “diarrhea.” The model then uses de-identified and aggregated location history data from the smartphones of people who have opted to save it, to determine which restaurants people searching those terms had recently visited.

Health departments in each city were then given a list of restaurants that were identified by the model as being potential sources of foodborne illness. The city would then dispatch health inspectors to these restaurants, though the health inspectors did not know whether their inspection was prompted by this new model or traditional methods. During the period of the study, health departments continued to follow their usual inspection procedures as well.

In Chicago, where the model was deployed between November 2016 and March 2017, the model prompted 71 inspections. The study found that the rate of unsafe restaurants among those detected by the model was 52.1% compared with 39.4% among inspections triggered by a complaint-based system. The researchers noted that Chicago has one of the most advanced monitoring programs in the nation and already employs social media mining techniques, yet this new model proved more precise in identifying restaurants that had food safety violations.

In Las Vegas, the model was deployed between May and August 2016. Compared with routine inspections performed by the health department, it had a higher precision rate of identifying unsafe restaurants.

When the researchers compared the model with routine inspections by health departments in Las Vegas and Chicago, they found that the overall rate across both cities of unsafe restaurants detected by the model was 52.3%, whereas the overall rate of detection of unsafe restaurants via routine inspections across the two cities was 22.7%.

The study showed that in 38% of all cases identified by this model, the restaurant potentially causing foodborne illness was not the most recent one visited by the person who was searching keywords related to symptoms. The authors said this is important because previous research has shown that people tend to blame the last restaurant they visited and therefore may be likely to file a complaint for the wrong restaurant. Yet clinically, foodborne illnesses can take 48 hours or even longer to become symptomatic after someone has been exposed, the authors said.

The new model outperformed complaint-based inspections and routine inspections in terms of precision, scale, and latency (the time that passed between people becoming sick and the outbreak being identified). The researchers noted that the model would be best leveraged as a supplement to existing methods used by health departments and restaurants, allowing them to better prioritize inspections and perform internal food safety evaluations. More proactive and timely responses to incidents could mean better public health outcomes. Additionally, the model could prove valuable for small and mid-size restaurants that can’t afford safety operations personnel to apply advanced food safety monitoring and data analysis techniques.

“In this study, we have just scratched the surface of what is possible in the realm of machine-learned epidemiology. I like the analogy to the work of Dr. John Snow, the father of modern epidemiology, who in 1854 had to go door to door in Central London, asking people where they took their water from to find the source of a cholera outbreak. Today, we can use online data to make epidemiological observations in near real-time, with the potential for significantly improving public health in a timely and cost-efficient manner,” said Evgeniy Gabrilovich, senior staff research scientist at Google and a co-author of the study.

Carrots and sticks: Coaching hockey and food safety

My friend Gord Surgeoner always said stay close to the producers, help farmers, and you’ll get somewhere.

And I did.

My friend Mike from Buffalo, who served overseas and then ended up coaching kids’ hockey with me in Brisbane 5 years ago would say, I don’t miss Buffalo.

Mike’s on the far left, and he’s used that face to, uh, motivate the kids, but he’s a softie like me, and moved an hour up north to the beaches.

Gord did a lot of consulting for the U.S. military on bugs, I’ve done my share on foodborne illness, but it’s not the same as serving.

Mike, keep on,  keeping on (without the weapon, there’s gun control laws in Australia, and watch out for those sharks).

Strawberry sabotage unfolds in Australia

Charlie Peel of the Australian writes that the woman accused of sparking the nationwide fruit contamination crisis by sticking sewing needles into strawberries will remain behind bars for at least 10 days.

The weird thing in Australia is food safety types won’t go public with what they know when they know it because they are afraid it will upset some British-modeled court case; I say bullshit.

So does all the risk communication literature.

Public needs to know.

Prosecutors opposed the bail application of Caboolture woman My Ut Trinh, 50, who appeared in Brisbane Magistrates Court this morning, because they feared she may suffer retribution from those angered by her alleged actions.

Following a two-month police investigation, she was charged on Sunday with seven counts of contamination of goods with intent to cause economic loss.

Ms Trinh, who was born in Vietnam but came to Australia as a refugee 20 years ago, worked at the Berrylicious/Berry Obsession fruit farm in southeast Queensland as a supervisor.

