UK blame game; where is food contaminated? Everywhere, not just home

The blame game lives on in the UK.

Haringey Borough Council says “the authority’s food safety teams, part of the Food Standards Agency, investigated 210 complaints of food poisoning michael.douglasbut found no evidence to link them to eating out.”

Where’s Michael Douglas when needed?

The Haringey Independent reports most cases of food poisoning happen when cooking at home, and this suggested that most incidents were a result of poor food hygiene while cooking at home.”

Food safety is a farm-to-fork thing, and lowering loads limits cross-contamination.

Recalled frozen food may have ended up in US schools

The just-cook-it gang strikes again, saying school foods may be safer than those purchased by individuals because they are more likely to be well cooked, all the while ignoring the enhanced risk of cross-contamination in these larger schools.

Mary Clare Jalonick of the Associated Press writes that hundreds of thousands of pounds of frozen food recalled amid an E. coli O121 outbreak young.guns.regulatorsthat may have been served in schools, according to the company that manufactured the items.

Buffalo, N.Y.-based Rich Products Corp. has over the past two weeks recalled 10 million pounds of frozen food items after 27 E. coli illnesses in 15 states were linked to their foods. Of that, the company estimates that about 3 million pounds may still be in the marketplace and approximately 300,000 pounds may have ended up in school lunchrooms, a company spokesman said.

Dwight Gram of Rich Products said the main items shipped to schools were labeled as pizza dippers and pepperoni pizzatas.

E. coli infection can cause mild diarrhea or more

Health officials have so far directly linked the outbreak strain to two different Farm Rich brand products — frozen mini pizza slices and frozen chicken quesadillas. Samples of the strain of E. coli were collected from those products in the Texas and New York homes of two people who became ill.

It’s not clear yet whether any illnesses are linked to foods shipped to the schools.

Rich Products two weeks ago announced a voluntary recall of certain Farm Rich and Market Day brand products because of the possible E. coli contamination. Last week, the company expanded that recall to include everything made at its Waycross, Ga. plant — a total of 10 million pounds of food. Products manufactured at other plants weren’t affected.

At least one school district has already warned parents that food served in its cafeterias was recalled because of possible E. coli contamination.

A spokeswoman for Harford County, Md. schools said last week that Rich Products had notified the district that it had recalled its pepperoni pizzatas. Some of the food had already been served in cafeterias.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports a total of 27 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O121 (STEC O121) have been reported from 15 states;

• 81% of ill persons are 21 years of age or younger;

• 35% of ill persons have been hospitalized;

• two ill people developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure, and no deaths have been reported.

8 now sickened from E. coli burgers in Canada

A person in Saskatchewan has been confirmed with E. coli O157:H7  linked to a nation-wide outbreak, bringing the total to eight.

People began getting sick in Nov. 2012 and investigators honed in on burgers made by Cardinal Meats.

Matt McClure of the Calgary Herald reported yesterday that the outbreak raises questions about when to go public with health information.

“If we were in a situation where tons and tons of people were getting sick, we’d salmonella.hamburger.patty.recallprobably act faster,” Dr. Gregory Taylor, the health agency’s deputy chief, said.

“You don’t want to initiate a food recall unless you have good solid evidence that’s the offending product because there’s big implications … for the producer and marketer it’s a big loss and cost to them.”

The information from the three ill patients last fall did prompt the CFIA staff to quietly begin testing packages of the suspect Butcher’s Choice brand inspectors collected from store shelves.

But because none were initially able to provide a product box or a store receipt that would allow investigators to pinpoint a lot number or production day at the facility, the government didn’t sound the alarm.

Unable to find an unopened package in the market that was tainted, officials at the two federal agencies waited until the additional cases popped up on their computer screens in early December before convening an emergency meeting with their provincial counterparts.

Even then, federal employees believed there was inadequate proof to order a recall by a plant that churns out over $100 million in product each year.

The decision was made that another round of testing of product from store shelves was necessary. When CFIA found a contaminated package on Dec. 12, federal officials finally felt they had the scientific basis to issue a public health alert.

