Food Safety Confessional: Connie still thaws meat in the sink (so do I)

Connie, someone I’ve never met but she’s a food safety professional from Guelph (that’s in Ontario, Canada, and it’s a small community) writes:

I’ve been a food safety professional for going on 20 years, I still thaw meat in the sink (sometimes in hot water if I’m really rushed) and in my house, we wash hands after we eat.

I’m a firm advocate of not killing our immune systems by trying to sterilize our homes; according to my research, the illness and deaths that occur now are more frequent, widespread and worse in the effects than ever in the past (Peanut Corporation of America excluded for obvious reasons).

 I don’t take any chances at work, I never would, but at home, sigh, we’re all still alive.

 If you’re ever looking for inspiration for a blog post look no further than the website IFSQN. It’s a great forum for discussion and assistance from experienced FSP but wow, there are some things posted that are positively frightening.

 I am currently advocating with the Canadian government to:
• change our national job description so people realize we are gd professionals and not place holders; and,

• institute a national standard for both auditors and CB (CFIA has accreditation standards, but I don’t think anyone is checking in on auditors).

 I personally believe that GFSI is the downfall of safe food, with people focused on being audit-ready and not on producing safe food.

Our church is the arena, our religion is hockey, so we don’t educate, we inform

Consumers in most developed countries have greater access to safer food than ever before, yet the issue of consumer perception on the safety of the food supply, the control infrastructure and existing and new process technologies is often not positive.

A series of high profile food incidents, which have been ineffectively managed by both the regulators and the industry, and where there has been a failure to be open and transparent, have sensitised a proportion of consumers to scary stories about the food supply. There has been concomitant damage to consumer confidence in (i) the safety of food, (ii) the food industry’s commitment to producing safe food and (iii) the authorities’ ability to oversee the food chain.

Threats to consumers’ health and their genuine concerns have to be addressed with effective risk management and the protection of public health has to be paramount. Dealing with incorrect fears and misperceptions of risk has also to be addressed but achieving this is very difficult. The competencies of social scientists are needed to assist in gaining insights into consumer perceptions of risk, consumer behaviour and the determinants of trust.

Conventional risk communication will not succeed on its own and more innovative and creative communication strategies are needed to engage with consumers using all available media channels in an open and transparent way. The digital media affords the opportunity to revolutionise engagement with consumers on food safety and nutrition-related issues.

Moving from risk communication to food information communication and consumer engagement

Npj Science of Food 2

Patrick Wall and Junshi Chen

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41538-018-0031-7

Food safety confessional: Tell us your stories

I did not create this idea, nor will take credit (unlike lawyers, the credit belongs to Michele and Josh, just like the barfblog name belongs to Christian) but will run with it, using the barfblog forum.

Food safety professionals, we all know everyone messes up.

As we say in therapy, everyone has problems, especially the ones who think they don’t.

So rather than say food safety is simple, we’ve always said it’s hard.

And to show we’re all human, we professionals should confess to our failings (and like therapy, no last names will be used and establishing relationships is discouraged, and no physical contact with the counselliors).

I’ll start, e-mail yours to me or Chapman and we’ll get it posted.

I got religious about using a tip-sensitive digital thermometer for cooking about 2000, in the same way a reformed cigarette smoker is against cigs.

I didn’t like the religion. But there were times I was grilling and didn’t have a thermometer.

Usually I just cooked the shit (literally) out of it.

But I know there were occasions where I undercooked stuff, because of time and drunk pressures.

I also know I have left stock on the counter for days, creating a wonderful colony of Staph. Usually I throw it out, but not always, because I’m still a struggling grad student at heart, and would never turn down anything that was free.

Look forward to hearing from youse.

Can you hear me know? The new holiday tradition: Searching for recalls and outbreak information

Longtime friend of the barfblog.com, Michéle Samarya-Timm, health educator at the Somerset County Department of Health (that’s in New Jersey, represent) writes:

Baking pumpkin pies with Aunt Kay’s secret recipe.  Watching Miracle on 34th Street.  Preparing the dining room with the good china.  Diffusing political conversations at the dinner table. 