The court heard Ms Trinh was allegedly motivated by spite and revenge when she inserted needles into strawberries between September 2 and 5.

Mr Cridland said the alleged reason for her wanting to seek revenge was “not articulated” by the police.

Arguing for bail, Mr Cridland said the extensive publicity around the case, which included copycat actions throughout Australia, should not influence his client’s ability to be released on bail.

He denied she was a flight risk.

“She has been aware that she has been a person of interest for over two months and she has not changed phone number or address,” he said.

“I might add, other people working on these farms have left the country. She has not.”

Mr Cridland said it was too early to say whether forensic evidence, which found Ms Trinh’s DNA on a contaminated punnet of strawberries in Victoria, was a direct match or a mixed profile.

Prosecutor Cheryl Tesch said bail was “strongly opposed” because there was a “high risk of witnesses being interfered with”.

She said the strawberry farm owner had suffered significant financial loss and reputational damage.

Magistrate Roney said the alleged offending was unusual.

“It is a most peculiar way to go about promoting or agitating a workplace grievance, to sabotage an employer,” she said.

The matter will return to court on November 22.

This is what I wrote when all the unknows were out there.

It holds up.

How to stop food sabotage

16.sep.18

The Sydney Morning Herald

Doug Powell

https://amp-smh-com-au.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/amp.smh.com.au/national/how-to-stop-food-sabotage-20180916-p50428.html?amp_js_v=0.1&usqp=mq331AQICAEoATgAWAE=#origin=https://www.google.com.au&prerenderSize=1&visibilityState=prerender&paddingTop=54&p2r=0&horizontalScrolling=0&csi=1&aoh=15371298565862&viewerUrl=https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/amp.smh.com.au/national/how-to-stop-food-sabotage-20180916-p50428.html&history=1&storage=1&cid=1&cap=swipe,navigateTo,cid,fragment,replaceUrl

https://www.barfblog.com/2018/09/how-to-stop-food-sabotage/

Last Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, I had a requested op-ed published in the Sydney Morning Herald. I was a little rusty, so Amy did more than just clean it up, and I haven’t gotten around to posting it until now because there was some medical stuff last week, but all is well and here it is:

My 9-year-old daughter and I were watching the news on Saturday morning and she asked, why would someone put a needle in strawberries?

Some people are not nice.

A couple of years ago a food safety type asked me, what’s the biggest risk to the food supply.

I didn’t hesitate.

Deliberate tampering and food fraud.

Food safety has traditionally been faith-based – especially when it comes to fresh fruit and vegetables. Consumers cannot control how food is handled before it gets to them. This is why consumers need to know their suppliers and know what they are doing to keep people safe.

This latest food tampering scare – 11 cases of contaminanted strawberries reported nationally so far, the first in Sydney on Saturday – makes that clear.

Faith-based food safety sucks. It always has. Risks have always been present. As Madeleine Ferrieres, the author of Mad Cow, Sacred Cow: A History of Food Fears,  wrote, “All human beings before us questioned the contents of their plates.”

But contemporary consumers forget that contamination risk has always been with us: “We are often too blinded by this amnesia to view our present food situation clearly. This amnesia is very convenient. It allows us to reinvent the past and construct a complaisant, retrospective mythology.”

“We still live with the illusion of modernity, with the false idea that what happens to us is new and unbearable,” she has said in an interview.

What’s new is that we have better tools to detect problems. This also presents an opportunity: those who use the best tools should be able to prove their food is safe through testing and brag about it. They can market food safety measures at retail.

The days of faith-based food safety are coming to a protracted close.

There is a lack – a disturbing lack – of on-farm food safety inspection; farmers need to be more aware of the potential for contamination from microbes (from listeria in rockmelon, for example) as well as sabotage.

There is an equally large lack of information to consumers where they buy their produce. What do Australian grocery shoppers know of the food safety regulations applied to the produce sold in their most popular stores? Who can they ask to find the answers?

The best solution is for farmers and retailers to market food safety. If they have a great food safety program they should be promoting it. Consumers can handle more information rather than less.

Douglas Powell is a retired professor of food safety in Canada and the US who now lives in Brisbane. He blogs at barfblog.com

BTW, the Eagles are terribly overrated, but this song has relevance; maybe not to this story, maybe to me.