Some consumer advocates and food safety experts say the federal government’s handling of the Cardinal investigation and its delays during the XL Foods outbreak that left 18 people ill earlier last fall show it has conflicting priorities.

Rick Holley, a meat microbiologist at the University of Manitoba, thinks CFIA and PHAC could have acted sooner.

“They don’t have an excuse to wait for an analytical result from a food product,” Holley said. “Epidemiological evidence from patients is enough in Canada, just like it is in the United States.”

In the wake of the 2008 listeria outbreak at Maple Leaf Foods that killed 23 people and left dozens more ill, an independent investigator told CFIA and PHAC they should look more at the food histories of patients and depend less on finding tainted product on store shelves when deciding whether a health alert is warranted.

A new policy issued two years ago by Health Canada was supposed to ensure that the total weight of evidence would determine the course of action during future outbreaks.

“But because O157 still isn’t considered an adulterant under Canadian legislation,” said Holley, “I expect there’s still some reluctance to follow those rules.”

Beef trim from Canada, New Zealand and Australia had been used to make the tainted burgers, but investigators were never able to pinpoint a specific source of the contamination.

By Christmas Eve, though, CFIA officials thought they had all the tainted product off the shelves and issued a release to say their investigation was concluded.

Within weeks, they would be forced to resume their probe.

Two more patients — one in Manitoba and another in Ontario — fell ill last month from what PHAC now says is a strain of bacteria nearly identical to one found earlier.

Taylor said consumers shouldn’t depend on CFIA and PHAC staff to ensure their beef isn’t tainted.

“The consistent message we have to Canadians is to fully cook your hamburger,” he said. “We’ve got a good food safety system in this country, but nothing’s perfect.”

Not just consumers: cross-contamination of viruses from kitchen knives and graters

Earlier this month, researchers led by Qing Wang from the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, quantified in the journal Food and Environmental Virology just how easily viruses can be spread by cross-contamination from utensils such as knives and graters.

The leading cause of foodborne illness in the US is currently Norovirus, with produce and ready-to-eat foods being identified as the main food types responsible for outbreaks. Previous research has shown that the prime time for food contamination occurs during preparation close to the time when food will be consumed. Although virus transfer between hands, produce and food-contact surfaces is known to occur readily at this point, to date there is little data on the potential role of kitchen utensils used for food preparation in this cross-contamination.

In this study, the researchers looked at the transfer of the Hepatitis A virus and Norovirus between a range of fruit and vegetables and different kitchen knives or flat steel coarse graters. Tests were done with uncontaminated utensils on contaminated produce and contaminated utensils on uncontaminated produce. Results found that when using uncontaminated utensils, more than half of all knives and graters were contaminated after preparing the contaminated produce. Tests using a contaminated knife or grater very often resulted in contamination of the produce being cut or grated. In fact, after being used on one contaminated piece of produce, sterilized knives and graters were capable of cross-contaminating up to seven further pieces of produce that were chopped or grated afterwards.

As seen in previous studies, the level of contamination observed differed with produce used and type of virus. The authors suggest that the difference in the structure of produce surface may influence virus transfer as well as the binding affinities of the different viruses to produce. For example, the smooth surfaces of a honeydew melon transferred more Norovirus to knives than the rougher surface of a cantaloupe, but the opposite was observed for Hepatitis A virus.

This study demonstrates the ease with which viruses can transfer between produce and utensils using procedures commonly adopted in kitchens. This could pose a significant health risk. The authors conclude that “… great emphasis on utensils as virus vehicles should be placed, and it is important to provide knowledge and training for food workers and consumers to limit virus spread.”

This message – be careful in the kitchen – somehow got transmuted by the Produce Marketing Association to, when consumers prepare food it’s possible that their knives may be contaminated and that, “Clearly consumers have a role to play in safe food handling. That’s why PMA has been a long-time supporter of the Partnership, helping to develop the free fruit and vegetable handling information for consumers.”