Some traditions give a sense of warmth, connection, and continuity, and regularly define a family’s holiday. Unfortunately, there is now a need to add an additional tradition to the season – actively checking for foodborne outbreaks and recalls to prevent folks from getting sick.

 Last week, on Tuesday, November 20th at 2pm, (two days before Thanksgiving), the CDC posted a media statement with advice to consumers, restaurants, and retailers: 

 “CDC is advising that U.S. consumers not eat any romaine lettuce, and retailers and restaurants not serve or sell any, until we learn more about the outbreak.”

 The need to release such a notice, right before a major holiday is an unpropitious scenario.  It was also very concerning in its specificity to consumers, retailers and restaurants:

“Wash and sanitize drawers or shelves in refrigerators where romaine was stored.”

Such an alert is most effective if it reaches the intended audiences.   Folks at my holiday table did not hear about the outbreak.  Neither did many local health departments.

Issuing media releases is one way for public health agencies to reach large groups of people. However, distracted by holiday preparations, travel, shopping, family, football and bad weather this advisory was only partially disseminated to the public. A person had to be following news outlets or social media to receive timely notice. I heard about the recall from the woman next to me while I was getting a haircut – not from the CDC or FDA, or any other federal or state agency.   

 It’s disturbing. The CDC could have sent this info directly to local health departments, or notify them that a news release was issued. This was not the first time as a local public health official that I received delayed – or no – official communication about a national foodborne issue.

Local public health professionals rely on communications systems established by federal and state oversight agencies. Most commonly, if a verified or suspect foodborne contamination or outbreak has occurred, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will ascertain the appropriateness of information release. If this information is deemed credible, notification is forwarded individually or en masse to state departments of health. The states, in turn, push this information down to local regulators. Each step in the process contains elements that may delay the rapid dissemination of outbreak information. The ability and willingness of all stakeholders to quickly and readily share incident particulars with fellow responding agencies can enhance effectiveness and amplify response efforts.

Electronically sending this advisory directly to the nearly 3,000 local health departments in the US would provide the opportunity for hundreds of health inspectors, health educators, epidemiologists and other to reach the hospitals, food banks, schools, mom and pop establishments and local residents who may not have otherwise received the alert. This was a missed opportunity, and hopefully one that didn’t cause additional cases of illness.

As I’ve written before, coordinated communication strategies within and between public health agencies is less robust than it should be. As a result, state and local public health officials may hear about foodborne disease issues first from other sources, such as the media, word of mouth, public complaints, or the food industry.   

 We need to learn how to communicate better with each other.  Local public health shouldn’t have to keep an eye on the news media, Twitter or Facebook for information pertinent to protecting the people in our jurisdictions.  A multitude of electronic portals exist for purposes of interagency  communication, CDC, FDA, and the public health system should collectively define how pertinent information – such as this romaine advisory – rapidly and routinely gets to the grass roots public health workforce. Continuously improving interagency coordination and communication is a goal that is fundamental to increasing the effectiveness of this nation’s food safety systems. I’m putting this out there, because I’m willing to help with the solution. That way, in future years, I can spend my holidays perfecting Aunt Kay’s pie recipe.

This holiday, I’m thankful for public health influencers and amplifiers – like barfblog.com – that act as outbreak aggregators, and push out info to local public health types like me.   

Some background information and recommendations on this topic can be found in:  Getting the message across: an analysis of foodborne outbreak communications between federal, state, and local health agencies   https://calhoun.nps.edu/handle/10945/49379

Turkish military under spotlight as food poisoning and accidental deaths increase

Supplying a safe, nutritious, and increasing local food supply to any military outfit is a challenge.

I was privileged for a few years to provide my thoughts to U.S. military food safety types once or twice a year while at Kansas State University in Manhattan.

I made some lasting friendships, and deeply respect the challenges they faced.

