19 sick with Salmonella at Edmonton folk fest

When I think of folk festivals, I think of Arlo Guthrie.

Public health officials are investigating an outbreak of salmonella linked to food served at one restaurant booth during the recent Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

Nineteen lab-confirmed cases of salmonella have been linked to exposure to food bought at the Haweli Restaurant booth at the festival last month.

Contrition after getting caught

My latest column from Texas A&M’s Center for Food Safety.

(I quite appreciate the freedom I have to delve into more substantive issues). 

The VW microbus: popular in an Arlo Guthrie song (Alice’s Restaurant), home to shag carpeting, and where people who came of age in the 1970s actually did that – in a VW microbus. 

But with news that Volkswagen rigged emission tests on some 11 million cars, the favored brand of professors and hipsters is collapsing.

And they’re not helping their cause.

At a corporate event to unveil the new Passat, the U.S. president of VW said, “Let’s be clear about this. Our company was dishonest. And in my German words, we have totally screwed up.

“Thank you very much for coming, enjoy the evening, up next is Lenny Kravitz.”

Or as comedian and British export John Oliver summarized:

“VW: Hitler trusted us, why won’t you?”

There’s a playbook for public contrition – even in the 140 characters of the Twitterverse — but it’s the day-in-day-out delivery that builds trust, in relationships with that person you met in a VW microbus or with global conglomerates.

Or that homespun ice-cream or peanut paste producer.

Blue Bell ice cream has done a lousy job of taking seriously their food safety responsibilities. Executives at Peanut Corporation of American, whose products killed nine and sickened at least 741 in 2009, received prison sentences varying from 28-to-three years for a not-so elaborate scheme to, as reported by USA Today and others over the years, “fabricate certificates of analysis in a scheme that falsely showed peanut butter from the Blakely, Georgia plant was free of Salmonella and other pathogens. In fact, there had been no testing of the product, or tests had confirmed contamination, prosecutors showed.”

Before the judge issued the sentences, former CEO Stewart Parnell said; “This has been a seven-year nightmare for me and my family. I’m truly, truly sorry for what’s happened.”

Parnell’s daughter said they never knowingly endangered customers, adding,

“No one thought that the products were unsafe or could harm someone. Dad brought them home to us. We all ate it.”

That’s from the contrition playbook. And it’s not enough.

Today, as the number of people sick with Salmonella from Mexican cucumbers continues to climb – 3 deaths, 671 people sick, the U.S. distributor has donated to a non-profit group’s campaign aimed at improving foodborne disease diagnosis and it urged other produce companies to do the same.

San Diego-based Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce partner David Murray said in a Sept. 25 statement, that the firm is “absolutely devastated” by the outbreak and is working with authorities in the U.S. and Mexico, as well as food-safety experts, to analyze its processes and fix any problems.

That’s from the contrition playbook. And it’s not enough.

Joe Nocera of The New York Times wrote recently about parallels between the peanut case and auto recalls, and while there are legal nuances about whether to go after corporations or individuals, that’s up for the lawyers to decide (The Untouchables couldn’t get Al Capone for murder, but they did get him for tax fraud).

Nocera writes the urge to prosecute corporate executives is the single most powerful deterrent imaginable — far more powerful than a fine, which is meaningless to a company like G.M.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat and a former attorney general of that state, said, “I guarantee you, one sentence like [Parnell’s] would change auto safety dramatically and enduringly.”

Get past the playbook of contrition and make data public, day-in-day-out, to earn people’s trust.

 Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety who shops, cooks and ferments from his home in Brisbane, Australia.


You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant

Joyce’s Kitchen sorta sounds like Alice’s Restaurant Massacree, the title of Arlo Guthrie’s 1967 anti-war song and the subsequent 1969 movie.

The Columbus Local News reports that Joyce’s place, in Columbus, Ohio, gets to stay open but will be inspected more frequently. Last time, inspectors found a leaky roof over food prep areas, dirty food contact surfaces and food not being kept at proper temperatures during inspections on Jan. 26, Feb. 12 and Feb. 19.