But the study didn’t distinguish between home kitchens and food service kitchens or even fresh-cut operations. Groups with a vested interest in blaming consumers for outbreaks of foodborne illness do this kind of rhetorical magic routinely.

Wang Q, Erickson, M, Ortega YR and Cannon JL. The fate of murin norovirus and Hepatitis A virus during preparation of fresh produce by cutting and grating. Food and Environmental Virology. DOI 10.1007/s12560-012-9099-4

16 sick with E. coli O157; XL beef debacle highlights shared complacency between Canadian government and industry

The number of confirmed sick people linked to beef from the XL plant in Alberta has risen to 16, the plant is eager to reopen but a former employee says CFIA sucks at inspection, and major media taunt pretty much everyone, especially the terrible communication from government types.

André Picard of the Globe and Mail says that with 16 people sick with E. coli O157:H7, “It’s not the most lethal public-health problem we have ever had in this country, but the
response has to rank among the most ridiculous.

“The response to tainted beef from officialdom has largely been buffoonery: The Agri-Business Minister chowing down on beef at a Rotary luncheon at the height of the crisis; the Alberta Premier saying her 10-year-old daughter has eaten beef every day since the recall; the Wildrose Leader saying the suspect meat should be used to feed the poor and so on.

“The clear message behind these “don’t worry, be happy” displays is that the interests of business matter more than the health of consumers. Sadly, the anti-consumer bias is built into our government structure.

“We have a federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Business, and Gerry Ritz has played the industry-booster role well, repeatedly expressing his concern for XL Foods, the cattle industry and the economy of Brooks, Alta. But he has been all but silent on those who have been sickened and on the safety of consumers more generally.

“What we don’t have is a minister of food to give voice to the millions who actually eat food and a Canadian Food Inspection Agency not under the ministerial thumb and whose overriding priority is ensuring safe and pathogen-free food on our dinner tables.

“Our political leaders – federal and provincial – behave as if food safety is solely the responsibility of individual consumers, and it is troubling that they are using public agencies to deliver this wrong-headed message.

“Consumers should not be responsible for cooking their meat to death to kill E.coli any more than they should be responsible for pasteurizing their own milk or boiling their tap water before drinking it.

“Food-safety regulations should be designed and enforced to protect the public, not industry. The folks at Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency should be allowed to do their jobs, unfettered. They should not be reduced to issuing asinine press releases to mollify the powers that be.”

What follows is finger-pointing from various media accounts.

One consultant lobbyist who is also a communications expert who did not want to be named (how Canadian) told The Hill Times last week that Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz’s strategy is worse than when more than 23 people died in 2008 from listeriosis.

The lobbyist added, Mr. Ritz has no effective key messages that he’s been delivering. “I mean what’s the message track? You can’t just repeat that public safety is our number one priority while people are falling over sick around the country and puking their guts out. There’s no credibility.”

A former XL Foods Inc. manager  who now works as a food safety consultant, told CBC News federal inspectors lack sufficient training.

Former XL Foods quality assurance manager Jacci Dorran said CFIA inspectors often knew less about their own food safety requirements than her employees.

Dorran worked at XL Foods for 10½ years until August 2006.

Dorran said she watched as the CFIA was created in 1997 and followed its evolution.

“It was very common that my staff was training the CFIA,” said Dorran.

“They weren’t necessarily going out into the plant. They might just show up there and read the paper, do the crossword puzzles,” she said.

“They need to be helping the meat industry so we don’t get to this point.”

Dorran said the CFIA problem started when the CFIA started requiring plants to have “hazard analysis critical control point” (HACCP) plans.

“The new philosophy is give us a bunch of paperwork and then we spend more time filling out paperwork on how we’re supposed to fix it other than actually being out on the floor and fix it ourselves — that really bothered me.”

It also emerged that XL is fighting allegations that one of its plants was the source eight years ago of tainted meat that left a young child severely disabled.

Federal government reports indicate as many as 26 other people may also have become sick in 2004 from the same genetic strain of bacteria found in product that a lawsuit claims came from an XL Foods facility.