Zulfikar Dogan of Ahval News writes that when the Turkish government issued a series of decrees reshaping the country’s institutions in the aftermath of the July 2016 coup attempt, none of the bodies it set its eye on were more significant than the Turkish Armed Forces.

The radical changes implemented in the military came under the spotlight last week when 21 commando trainees in the western province of Manisa were hospitalised with food poisoning. This followed mass outbreaks of food poisoning in May and June last year, again in training facilities in Manisa, where more than 1,000 soldiers became ill and one died.

Similar cases of mass food poisoning took place in other barracks across the country around the same time. Several government-linked catering companies have already lost their contracts, and the defence minister at the time, Nurettin Canikli, resolved to review catering tenders and introduce a new procurement procedure.

Now, spurred by this month’s poisonings, Özgür Özel, a member of parliament for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), directed a series of questions in the assembly to Defence Minister Hulusi Akar.

He asked whether the new procurement system described by Canikli last year had been put in place, and for information on the food supply at the Manisa barracks and on the companies involved in catering. He also demanded answers on the last date of inspection at the barracks and on the truth of claims that detachments tasked with checking food had been shut down.

But the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) rejected opposition proposals to create a special investigation commission and convene the Committee on National Defence in response to the cases of food poisoning.

After the cases of food poisoning, the Turkish Medical Association released a statement drawing attention to the vacuum left when the military medical institutions were turned over to the Ministry of Health. The association called for these institutions to be reopened and returned to the Turkish Armed Forces.

The Turkish Retired Non-Commissioned Officers Association gave its own statement on the matter, stressing that military doctors were soldiers as well as doctors and that the decrees had made the Turkish Armed Forces the only military in the world that did not have dedicated hospitals and doctors. The association also demanded to know whether private companies would be responsible for catering to Turkey’s troops in wartime.

The points Başbuğ and these associations raise are well illustrated by the response to the cases of mass food poisoning in May and June of last year. Since there was not adequate space in Health Ministry facilities to treat the thousands of poisoned troops, hundreds were forced to receive treatment on stretchers outside hospitals.

Similar scenes were replayed after the food poisoning this month. Handing military decision making to the civilian bureaucracy and dissolving military education and medical institutions has resulted in increased casualties.

Food Safety Talk 170: Pants Pants Pants!

The show opens with a discussion of technology and cyber Monday, before segueing to Ben’s missing tooth. From there the guys do a deep dive into the recent E. coli O157:H7 in romaine lettuce outbreak before turning to listener feedback. They cover heating breastmilk, putting bleach on the food of homeless people, temperature monitoring devices, proper methods for thawing turkey, reconditioning cutting boards, and air quality of dairy processing plant all based on listener feedback. Buckle up, this is a bonus sized episode.

You can download episode 169 here and at iTunes.

Show notes so you can follow along at home:

Flour power: NEJM paper on 2016 outbreak

A couple of weeks ago Duncan Hines brand cake mixes were recalled because of Salmonella. Maybe it was the flour. Flour comes from dried wheat that’s milled and not heat treated (because it messes with the gluten). As the Salmonella dries out it gets hardier and survives for months (or longer).

In 2016 pathogenic E. coli (both O121 and O26 serogroups) was the culprit in another raw flour outbreak. The good folks involved with that investigation (Crowe and colleagues) published their findings this week in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The outbreak began in December 2015 and lasted through to September 2016. Fifty-six cases in 22 states were identified.

The biggest takeaway for me was this (such a great explanation of how an investigation works):

Open-ended telephone interviews then were conducted with 10 patients, all of whom stated that they baked frequently or regularly consumed home-baked foods. Five of the patients recalled baking during the week before illness onset, and 3 others reported thatthey might have baked during that period. Of the 5 case patients who remembered baking, 4 reported eating or tasting homemade batter or dough, 3 of whom used brand A flour. The fourth used either brand A or another brand. Two of the patients (a resident of Colorado and a resident of Washington) still had the bags of brand A flour that they had used in the week before illness onset.

