Fewer food violations in school cafeterias

Cafeteria food inspections tend to have fewer critical violations than let’s say your full scale service restaurant due to minimal food preparation involved. Everything is essentially pre-packaged and heated in a microwave prior to service or deep fried for the non health-conscience consumer. As such, cafeteria food operators need to pay attention to effective hand washing as well as verifying internal cooking temperatures of what actually goes in the microwave. Food products that are generally cooked in the microwave are initially frozen and thus may not achieve the desired temperature that will inactivate food borne pathogens and keep you from barfing.
I thought this article was interesting as I just returned from the Twin Cities from a fantastic concert (Jonsi).
The Duluth News Tribune reports
Inspections of school cafeterias turn up far fewer problems than inspections of restaurants and convenience stores, say the people who probe the pantries, refrigerators and sinks of local schools.
Government inspection reports of several area school districts for the past three years showed only a few incidents that would make you say: “Ewww.”
Reasons for violations include: expired freshness dates for products, dented cans, rotten vegetables, a lack of hand-washing or glove changes between tasks, thawing and refreezing pizza, water not hot enough and milk not cold enough.
“Typically, schools are pretty good inspections for us,” said Brian Becker, an environmental health specialist with the Douglas County Department of Health and Human Services. “They are well-trained, maintained; they’ve had their staff for a while. Oftentimes in other industries in food, you’ll see a higher turnover.”
School cafeterias must be inspected twice a year. Most schools this year had low numbers of critical violations — those that can lead directly to food-borne illnesses — or none at all. Non-critical violations — of which there were higher numbers — don’t directly cause illness; they often relate to equipment or flooring. But even they can lead to food-borne illness.
Improper hand-washing is the practice most potentially harmful to the health of students in cafeterias, said Ryan Trenberth, supervisor of the Duluth District Office of the Minnesota Department of Health, which has taken over for St. Louis County inspections.
“We’re finding that’s how most viruses get spread,” he said. “Sick employees … not hand-washing, or cross-contamination going from a raw product to a ready-to-eat product.”
Neither inspector could remember any food-borne illnesses spread in school cafeterias in Douglas or St. Louis counties.

Canadian government gives food safety advise to pregnant women

The Canadian government is focusing on the importance of food safety for pregnant women.
Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are reminding women who are pregnant of the importance of food safety.
During pregnancy, both woman and unborn child are at an increased risk for foodborne illness. This is because a woman’s immune system is weakened during pregnancy, making it harder to fight off infections. The unborn baby’s immune system is also not developed enough to fight off harmful foodborne bacteria. For both mother and baby, foodborne illness can cause serious health problems.
It’s estimated that there are approximately 11 million cases of foodborne illnesses in Canada every year. Many of these illnesses could be prevented by following proper food handling and preparation techniques.
While it’s always important for Canadians to follow proper food safety steps, it’s especially important for women to pay close attention to food safety during pregnancy. To protect themselves and their unborn baby, pregnant women should follow the four key steps to food safety: Cook; Clean; Chill and Separate.
Pregnant women should also pay close attention to what they are eating during their pregnancy. Some foods are at a higher risk for foodborne illness than others.
Make sure to cook hot dogs and deli meats until they are steaming hot before eating them
Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat, poultry and seafood
Avoid refrigerated smoked fish or seafood
Avoid unpasteurized juice, cider and milk
Avoid soft and semi-soft cheeses made from raw or unpasteurized milk
Avoid refrigerated pâtés and meat spreads.
Avoid uncooked foods made from raw or unpasteurized eggs.
My wife and I are expecting our first child and when it comes to foods to avoid during pregnancy, my radar is in full gear. I just finished writing a paper, more like an assignment, on the risks of consuming raw sprouts. Sprouts are everywhere and mixed into anything so half of the time one doesn’t even know they are eating them, considered a stealth food.
Pathogens frequently isolated from raw sprouts include Salmonella, Escherichia coli 0157:H7, Bacillus cereus, Listeria monocytogenes, Yersinia enterocolitica, and Shigella species. Since it is impossible to guarantee a pathogen free sprout product, avoidance is the best measure. Sprouts are mentioned in the list, just have to dig further.