Raw isn’t rad, it’s risky: Yes, pets too

After 20 years of doing this shit – and it primarily involves shit – not much surprises, and I reach back for the classics.

When I first saw Airplane at a drive-in in the summer of 1980, I was more interested in the girl beside me than the movie.

But then I saw it again.

And again, and again, and again.

The satire the writers of Airplane came up with could be exploited by anyone who watches food porn.

Radagast Pet Food, Inc. of Portland, OR (it’s Portland, Portlandia) is recalling three lots of Rad Cat Raw Diet Free-Range Chicken Recipe because testing results indicate they have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. The Company is also recalling one lot of Rad Cat Raw Diet Pasture-Raised Venison Recipe because testing results indicate it has the potential to be contaminated with Shiga Toxin producing E. coli O121.  This recall is being conducted out of an abundance of caution. 

Scott Weese has also written about the risks of raw.

I’m not sure how good he is at satire, but was fun to hang around.

Jello at an Australian hospital deliberately contaminated with ‘organic’ material (that means poop)

It’s bad enough to live on Jello – like I had to before my recent colonscopy – but when someone deliberately adds shit, at a hospital, things get worse.

ABC News reports jellies and custards at one of Adelaide’s biggest hospitals, Flinders Medical Centre, were contaminated with a “solid organic” product

Police would not rule out faeces, and said the material was being analysed

Health staff are assisting police with a criminal investigation

“We are satisfied that there are no patients who have been fed the contaminated foodstuffs. No threat or claim has been made in connection with this,” Acting Assistant Commissioner Joanne Shanahan said.

Asked whether it was faeces, and what colour the substance was, Assistant Commissioner Shanahan said she could not comment beyond saying the “matter was being forensically analysed”.

The contaminated items were discovered yesterday on a refrigerator tray in a hospital kitchen, and police were notified this morning.

They have now launched a criminal investigation.

“During a routine food safety inspection yesterday a small number of desserts were identified as contaminated,” said Sue O’Neill, the CEO of the Southern Adelaide Local Health Network.

“Staff were vigilant and isolated the area and raised the alarm. Management then initiated a small assessment team who investigated all other prepared food.”

Ms O’Neill said the contaminant was a “solid, organic-looking product” and was “very obvious”.

1 dead, 163 sick from multidrug-resistant Salmonella infections linked to raw turkey products

In the run up to the beginning of the five-week orgy of food and shopping in the U.S. known as Thanksgiving, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and public health and regulatory officials in several states are investigating a multistate outbreak of multidrug-resistant Salmonella infections linked to raw turkey products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS) is monitoring the outbreak.

Seventy-four more ill people from 26 states were added to this investigation since the last update on July 19, 2018.

As of November 5, 2018, 164 people infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Reading have been reported from 35 states.

63 people have been hospitalized, and one death has been reported from California.

Epidemiologic and laboratory evidence indicates that raw turkey products from a variety of sources are contaminated with Salmonella Reading and are making people sick.

In interviews, ill people report eating different types and brands of turkey products purchased from many different locations. Three ill people lived in households where raw turkey pet food was fed to pets.

The outbreak strain has been identified in samples taken from raw turkey pet food, raw turkey products, and live turkeys.

A single, common supplier of raw turkey products or of live turkeys has not been identified.

The outbreak strain of Salmonella Reading is present in live turkeys and in many types of raw turkey products, indicating it might be widespread in the turkey industry. CDC and USDA-FSIS have shared this information with representatives from the turkey industry and asked about steps that they may be taking to reduce Salmonella contamination.

Always handle raw turkey carefully and cook it thoroughly to prevent food poisoning. This outbreak is a reminder that raw turkey products can have germs that spread around food preparation areas and can make you sick.

CDC is not advising that consumers avoid eating properly cooked turkey products, or that retailers stop selling raw turkey products.

CDC advises consumers to follow these steps to help prevent Salmonella infection from raw turkey:

Wash your hands. Salmonella infections can spread from one person to another. Wash hands before and after preparing or eating food, after contact with animals, and after using the restroom or changing diapers.

Cook raw turkey thoroughly to kill harmful germs. Turkey breasts, whole turkeys, and ground poultry, including turkey burgers, casseroles, and sausage, should always be cooked to an internal temperature of 165°F to kill harmful germs. Leftovers should be reheated to 165°F. Use a food thermometer to check, and place it in the thickest part of the food.

