Risk communication sucks, everyone needs innovative food safety stories

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

Wall, P. G., & Chen, J. (2018). Moving from risk communication to food information communication and consumer engagement. Npj Science of Food, 2(1). doi:10.1038/s41538-018-0031-7

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329324755_Moving_from_risk_communication_to_food_information_communication_and_consumer_engagement

FDA says wash those avocados

The avocado-based dip was the cause of an aggressive barfing incident that I’ve never been able to push aside, in the same way I wasn’t able to eat muffins for years after a barfing incident when I was a child.

I’m still amazed at the effects sight, sound and smell can have on food preferences.

It was about 33 years ago, and my ex-wife decided to make a batch of her self-proclaimed world-class guac.

We were driving to my relatives in Barrie, Ontario (that’s in Canada) and somewhere on highway 400, we pulled over and too much booze or guac or just being with me caused one of the most violent vomiting incidents I’ve witnessed.

The smell of the guacamole is forged in my memory.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has released two reports on its sampling of whole fresh avocados and hot peppers to determine how frequently harmful bacteria are found in each commodity.

For the whole fresh avocado sampling assignment, the FDA collected, tested and analyzed 1,615 domestic and imported avocado samples for Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes. Of the 1,615 samples, 12 (0.74%) tested positive for Salmonella. As to the Listeria monocytogenes testing, the agency primarily tested the pulp of the avocado samples (as the pulp is the part of the fruit people eat), and some samples of the fruit’s skin. Of the 1,254 avocado pulp samples, 3 (far less than one percent) were positive for Listeria monocytogenes. Of the 361 avocado skin samples, 64 (17.73%) were positive for Listeria monocytogenes. FoodSafety.gov advises consumers to wash all produce before cutting into it or eating.  

Washing doesn’t do much, but with avocadoes it seems the exterior skins are loaded with Listeria, so the opportunities for cross-contamination are huge (think of how you prepare avocado).

CBS News concludes that one-in-five avocados tested positive for Listeria on the outside, so better wash those skins.

Washing won’t do much, but clean the damn cutting board and be the bug, think about where it would go.

Like my ex barfing.

Why so many outbreaks in 2018? I’m not sure there were, but math is hard

Don and I recorded a podcast today and one of the potential show titles was math is hard.

I’m writing from experience, I had to take calculus in high school twice to get it. Explaining probability and risk is even tougher.

Some of the math of food safety illness burden comes down to this for me: There are billions of meals every year in the U.S. that don’t lead to foodborne illness.

That’s good.

There are millions of meals every year in the U.S. that do lead to foodborne illness.

That’s bad.

There was some buzz in the food and health media after a CNN article stated that CDC had investigated more multistate outbreaks in 2018, 21 in total, than any previous year.

That’s sorta true, but sorta not, depends on how it’s counted.

Rachel Rettner of Live Science talked to me about this last week and I shared the National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS) dashboard with her. This is a super cool tool that CDC has where they track all the reported outbreaks in the U.S. and the number isn’t 21. It’s probably closer to 4000. At least that’s around what has been reported into NORS annually since 2009 when reporting got better.

I’m throwing out the multistate part in my calculations, because the microbes don’t care about state lines or borders.

From the Live Science article:

Experts say that, although we heard a lot about foodborne disease in 2018, it doesn’t mean that we had any more outbreaks than usual. Indeed, it’s likely that the U.S. always has about the same number of outbreaks every year, said Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University. But critically, health officials are getting better at detecting these outbreaks, Chapman said, leading to an increase in reported outbreaks in recent years.
“The science is getting better, and the public health resources are getting better, and we’re just getting better at finding things,” Chapman told Live Science

And although these outbreaks made headlines, there are hundreds more outbreaks that we don’t necessarily hear about that get investigated and reported every year. (An outbreak refers to an instance when two or more people get the same illness from the same contaminated food or ingredient, according to the CDC.)
Indeed, according to the CDC’s National Outbreak Reporting System, which summarizes data on U.S. reports of foodborne illness, there were about 4,000 foodborne illness outbreaks each year from 2012 to 2016, (the most recent years for which data is available). That’s up from only about 1,000 reported outbreaks in 2008.
That “looks like this big jump” in outbreaks, Chapman said. But the increase is really due to health officials getting better at “connecting the dots” to find more foodborne illness outbreaks, he said. In other words, the outbreaks were happening, but health officials just weren’t as good as detecting them.

Unfortunately, better detection of outbreaks means that the total number of reported outbreaks likely won’t be going down anytime soon.
“As we get better at reducing risk [of foodborne illness], we also get better at finding things we didn’t know were there,” Chapman said. “I don’t expect that we would have any less or any more outbreaks in 2019.”

Rewashing those pre-washed greens isn’t doing anything

If I’m eating pre-washed lettuce I just open the bag and throw it on the plate. Because there’s not much I can do, safety-wise, to it once it’s in my home. If there’s pathogenic E. coli, Listeria or Salmonella there (or others) I’m stuck with it.

Cindy Tran of the Daily Mail writes that Sydney, Australia nutritionist Susie Burrell recently talked about food safety risks on a local morning show including a recommendation to rewash prewashed leafy greens. 

She said people should always wash their store-bought salads, even if the packaging says ‘pre-washed’.

‘You must wash those ones out of the bags. It does say pre-washed but I would always wash it again because it has sat there for a long period, you don’t know what the turnover time is.’

I’m following recommendations from a bunch of my food safety friends who reviewed the literature on cut, bagged, washed, ready-to-eat leafy greens from a few years ago. In the abstract, they write:

The panel concluded that leafy green salad in sealed bags labeled “washed” or “ready-to-eat” that are produced in a facility inspected by a regulatory authority and operated under cGMPs, does not need additional washing at the time of use unless specifically directed on the label.