Antibiotic resistant microbes in soil

University tuition is not cheap and I, like many others, had to find employment throughout my university career to help pay for courses. Unfortunately, I ended up working in a hospital dealing with patients suffering from MRSA (methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus) and VRE (vancomycin resistant enterococcus), very disturbing and heartbreaking at the same time. A recent study in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology indicates that there is more evidence pointing towards microorganisms in the soil becoming more resistant to antibiotics, ultimately ending up in the food supply; not unlikely. For instance, the use of avoparcin in Europe, an antimicrobial drug used as a growth promoter in food producing animals was shown to be one important factor leading to VRE in animals and that foodborne VRE may cause human colonization1.
The United Press International reports:
The researchers said that trend during the past 60 years continues despite more stringent rules on the use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture, as well as improved sewage treatment technology that broadly improves water quality in surrounding environments.
David Graham of Britain’s Newcastle University and his colleagues said scientists have known for years that resistance was increasing in clinical situations, but the new study is the first to quantify the same problem in the natural environment over long time-scales.
The scientists said they are concerned increased antibiotic resistance in soils could have broad consequences to public health through potential exposure from water and food supplies. They said their findings "imply there may be a progressively increasing chance of encountering organisms in nature that are resistant to antimicrobial therapy."
1. L. Clifford McDonald, Matthew J. Kuehnert, Fred C. Tenover, and William R. Jarvis. Vancomycin-Resistant Enterococci Outside the Health-Care Setting: Prevalence, Sources, and Public Health Implications. Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol 3. No.3. July-September 1997. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia.

Questioning food safety practices

Health inspectors or like our partners to the South, registered sanitarians need to keep abreast of evidence based food safety publications to provide the most accurate and up to date information to the public. It is apparent that regulatory bodies tend to push certain food safety practices without them ever be questioned. For instance, are chemical sanitizers really the best way to go in terms of bacterial log reductions on food contact surfaces? Restaurant inspectors constantly push for the use of chlorine or quaternary ammonia as the chemicals of choice for sanitation. Yes, they do work, but what about vinegar. I read an interesting article from Pete Snyder comparing quaternary ammonia, vinegar, and water on cutting boards1. The paper states wiping a surface with a clean cloth soaked in vinegar is a very effective sanitizer. Furthermore, that vinegar should be approved as a sanitizer for food contact surfaces.
One critical item that restaurant inspectors take note of is whether or not an establishment is using an approved sanitizer. Half of the time there is no sanitizer, but when there is, the concentration tends to be too strong i.e. >500 ppm available chlorine. Other times, the sanitizer solution is often mixed with a detergent rendering it ineffective. Restaurant inspectors need to take the time to check these critical control measures to ensure the restaurant operator is aware of these issues. A simple 5-7 minute inspection certainly will not suffice and in my opinion is a grand waste of time. That’s like making a fantastic, time worthy meal, and wolfing it down in minutes instead of enjoying it. I’m Italian, I enjoy food.
KGBT 4 reports:
Noe’s Restaurant on 190 West Robertson in San Benito has a lengthy history on Food 4 Thought. The first dirty dining report we exposed at the location dates back to 2005 with 36 demerits. Noe’s scored 33 demerits back in December of 2009.   That’s why the food patrol looked a little closer at the restaurant’s latest inspection report when it was discovered Noe’s scored zero demerits.
At the top of each health report, an inspector is supposed to log the start and end times to complete each report. Noe’s inspection was finished in just seven minutes.   San Benito’s Code Enforcement Director, John Rodriguez Jr., admitted seven minutes was an “improper” time. He said it should have taken a minimum of thirty minutes to do a proper, thorough check of all 27 critical items established by the state.
1.Snyder, Peter. The Microbiology of Cleaning and Sanitizing a Cutting Board. Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management, 1997.

2 stars, you’re out

The Restaurant and Catering Association (RCA) has welcomed a new food safety rating system for Brisbane businesses.
The Brisbane City Council will use information from its regular audits to rate the city’s 6,000 eateries by the end of the year.
Those with less than two stars will be made to fix problems.
It will not be compulsory for businesses to display their rating but Lord Mayor Campbell Newman says public pressure will force dodgy outlets to lift their game.
"We want to provide some transparency for the public so they know what they’re getting," he said.
Restaurant disclosure gets people talking about food safety, be it a letter grade, smiley face, or stars, people will notice. Same thing happens when Burton Cummings performs, people notice (it’s a Winnipeg thing). Restaurant inspections are merely a snap shot in time and what goes on when the inspector leaves is your best guess.  Running a restaurant is not easy and the last thing a restaurant operator wants to have is a horrible inspection rating. Disclosing information to the public may compel operators to work with health inspectors and develop a relationship to achieve one common goal- less barfing.