The company argues it bears no liability for a Winnipeg boy who a legal action claims lost mobility in three limbs, suffers developmental delays and endures severe, ongoing pain caused by eating food containing ground meat tainted with the potentially-fatal bacteria.

Kathy Richard says a few bowls of hamburger soup her grandson ate landed him in hospital for 17 months and left him with no hope of a normal life.

“He was a muscular, little two-and-a-half year old who loved to wrestle and ride his toy motorcycle,” Richard said.

“Now he’s in a wheelchair, wears diapers, and has to be fed through a tube in his stomach.”

Richard is angry that XL Foods is accepting responsibility for the current E. coli cases, but blaming her daughter for what happened eight years ago.

“It’s upsetting,” she said.

“I wonder how they were able to make the same mistake. Did they not learn from the last time?”

Richard says she calls her grandson a “miracle boy,” who managed to survive his medical ordeal after receiving a kidney transplant.

But she said he still suffers from occasional seizures and is only able to communicate by making noises that family members and caregivers understand.

15 sick; food safety failures, arrogance in Canada’s E. coli O157 outbreak

In mid-1994, Michael Taylor was appointed chief of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.  On Sept. 29, 1994, USDA said it would now regard E. coli O157:H7 in raw ground beef as an “adulterant,” a substance that should not be present in the product. By mid-October, 1994, Taylor announced plans to launch a nationwide sampling of ground beef to assess how much E. coli O157:H7 was in the marketplace. The 5,000 samples would be taken during the year from supermarkets and meat processing plants “to set an example and stimulate companies to put in preventive measures.” Positive samples would prompt product recalls of the entire affected lot, effectively removing it from any possibility of sale.
That’s the long-winded version for what a USDA official said in a 1994 television interview: we’ll stop blaming consumers when they get sick from the food and water they consume.

With 15 confirmed E. coli O157 illness across Canada linked to XL Foods in Alberta, the company laid off 2,000 employees Saturday, then called 800 back to work so they can get on with re-opening the plant the Canadian Food Inspection Agency closed Sept. 27, 2012.

Gerry Ritz, Minister of Agriculture said, “My thoughts are with the workers and the community affected by this private sector business decision.”

He didn’t say anything about the sick people, other than platitudes about how “we won’t compromise when it comes to the safety of Canadians’ food.”

But there’s lots of others eager to blame consumers, almost 20 years after the Jack-in-the-Box outbreak sparked Taylor’s actions.

Dr. Jean Kamanzi, who used to be a director at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and now is responsible for food hygiene in Africa for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Program said any E. coli bacteria in the meat could be rendered harmless if it’s cooked to a safe internal temperature — 71 degrees Celsius.

“The meat we’re now throwing into the garbage, which contains this so-called E. coli, if you take it and cook it like you’re supposed to there’s no problem. It’s edible. These are good proteins. … “This is collective hysteria. We’re throwing away meat, we’re throwing everything away. Maybe we’re in a rich country and we can allow ourselves the luxury of not taking any risks at all — but these risks, we take them every day when we touch meat.”

Jean’s point about this being a problem for wealthy countries is taken, but it’s not collective hysteria, especially to the people who got sick.

Dr. Sylvain Quessy, who teaches meat hygiene and is the vice-dean at the faculty of veterinary medicine at the University of Montreal, says that, from a statistical standpoint, the number of illnesses associated with the type of E. coli in the XL Foods safety investigation — 15 Canadian cases in a month — is not especially alarming.

“Everyone’s worrying about a number of cases that is not excessive compared with what you’d normally expect. What we’re telling people — it’s as true now as it was before — is you need to cook your meat properly. (And) wash your hands and wash the things the raw meat touched and you eliminate the danger.”

Sylvain Charlebois of the University of Guelph, said, “If you cook your meat correctly and thoroughly, you will likely eliminate all risks. I would argue that if we educate the public, and we make sure that consumers know what to do with their beef products, you will likely eliminate most of the risks.”

And I thought Australia was stuck in the 1980s.