Don’t spread germs from raw turkey around food preparation areas. Washing raw poultry before cooking is not recommended. Germs in raw poultry juices can spread to other areas and foods. Thoroughly wash hands, counters, cutting boards, and utensils with warm, soapy water after they touch raw turkey. Use a separate cutting board for raw turkey and other raw meats if possible.

Thaw turkey in the refrigerator, in a sink of cold water that is changed every 30 minutes, or in the microwave. Never thaw your turkey by leaving it out on the counter.

CDC does not recommend feeding raw diets to pets. Germs like Salmonella in raw pet food can make your pets sick. Your family also can get sick by handling the raw food or by taking care of your pet.

Guelph boy In Flander’s Fields: Life of a poet surgeon

I spent about 20 years in Guelph (that’s in Ontario, Canada) but in 2005 it was time to move on.

I still remember frequent walks by John McCrae’s homestead near the Speed River

This CBC story gives a great account of the author of In Flander’s Fields . on the 100th anniversary of the end of the war to end all wars.

Everyone’s got a camera: Toronto man complains of ‘unsanitary’ meat storage at real Canadian superstore

Michael Pearl says he goes grocery shopping every Sunday at the Real Canadian Superstore near Dufferin Street and Steeles Avenue West.

But on Oct 5, he says he got a disturbing sneak peek behind the deli counter.

“It just seemed like it was a very unsanitary way of storing meat,” Pearl told CBC Toronto.

Pearl was planning on purchasing some steaks but changed his mind when he saw a pile of raw meat in a shopping cart behind the counter.

“Fifty or 60 steaks in there, sitting in the cart without any wrapping that I had seen,” he said. “It just seemed very, you know, very unhygienic and it looked disgusting, to be honest with you.”

Pearl says he took out his phone and snapped a picture, which he brought to a woman he says claimed to be the store manager.  

“I showed her the picture. She seemed aghast at it all,” Pearl said.

In addition to that, Pearl says he sent the photo to the Toronto Board of Health, and filed a complaint with them.  

“They got back to me and said they were going to be looking into it.”

Loblaw Companies director of public relations Karen Gumbs also saw the picture and gave a statement to CBC Toronto, saying this “absolutely should not have happened” because it does not follow the company’s food safety procedures.

“The store immediately addressed this with the colleague,” Gumbs said. “We’ve reminded all departments of our protocols to ensure nothing like this happens again.”

Pearl says he will continue to shop at the Real Canadian Superstore because it’s close and convenient.

When asked if he plans to buy meat from the deli counter again he simply said, “Yeah, why not?”

Could this be the most Canadian food safety story?

Delta passenger who found dog feces on his seat claims he was given two paper towels and told to clean it up himself

Delta, the airline, sucks.

That’s my experience.

Others too.

Last Thursday, a passenger onboard a Delta Airlines flight from Atlanta to Miami stepped in poop while boarding the aircraft.

Stacey Leasca of Travel and Leisure reports that according to the passenger, when he brought the feces to the crew’s attention he was reportedly handed two paper towels and told to clean it up himself.

Delta Airlines confirmed to Business Insider that passengers did indeed begin boarding the aircraft before cleaning crews were done servicing the plane. The airline also noted that during the previous flight “an ill service animal” had an incident.

“It was feces, and it was everywhere. It was on my seat. It was on the floor. My feet were in it,” passenger Matthew Meehan told WSB-TV 2 Atlanta. He explained that he stepped in fecal matter and his fellow passengers refused to sit in their seats until it was cleaned up.

But, when he asked flight attendants for supplies he was handed “two paper towels and one of those little bottles of Bombay Sapphire.” And the Delta manager wasn’t much of a help either.

“She said to me, ‘Well, that’s not my problem.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry?’ She says, ‘Well, if the cleaning crew didn’t clean your seat, I don’t have any control over that,'” Meehan explained.

In the statement, Delta additionally apologized and offered a refund and compensation to customers affected by the flight.

And now for the meaningless boilerplate quote attributed to some bureaucrat or PR flunky:“The safety and health of our customers and employees is our top priority, and we are conducting a full investigation while following up with the right teams to prevent this from happening again,” Delta Said. Upon landing, the plane was also taken out of service and has since been disinfected.