Shortly thereafter, state investigators identified 3 ill children who had been exposed to raw flour at restaurants in Maryland, Virginia, and Texas. Restaurant staff had given them raw dough to play with while they waited for their food to be served.

Folks in the media or the hockey arena often ask how these outbreaks get solved. This is how – lots of interviewing, hypothesis generating and then a case-case or case-control analysis. It’s part detective work, part statistics and all science. Sometimes the interviews are messy but this one shows what happens when it works.

Trace-back investigation of the two bags of brand A flour collected from patients in Colorado andWashington revealed that the flour from Colorado was unbleached all-purpose flour manufactured on November 14, 2015, and the flour from Washington was bleached all-purpose flour manufactured on November 15, 2015. The two bags were produced in the same facility. The flour that was used in the raw dough given to the children exposed in the Maryland, Virginia, and Texas restaurants also was from this facility, as was flour from three additional bags collected from case patients residing in Arizona, Califor- nia, and Oklahoma.

Putting food-safety detection in the hands of consumers

I always thought the MIT Media Lab would be the coolest place to work.

I have no idea whether this gadget will work, but it has coolnest factor.

MIT Media Lab researchers have developed a wireless system that leverages the cheap RFID tags already on hundreds of billions of products to sense potential food contamination—with no hardware modifications needed. With the simple, scalable system, the researchers hope to bring food-safety detection to the general public.

Food safety incidents have made headlines around the globe for causing illness and death nearly every year for the past two decades. Back in 2008, for instance, 50,000 babies in China were hospitalized after eating infant formula adulterated with melamine, an organic compound used to make plastics, which is toxic in high concentrations. And this April, more than 100 people in Indonesia died from drinking alcohol contaminated, in part, with methanol, a toxic alcohol commonly used to dilute liquor for sale in black markets around the world.

The researchers’ system, called RFIQ, includes a reader that senses minute changes in wireless signals emitted from RFID tags when the signals interact with food. For this study they focused on baby formula and alcohol, but in the future, consumers might have their own reader and software to conduct food-safety sensing before buying virtually any product. Systems could also be implemented in supermarket back rooms or in smart fridges to continuously ping an RFID tag to automatically detect food spoilage, the researchers say.

The technology hinges on the fact that certain changes in the signals emitted from an RFID tag correspond to levels of certain contaminants within that product. A machine-learning model “learns” those correlations and, given a new material, can predict if the material is pure or tainted, and at what concentration. In experiments, the system detected baby formula laced with melamine with 96 percent accuracy, and alcohol diluted with methanol with 97 percent accuracy.

“In recent years, there have been so many hazards related to food and drinks we could have avoided if we all had tools to sense food quality and safety ourselves,” says Fadel Adib, an assistant professor at the Media Lab who is co-author on a paper describing the system, which is being presented at the ACM Workshop on Hot Topics in Networks. “We want to democratize food quality and safety, and bring it to the hands of everyone.”

The paper’s co-authors include: postdoc and first author Unsoo Ha, postdoc Yunfei Ma, visiting researcher Zexuan Zhong, and electrical engineering and computer science graduate student Tzu-Ming Hsu.

Other sensors have also been developed for detecting chemicals or spoilage in food. But those are highly specialized systems, where the sensor is coated with chemicals and trained to detect specific contaminations. The Media Lab researchers instead aim for broader sensing. “We’ve moved this detection purely to the computation side, where you’re going to use the same very cheap sensor for products as varied as alcohol and baby formula,” Adib says.

RFID tags are stickers with tiny, ultra-high-frequency antennas. They come on food products and other items, and each costs around three to five cents. Traditionally, a wireless device called a reader pings the tag, which powers up and emits a unique signal containing information about the product it’s stuck to.

The researchers’ system leverages the fact that, when RFID tags power up, the small electromagnetic waves they emit travel into and are distorted by the molecules and ions of the contents in the container. This process is known as “weak coupling.” Essentially, if the material’s property changes, so do the signal properties.