The wooden board wins

Food safety experts always recommend using two cutting boards, one strictly for meat and meat products and the other for fruits and vegetables to avoid cross contamination. Great advice, now what type of cutting board will reduce microbial counts after cleaning; plastic, wood, or marble?
Ninemsn reports:
Plastic comes a definite last and that’s because bacteria are able to breed in the cuts left by knives.
Marble came in second because bacteria spread everywhere. Marble also loses points because it’s tough on knives.
In the final wash-up, it was wood that blew the competition out of the water. This is no surprise to Professor Cliver. In many similar experiments, wood’s always been a winner.
Leila: "Why is wood so much better?"
Professor Cliver: "It’s a very porous material and the fluid is drawn into the wood by capillary action and if there are bacteria in the fluid they go in and they never come back alive."
Leila: "So the wooden boards kill the bacteria?"
Professor: "Well, they die off slowly. It may take a few hours, but all the same, they aren’t in a position to cause any trouble."
Leila: "So wood’s the way to go?"
Professor: "In my opinion."
But the professor adds a rider — be sure to choose a tight-grained hardwood board. If the wood’s too soft, those pesky bacteria can multiply in deep knife cuts.
I had the opportunity to swab a number of cutting boards when shooting the series Kitchen Crimes, both plastic and wooden boards. Microbial counts were consistently high because bacteria will hide in the cracks and crevices of the board rendering cleaning ineffective. It is important to toss or refinish your cutting board if it appears to be heavily grooved to prevent this from occurring.
Here are some tips on how to effectively clean and sanitize your board:
1. Wash with soap and water using friction.
2. Rinse with warm water.
3. Sanitize using a mild solution of bleach to water, approximately 5mL bleach to 500mL water.
4. Finally allow to air dry for optimum results.

Melamine strikes again

The AFP reports,

China has launched a probe into food safety after the new discovery of products laced with melamine, a chemical blamed for the deaths of six babies in a huge scandal in 2008, state media said Tuesday.

In the latest cases, some companies were found to have made products using melamine-contaminated milk powder that was recalled after the scandal but found its way back on to the market, the official People’s Daily reported.

At a weekend meeting on food safety issues hosted by Health Minister Chen Zhu, officials decided to launch and inspection campaign "to thoroughly check potential problems in food safety," the newspaper said.

"There are still some businesses and individuals that ignore the safety and health of the public and are blinded by greed," it added.

According to the report, the companies involved in the fresh melamine scandal were based in several parts of China, including Shanghai and the northeastern province of Liaoning.

In the latest reported case, authorities in the southwestern province of Guizhou found that some products contained levels of the industrial chemical above allowable limits.

Melamine is a nitrogen rich compound (66% nitrogen) that is specifically used to increase the protein content of food products, namely milk. Upon doing so, one can dilute their product with water thereby increasing profits, essentially food adulteration for economic gain. The problem however, is when melamine combines with cyanuric acid causing crystallization in the kidneys ultimately leading to kidney failure and death.

In 2008, adulteration of infant formula lead to the deaths of six children in China and sickened nearly 300,000 others. Melamine is not approved for direct addition to human or animal foods2 and should therefore be kept out of the food chain.

  1. 1. U.S. Food And Drug Administration. Melamine Contamination in China. Januuary 5, 2009. http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/PublicHealthFocus/ucm179005.html.
  2. 2. Mermelstein, N. Analyzing for Melamine. Journal of Food Technology. February, 2009.

