Consumers do not consider flour, a low-moisture food product, a high risk for microbial contamination. In the past 10 years, however, flour has been identified as a source of pathogenic bacteria, including Salmonella and Escherichia coli.
Online surveys were conducted to study consumers’ flour handling practices and knowledge about food safety risks related to flour. The survey also evaluated message impact on three food safety messages in communicating information and convincing consumers to adopt safe flour handling practices. Flour-using consumers (n ¼ 1,045) from the United States reported they used flour to make cakes, cookies, and bread. Most consumers stored flour in sealed containers. Less than 1% kept a record of product identification numbers, such as lot numbers, and less than 11% kept brand and use-by date information. Many consumers (85%) were unaware of flour recalls, or outbreaks, and few (17%) believed they would be affected by flour recalls or outbreaks. If the recall affected the flour they bought, nearly half of the consumers (47%) would buy the same product from a different brand for a few months before they returned to the recalled brand. Among consumers who use flour to bake, 66% said they ate raw cookie dough or batter. Raw dough “eaters” were more difficult to convince to avoid eating and playing with raw flour than “noneaters.” Food safety messages were less impactful on those raw dough eaters than noneaters. Compared with the food safety message with only recommendations, those messages with recommendations and an explanation as to the benefits of the practice were more effective in convincing consumers to change their practices. These findings provide insight into effective consumer education about safe flour handling practices and could assist in the accurate development of risk assessment models related to flour handling.
Consumer knowledge and behaviors regarding food risks associated with wheat flour, 2021
An outbreak of Shigella in England in 2018 was most likely caused by coriander that was contaminated, according to researchers from the journal Epidemiology and Infection.
Food Safety Magazine reports that in April 2018, Public Health England was informed of cases of Shigella sonnei, of people who had eaten food from three different catering outlets. Initially, the outbreaks were investigated separately, but whole-genome sequencing (WGS) showed that they were caused by the same strain.
Epidemiological data was analyzed, as well as the food chain and microbiological examination of food samples. WGS was used to determine the phylogenetic relatedness and antimicrobial resistance profile of the outbreak strain.
Thirty-three cases were linked to the outbreak, and the majority of people involved had eaten food from seven outlets specializing in Indian or Middle Eastern cuisine. Five outlets were linked to two or more cases, all of which used fresh coriander, although a shared supplier was not able to be identified. An investigation at one of the outlets found that 86 percent of cases reported eating dishes with coriander, either as an ingredient or a garnish. Four cases were admitted to the hospital, and one had evidence of treatment failure with ciprofloxacin.
Phylogenetic analysis proved that the outbreak was part of a wider, multidrug-resistant group of organisms, associated with travel to Pakistan. Likely contributing factors were poor hygiene practices during cultivation, distribution, or preparation of fresh produce.
Outbreak News Today reports in a follow-up on the Yersinia enterocolitica outbreak in Sweden, The Swedish Public Health Agency says the outbreak of Yersinia enterocolitica is over.
During the period January and up to the beginning of February, twice as many people fell ill with Yersinia infection as during the same period in a normal year. Of a total of 53 cases of Yersinia enterocolitica, 33 were resident in the regions of Stockholm, Västra Götaland and Halland.
Isolates from 24 of these cases were typed by whole genome sequencing, and 16 outbreak cases with clustered isolates could be identified.
A contaminated batch of iceberg lettuce distributed to a restaurant chain is the suspected source of infection.
As southeast Queensland experiences one of the wettest springs in years, rural residents are raising concerns about potentially contaminated drinking water after finding poisoned mice in their tanks, as the mouse plague continues to worsen.
Lucy Thackray of ABC reports frustrated landholders are continuing to try to reduce mice populations with rigorous baiting programs, but the problem isn’t showing any signs of slowing.
Louise Hennessy, from Elong Elong in Central West NSW, has issued a warning to other rural residents about potential health implications for humans and animals after finding baited mice in her drinking supply.
She made the discovery when she climbed up her house tank to check a blockage and was immediately overwhelmed by a revolting smell.