The feds responded, “despite the fact that proper cooking and handling of food helps prevent illness, the best way to protect yourself is to not eat recalled products at all.”

Taylor did what he did back in 1994 based on the extreme virulence of shiga-toxin producing E. coli like O157:H7, the underestimated risk of cross-contamination, and that food safety isn’t simple, it’s complex. Consumers and food service workers have a role, but these other factors mean loads must be reduced throughout the system.

And this is without getting into the risk of needle- or blade-tenderized steaks and roasts, which sickened some of the people in the XL outbreak.

Just cook it doesn’t cut it. The U.S. meat industry has been told this for years. Why doesn’t Canada?

And although officials insist it was planned months before the XL fiasco, CFIA is going to be audited later this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the first time in three years.

Canada exported more than $4 billion worth of beef and pork in 2010, much of it to the United States.

The final USDA report from its 2009 CFIA audit found weaknesses in the ability of Canadian inspectors to verify consistent sanitation and hazard protection in some slaughter plants, but noted the agency was planning to take action to deal with the shortcomings.

It also said agency inspectors and supervisors were routinely not following procedures for monitoring sanitation controls as laid out by the CFIA.

“Principal areas of weakness included the inability of inspection personnel to implement consistent sanitation and hazard analysis and critical control points verification procedures,” says the report, which was sent to the CFIA in October 2010.

“And, more significantly, (there is) the lack/loss of consistent supervisory reviews to identify weaknesses in inspection performance when it occurred.”

The report did find that the Canadian inspection system adequately verified testing for generic E. coli.

This banter is of no use to people sickened in the outbreak.

Peer-review has a purpose: Canadian food safety study long on rhetoric, short on data

A new report says Canadians suffer more foodborne illness than Americans, that most of it happens with restaurant meals, and that consumers are sorta dumb too.

Unfortunately, the report relies heavily on other reports that are not peer-reviewed, assumptions, and suffers from highly selective referencing to make a point – and I have no idea what that point is.

The report, Improving Food Safety in Canada: Toward a More Risk Responsive System, released by the Conference Board of Canada to coincide with their food safety conference and upstaged by Galen Weston Jr.’s comments that farmer’s markets were going to kill someone, says half or more of all cases of foodborne illnesses in Canada are picked up in restaurants or from other food service providers.

Daniel Munro, Principal Research Associate, said, “It is commonly assumed that farms and food processing companies hold the most responsibility for ensuring safe food, and their role is critical. But most foodborne illnesses are associated with the preparation and storage practices of restaurants, food service operations, and consumers themselves.”

I’m not sure who makes that assumption. It is estimated there are 6.8 million cases of food-borne illness annually in Canada.

Part of the problem can be traced to restaurant inspection systems that are seen as too sporadic to have an impact on restaurants’ day-to-day food safety practices.

Garth Whyte, president and CEO of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association dismissed the report describing it as "shockingly short on facts."

"This study did not even bother contacting us about what we are doing, and if they had, they would know that there are three government recognized food safety training programs that train tens of thousands food handlers per year," Whyte said.

Except training alone doesn’t do much for food safety behavior.

The report provides a number of recommendations to improve Canada’s food safety system including providing restaurants and other food service providers with timely information and advice on how they can minimize food safety risks.

We call them infosheets.

It also urges governments to build on current consumer awareness initiatives by engaging consumers directly in discussions about food safety in their households.

The report offers no advice on how to do that.

Just cook it doesn’t cut it

Nine Michigan residents were sickened by E. coli O157:H7 of which six were hospitalized, linked to ground beef from McNees Meats and Wholesale LLC.

Jennifer Holton, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development public information officer, told those residents it was their fault.

“Even if you think it’s been cooked thoroughly, using a meat thermometer is the only true test. You don’t want any cross contamination. You don’t want to have raw meat or poultry products next to your vegetables. … Just following some of those safety tips can go a long way.”

E. coli O157:H7 and other shiga-toxin producing E. coli are difficult to control once inside a foodservice or home kitchen environment. Consumers are not the only critical control point for meat safety.