Leafy green food safety risks need to be addressed before they get to me, all I can do by washing it again is increase the chance I cross-contaminate the salad precursor in my home. My purchasing choice is based in trust that growers, packers and processors know what they are doing, and do it. But at best, they can only remove 90-99% of what is there with a wash.

And I can’t do any better.

365 burgers in a year, how many were cooked to 160F?

I like hamburgers, not enough to eat an average of one a day though. According to the Los Angeles Times, that’s what restaurant investor Lawrence Longo did in 2018. Added difficulty, he did it at 365 different restaurants.

When asked to describe the perfect burger Longo responded:

Not too much going on. Bun-cheese-meat-bun. If you have the right meat, the right bun, the right ratio, you don’t need any ingredients on that burger. The juices on that burger are all you really need.

I’d add that it was cooked to 160F and verified with a tip-sensitive digital thermometer.

 

Food safety and marketing folks should get together and improve messaging

One of the common discussions I have with industry folks is around the disconnect between marketing and food safety. The good food safety people will remain nameless, but a few times a year I hear at a meeting or via email/text/DM that someone in their organization doesn’t get food safety and puts stuff out without thinking of consequences.

John Bassett, friend of the blog (and pod) you can find him at @foodriskguy on Twitter, a great food safety risk assessment dude called out some folks at My Food Bag NZ (a Blue Apron-type meal service) for missing the mark on their messaging.

 

The good folks at My Food Bag responded with a canned response. I’d rather hear from their food safety folks.

 

 

Food Safety Talk 171: 350 Million Caesars

It’s a Christmas miracle as Don and Ben finally align schedules after snow kept Ben from his microphone and Don’s travel. After a little bit of banter on construction noises, and Canadian cocktails, the guys talk about egg nog and the effects of alcohol on Salmonella. The conversation goes to eating human flesh and brains (the guys are not fans) and mycotoxins in a fermented Chinese tea, puerh. Don and Ben chat about cleaning retail stores after recalled produce has been on display and whether Romaine lettuce is now worry-free.

Food Safety Talk episode 171 is now available here and at iTunes.

Show notes so you can follow along at home:

Everyone has a camera – even the restaurant operators

Doug and I have been talking about marketing food safety for years – the oft misunderstood concept. If you’re doing a good job at food safety tell everyone about it – differentiate yourself from your competitors. Complementing this idea is transparency and disclosure. Everyone has a camera.

In 2005 some keen public health folks in Korea started soliciting food safety-related pictures from diners as they ate and ordered at restaurants. The authorities wanted to enlist citizens to look for violations to place additional pressure on businesses to be decent food safety citizens – and to fine them for bad practices.

Five years ago we started a project, citizen food safety, on Instagram. Collectively capturing food safety, in the broadest terms through the lens of the camera phone-wielding public. This wasn’t just for the food safety nerds; its for the Interweb’s population of eaters: the regular folks who shop, eat at restaurants, visit farmers markets, cook or eat.

The hashtag #citizenfoodsafety still pops up sometimes on social media.

According to Xinhuanet, Health officials in the Chinese city of Hangzhou are actively calling on restaurant operators to be more transparent and put up cameras and offer patrons a live look on what’s going on in the kitchen. I love it. This advances #citizenfoodsafety.

Sure, folks can do weird stuff in blind spots, but this is a cool progression.

In an effort to alleviate food safety concerns that shroud China’s booming takeout services, the capital city of Zhejiang Province said over 150 restaurants had offered such services on a popular takeout app.

Hangzhou’s administration for market regulation said it was part of the city’s campaign to turn its eateries into “sunshine restaurants,” which install cameras or have open kitchens to allow for customer supervision.

The online live vetting aims to eliminate the “blind spot” as more restaurants jump on the mobile internet bandwagon to promote their takeout services, said Wang Jinchao, an official with the administration.

Consumers will feel relieved as they can see what happens in the kitchen, while the restaurants will be prompted to comply with the rules, according to Wang.

Norway reports increase in listeriosis

Outbreak News Today reports that officials with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health report seeing an increase in listeriosis cases in December, prompting a warning for high-risk groups.

According to an official notice Friday (computer translated), six cases were reported this month when the country typically sees 1-2 cases a month.

Four of the six patients reported in December are from Hedmark and Oppland.

Health officials are working to identify if their is a common food source linked to the increase in cases.

Listeria is usually transmitted through food, especially long-life foods that are refrigerated and eaten without further heat treatment. Many of these food products are popular as Christmas foods and can be found on many Christmas parties.

Missouri farmer charged in $140M organic grain fraud scheme

Ryan J. Foley of The Washington Post writes a  Missouri farmer and businessman ripped off consumers nationwide by falsely marketing more than $140 million worth of corn, soybeans and wheat as certified organic grains, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

The long-running fraud scheme outlined in court documents by prosecutors in Iowa is one of the largest uncovered in the fast-growing organic farming industry. The victims included food companies and their customers who paid higher prices because they thought they were buying grains that had been grown using environmentally sustainable practices.

The alleged leader of the scheme was identified as Randy Constant of Chillicothe, Missouri, who was charged with one count of wire fraud. He is expected to plead guilty during a hearing that is scheduled at the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Thursday.

The charging document calls on Constant to forfeit $128 million to the government along with his interest in 70 pieces of farm machinery and equipment. His attorney, Mark Weinhardt, didn’t immediately return a phone message seeking comment.

Three Nebraska farmers who sold their crops to Constant pleaded guilty in October to their roles in the scheme and are awaiting sentencing. One of their attorneys has said that Constant recruited them and that they turned a blind eye to his false marketing practices because they reaped higher profits by passing their grains off as organic.