Just cook it doesn’t cut it: 474 sick from Salmonella linked to raw frozen chicken thingies in Canada

The Public Health Agency of Canada says 474 people have gotta sick from raw frozen chicken thingies over the past year and a half.

Over a decade ago, when I went to Kansas State, me and Chapman and Phebus came up with a project to see how people cooked these thingies.

Why not cook all these thingies to reduce risk, because it costs about $0.01 a pound too cool these things with electricity.

The American Meat Institute funded it.

Some of these thingies are frozen raw, which means they have to be cooked in an oven and temperature verified with a tip-sensitive digital thermometer, and some of these thingies are pre-cooked, so can be thawed in a microwave.

Labelling has changed over the years, but it’s still necessary to know what you’re buying.

Some of the frozen raw products may appear to be pre-cooked or browned, but they should be handled and prepared with caution

I’d understand Australia, with its massive coal investments, but Canada and the U.S. where nuclear is readily available?

In May 2017, Government of Canada scientists began using a new technology called “whole genome sequencing” to help identify and respond to outbreaks. Over the past year and a half, federal, provincial and territorial health and food safety partners have investigated 14 national outbreaks linked to raw chicken, including frozen raw breaded chicken products. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has issued food recall warnings for ten products linked to some of these outbreak investigations.

As of November 2, 2018, there have been 474 laboratory-confirmed cases of Salmonella illness investigated as part of the illness outbreaks across the country.

All active and future Salmonella outbreak investigations linked to raw chicken, including frozen raw breaded chicken products, and related food recall warnings will be listed in the next section of the public health notice to remind Canadians of the ongoing risk associated with these types of food products.

Do not eat raw or undercooked frozen breaded chicken products. Cook all frozen raw breaded chicken products to an internal temperature of at least 74°C (165°F) to ensure that they are safe to eat. Use a digital food thermometer to verify the temperature. Insert the digital food thermometer through the side of the product, all the way to the middle. Oven-safe meat thermometers that are designed for testing whole chicken and roasts during cooking are not suitable for testing nuggets, strips or burgers.

Microwave cooking of frozen raw breaded chicken products—including chicken nuggets, strips, burgers, popcorn chicken or chicken fries—is not recommended because of the possibility of uneven heating.

Always follow the cooking instructions on the package, including for products labelled Uncooked, Cook and Serve, Ready to Cook, and Oven Ready.

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before and after handling frozen raw breaded chicken products (the water does not need to be warm).

Always follow the cooking instructions provided on the package. Cook chicken to a safe internal temperature that has been checked using a digital thermometer. Raw chicken pieces should be cooked to an internal temperature of 74°C (165°F). Whole chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 82°C (180°F).

Keep raw chicken away from other food while shopping, storing, repackaging, cooking and serving foods.

A table of raw frozen chicken thingies outbreak is available at https://barfblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Outbreaks-Associated-with-Raw-Frozen-Meals-4-13.xlsx.

Self-reported and observed behavior of primary meal preparers and adolescents during preparation of frozen, uncooked, breaded chicken products
01.nov.09
British Food Journal, Vol 111, Issue 9, p 915-929
Sarah DeDonder, Casey J. Jacob, Brae V. Surgeoner, Benjamin Chapman, Randall Phebus, Douglas A. Powell
http://www.emeraldinsight.com/Insight/viewContentItem.do;jsessionid=6146E6AFABCC349C376B7E55A3866D4A?contentType=Article&contentId=1811820
Abstract:
Purpose – The purpose of the present study was to observe the preparation practices of both adult and young consumers using frozen, uncooked, breaded chicken products, which were previously involved in outbreaks linked to consumer mishandling. The study also sought to observe behaviors of adolescents as home food preparers. Finally, the study aimed to compare food handler behaviors with those prescribed on product labels.
Design/methodology/approach – The study sought, through video observation and self-report surveys, to determine if differences exist between consumers’ intent and actual behavior.
Findings – A survey study of consumer reactions to safe food-handling labels on raw meat and poultry products suggested that instructions for safe handling found on labels had only limited influence on consumer practices. The labels studied by these researchers were found on the packaging of chicken products examined in the current study alongside step-by-step cooking instructions. Observational techniques, as mentioned above, provide a different perception of consumer behaviors.
Originality/value – This paper finds areas that have not been studied in previous observational research and is an excellent addition to existing literature.