“It was so horrifying, I thought it would make a good picture to remind people to be vigilant about their water tanks,” Ms Hennessy said.
“We always filter the water going into our house from the tanks, so for us personally we feel we’ve covered our precautions so we didn’t notice anything with the taste. But the smell of the mice at the top of the tank was so disgusting.”
Dubbo Regional Council’s environment and health officer Simone Tenne said people often did not consider drinking water contamination.
“Rainwater tanks are perceived to be a clean source of drinking water, but they often have frogs in them, insects, a large amount of bird faeces which has come down off the roof,” Ms Tenne said.
“The public health sector recommends people do some form of treatment whether it be chlorination, a bit of acidification or some sort of filtration to avoid getting bacteria inadvertently through drinking contaminated water.”
Ms Tenne said health issues could be triggered by mice in drinking water.
My friend Tim Caufield, professor of law at the University of Alberta, the Research Director of its Health Law Institute, and current Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, writes in an op-ed for the Globe and Mail that COVID public health policies have been with us for a year. So has uncertainty. We’ve all lived through twelve months of “huh”? And this has added to the public’s frustration, fatigue, and stress.
In the early weeks and months of the pandemic, there was uncertainty about masks and asymptomatic spread. There was uncertainty about if and when we’d get a vaccine. There was uncertainty about what type of public health policies worked best and were most needed. We have all had to tolerate a lot of ambiguity. And as the vaccines roll out, we are being asked to tolerate even more. (When will I get a vaccine? Which one will I get? And what about the variants?)
For public health communications to be effective, the public must have confidence in the message. And, unfortunately, for some, that confidence isn’t there. A recent study from the University of Calgary explored pandemic communication and found, not surprisingly, that “participants felt that public health messaging to date has been conflicting and at times unclear.”
This perception is understandable. An atmosphere of seemingly relentless uncertainty and confusion has been created by a combination of scientific realities, media practices, some less-than-ideal communication from policy makers, and the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
The science surrounding COVID was – and, for some topics, continues to be – highly uncertain. While a growing body of evidence has emerged around the most contested issues (such as the value of masks and physical distancing strategies), early in the pandemic there wasn’t much that was unequivocal. The science evolved and, as you would hope with any evidence-informed approach, the resulting science advice and recommendations evolved too. But for some, shifting policies, even if appropriate, just added to a sense, rightly or not, of chaos.
In addition, the media has been reporting on the research as it unfolds, including referencing studies that have not yet been peer reviewed. Often the preliminary or uncertain nature of the relevant research is not reported in the media, thus creating a false impression about the actual state of the science – as exemplified by the “hydroxychloroquine works!” debacle (PS, it doesn’t). Perhaps worse, relatively fringe perspectives – such as those pushing the value of “natural herd immunity” – have been given a relatively high profile in both the conventional press and on social media. This can create a false balance (fringe idea vs. broad scientific consensus) that we know can be detrimental to both public discourse and health behaviours.
Despite the frustration that uncertainty can create, the public has a demonstrated preference for honesty about the limits of our knowledge. A recent study from Germany found that “a majority of respondents indicated a preference for open communication of scientific uncertainty in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.” This finding agrees with other research that has found that when uncertainty is relevant to their lives, the public wants to know about it.
People may want to hear about uncertainty, but will communicating it do more harm than good? Will it just add to an already confused information environment? The data on this point are actually fairly mixed, but recent research exploring the impact of communicating scientific uncertainty found that it either increased perceptions of trust in science or had almost no impact. This is good news. As the authors of one of the studies notes, “this should allow academics and science communicators to be more transparent about the limits of human knowledge.” Other studies have found that being honest about uncertainties in media reports about research can actually boost the perceived credibility of journalists.
And over the long term, honesty about the uncertainties of the evidence used to inform policy seems essential to the maintenance of public trust. For example, being overly dogmatic about a policy or predictive model could hurt the credibility of decision makers if new evidence requires a revision of a past positions.
When possible, public health authorities (or anyone seeking to communicate science) should start with well-defined and well-supported takeaway messages (e.g., please get vaccinated with whatever vaccine is available to and recommended for you!).But then be honest about what is not known (e.g., while vaccines are our best defense, we aren’t sure how long immunity will last).