Raw milk=people sick

The raw milk debate continues and clearly the risks of drinking unpasteurized milk outweigh its’ benefits. I read earlier that the raw milk enthusiasts were crying and almost begging to legalize the sale of raw milk. Well, when you are looking at your own child in the hospital on a dialysis machine, you’ll really want to cry. Again, this brings me back to my laboratory days when I was analyzing raw milk that was implicated in a number of horrible illnesses. We were testing for a whole gamete of nasty pathogens and when I saw the agar plate the next day which was specific for Campylobacter jejuni, the numbers of colonies present were overwhelming, couldn’t even read the plate. The samples kept coming in with more and more positives and of course more and more people sick.
The Toronto Star writes:
Despite claims that drinking raw milk has well-defined health benefits, this has never been established. But even if true, the risks clearly outweigh any potential benefits. Before mandatory pasteurization of milk, the TB sanatoria in Ontario were inundated with tubercular patients, many of whom were infected by the bovine tubercle. This is not something we want to repeat, particularly in an era when TB is again on the rise and drug resistant strains have emerged.
Your editorial on the same date correctly pointed out that drinking untreated milk puts consumers at increased risk of exposure to deadly pathogens. It is one thing for milk producers to drink their own milk – they do so knowingly at their own risk. However to legally provide raw, potentially contaminated milk for consumption by the public is a matter of great concern.

Run, it’s the health inspector

The last thing I want to do is shut a restaurant down during the Christmas season but when one encounters multiple critical food violations, my hands are tied. An immediate closure was issued on a local restaurant due to improper food holding temperatures, inadequate dishwashing as pots/pans were merely rinsed with water, potential cross contamination issues in the cooler, and the list continues. It is important to note that there was a manger on duty that had successfully completed the food handlers’ course and would therefore in theory be aware of these critical issues. At any rate, I rolled up my sleeves, threw on my hair net and proceeded to physically show the foodservice staff how to properly wash pots/pans via the 3 compartment sink method. Also went over ice baths to rapidly cool foods, preparing sanitizer solutions, and how to use a digital tip sensitive thermometer, supplied by me of course because they didn’t have one. After training on-site, it was up to the staff to show me what they have learned without sitting down and writing an exam, which I feel is pointless.

            A number of Health Departments are consistently struggling with staffing issues resulting in less than par health inspections. I would rather spend the time and perform a quality health inspection by incorporating on-site training rather than being concerned with the quantity of restaurants inspected. 

Mmmm, what’s that flavor, Campylobacter?


The Tomah Journal writes:

In most circumstances, the test of whether an activity should be illegal isn’t whether it creates harm, but whether the cost of eradicating the harm is exceeded by enforcement costs.

Many activities — drunk driving, manufacturing methamphetamine, hunting from the side of the road, dumping untreated sewage — are worth the cost of enforcement. But is selling raw milk? Two area lawmakers don’t think so, and they’re probably right.

State Rep. Chris Danou (D-Trempealeau) and state Sen. Pat Kreitlow (D-Chippewa Falls) have introduced legislation that would legalize on-farm sales of raw milk in Wisconsin. Critics claim that raw milk is unsafe, and that’s true in the narrowest literal sense. According to the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 39 raw milk-related bacterial outbreaks in the United States between 1998 and 2005 sickened 831 people, hospitalized 66 and killed one. In Wisconsin, bacterial outbreaks linked to unpasteurized milk sickened 189 people and hospitalized three.

In the large scheme of things, however, those aren’t large numbers. Last year, 23 people died in Wisconsin snowmobile accidents, and nobody suggests banning snowmobiles.

The benefits of raw milk are economic. Raw milk has a passionate, if small, base of consumers who are willing to pay farmers top dollar. In a struggling economy when it’s difficult for dairy farmers to make ends meet, it’s an economic boost that can’t be easily dismissed.

Most Americans grew up with pasteurized milk, and in an easily grossed-out food culture like ours (how many of us eat beef tongue, sweetbreads or chicken gizzards?) the prospect of raw milk as a widely consumed commodity appears very slim. And there’s no doubt that if a consumer wants to follow a safety-first approach to food consumption, pasteurized milk is the logical option. But if consumers want to take a moderate risk and consume raw milk, it’s not worth the resources of the state to tell them they can’t. Wisconsin has bigger law enforcement problems than people who take their chances.

How many kids have to get sick and die from consuming unpasteurized milk? If the consumer wants to take the risk and consume such a product, fine, just don’t impose it on your kids and don’t say you weren’t informed.

            I remember quite fondly when I worked in the Provincial Lab in Alberta and was testing unpasteurized milk that had made a number people sick. I was shocked from the number of positive bacterial cultures, in particular, Campylobacter jejuni, a nasty foodborne pathogen.