A simple example of feature distortion is with a container of air versus water. If a container is empty, the RFID will always respond at around 950 megahertz. If it’s filled with water, the water absorbs some of the frequency, and its main response is around only 720 megahertz. Feature distortions get far more fine-grained with different materials and different contaminants. “That kind of information can be used to classify materials … [and] show different characteristics between impure and pure materials,” Ha says.

In the researchers’ system, a reader emits a wireless signal that powers the RFID tag on a food container. Electromagnetic waves penetrate the material inside the container and return to the reader with distorted amplitude (strength of signal) and phase (angle).

When the reader extracts the signal features, it sends those data to a machine-learning model on a separate computer. In training, the researchers tell the model which feature changes correspond to pure or impure materials. For this study, they used pure alcohol and alcohol tainted with 25, 50, 75, and 100 percent methanol; baby formula was adulterated with a varied percentage of melamine, from 0 to 30 percent.

“Then, the model will automatically learn which frequencies are most impacted by this type of impurity at this level of percentage,” Adib says. “Once we get a new sample, say, 20 percent methanol, the model extracts [the features] and weights them, and tells you, ‘I think with high accuracy that this is alcohol with 20 percent methanol.’”

The system’s concept derives from a technique called radio frequency spectroscopy, which excites a material with electromagnetic waves over a wide frequency and measures the various interactions to determine the material’s makeup.

But there was one major challenge in adapting this technique for the system: RFID tags only power up at a very tight bandwidth wavering around 950 megahertz. Extracting signals in that limited bandwidth wouldn’t net any useful information.

The researchers built on a sensing technique they developed earlier, called two-frequency excitation, which sends two frequencies—one for activation, and one for sensing—to measure hundreds more frequencies. The reader sends a signal at around 950 megahertz to power the RFID tag. When it activates, the reader sends another frequency that sweeps a range of frequencies from around 400 to 800 megahertz. It detects the feature changes across all these frequencies and feeds them to the reader.

“Given this response, it’s almost as if we have transformed cheap RFIDs into tiny radio frequency spectroscopes,” Adib says.

Because the shape of the container and other environmental aspects can affect the signal, the researchers are currently working on ensuring the system can account for those variables. They are also seeking to expand the system’s capabilities to detect many different contaminants in many different materials.

“We want to generalize to any environment,” Adib says. “That requires us to be very robust, because you want to learn to extract the right signals and to eliminate the impact of the environment from what’s inside the material.”

No they don’t: Netherlands study says consumers read food hygiene warning labels on poultry, and surveys still suck

Tony McDougal of Poultry World reports that researchers wanted to see how the label impacted consumer perceptions on risk and food-handling behaviour in the light that poultry meat is an important source of foodborne infections, such as campylobacter, salmonella and E.coli.

A random sample of 1235 adults from a representative internet panel received an email linking to the study questionnaire. Information was gathered about knowledge of safe food-handling regarding poultry, their current food-handling behaviour and intention to change after reading the label, as well as influencing factors.

The results, published in the October edition of the journal Food Control, found that respondents of households with people aged 65 or older, with safe food-handling practices and who judge foodborne infections as severe, were more prone to have read the label.

The study also found that after reading the label during the survey, the intention to change behaviour did not differ between the readers and previous non-readers.

The report’s authors, from the Dutch Centre for Infectious Disease Control, National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, concluded that “a label is a relatively easy and reasonable way of informing and educating consumers about safe food-handling.

“The majority of the respondents had read the label on poultry meat and scored it as important, useful and reassuring. Therefore investigating the feasibility and possible benefits of a similar label on other meat products could be worthwhile.”

Does not account for the fallibility of self-reported surveys (we all wash our hands); does not account for multi-languages in the diverse cultures we all prepare food; does not account for cross-contamination.

Consumers should not be the CCP on your brand.

Get it together.