Depending on the medium used (a social media post, for example, may not be the best venue for a long discourse on methodological challenges), it may also be wise to explain the limits of the research approach (e.g., observational studies can’t prove causation). If there are areas of scientific disagreement, be honest about that too – but be specific about what is being disputed. Often there is broad agreement about the big stuff (e.g., vaccines work!), but academic debate about some details. Often those trying to sow doubt – like those in the anti-vaccine community – will try to weaponize and over-emphasize small academic disagreements. Don’t give them that room.
When communicating about uncertainty it is also important to highlight what is being done to reduce it, such as forthcoming research or new data analysis. This provides a road map forward and invites the public to follow the science as it unfolds. It is also a way to stress that uncertainty is a natural part of the scientific process.
For the public, try not to let the uncertainty kerfuffle distract you from the big picture. Remember that there are many clear knowns. Vaccines, physical distancing, hand washing, masks, and being responsible when symptoms emerge will get us through this pandemic.
Finally, it is also important to take a break from all the uncertainty noise. Studies have shown that the constant consumption of conflicting COVID news can (no surprise here) add to our stress. Put down the phone, back away from the screen, and take ten from “huh?”
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Cleveland Clinic have discovered that a fungus found in foods such as cheese and processed meats can infect sites of intestinal damage in mice and people with Crohn’s and prevent healing. Moreover, writes Tamara Bhandari of News Room treating infected mice with antifungal medication eliminates the fungus and allows the wounds to heal.
The findings, published March 12 in the journal Science, suggest that antifungal drugs and dietary changes are potential new approaches to improving intestinal wound healing and reducing symptoms of Crohn’s disease.
“We’re not suggesting that people stop eating cheese and processed meat; that would be going far beyond what we know right now,” said first author Umang Jain, PhD, an instructor in pathology & immunology at the School of Medicine. “What we know is that this foodborne fungus gets into inflamed, injured tissue and causes harm. We’re planning to perform a larger study in people to figure out if there’s a correlation between diet and the abundance of this fungus in the intestine. If so, it is possible dietary modulation could lower levels of the fungus and thereby reduce symptoms of Crohn’s disease.”
Crohn’s is a subtype of inflammatory bowel disease. As the name suggests, it is driven by chronic inflammation in the digestive tract and primarily treated with immunosuppressive medications. Crohn’s patients endure repeated cycles of gastrointestinal symptom flare-up and remission. During a flare, their digestive tracts are dotted with inflamed, open sores that can persist for weeks or even months.
To understand why intestinal ulcers take so long to heal in some people, Jain and senior author Thaddeus Stappenbeck, MD, PhD, formerly at Washington University and now at the Cleveland Clinic, studied mice whose intestines had been injured. By sequencing microbial DNA at the site of injury, they discovered that the fungus Debaryomyces hansenii was abundant in wounds but not in uninjured parts of the intestine.
People acquire the fungus through their food and drink, Jain said. D. hansenii is commonly found in all kinds of cheeses, as well as sausage, beer, wine and other fermented foods.
The pandemic brought a rise in home canning and food preservation as evidenced by a scarcity of canning supplies on store shelves and from online retailers, perhaps driven by a bountiful harvest by those who planted home gardens in the spring during the early lockdown period.
The Journal Advocate reports improperly canned food is behind at least some of the several cases of confirmed and suspected foodborne botulism that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) has investigated in the state since September, according to a release from CDPHE Wednesday. Testing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed four of the cases, one is still under investigation, and two test results are pending. All of the confirmed cases occurred along the Front Range, and one of the unconfirmed cases occurred in the Western Slope.
A majority of the cases appear to be unrelated as no common food item was identified. The last two confirmed cases were the result of an improperly canned shared food made in the same household, prompting a warning from CDPHE about home food safety.
“Botulism does not spread from person to person, so there is no risk to the public. However, these cases are a good reminder of how important it is to properly preserve and handle food in the home,” said Nicole Comstock, deputy branch chief, communicable disease branch.