Consumer groups, industry, lots of others, misuse food safety data for political gain

Chapman already commented on some of the, uh, failings of the recent top 10 (PR stunt) allegedly most dangerous foods issued by the poorly named Center for Science in the Public Interest – there wasn’t much science or public interest in that last report.

The produce industry types responded with the blame-the-consumer routine, which is (incredibly dumb) unfortunate given that many outbreaks involving fresh fruits and vegetables clearly need to be prevented on the farm and have nothing to do with consumers.

“Consumers and other food handlers play a huge role in preventing illnesses, and they do need more information on safe handling.”

Neither approach is helpful. Casey Jacob and I tried to contribute to the public conversation about foodborne illness, where it happens and who’s to blame, with the appropriately titled paper, Where Does Foodborne Illness Happen—in the Home, at Foodservice, or Elsewhere—and Does It Matter? in the journal, Foodborne Pathogens and Disease.

The paper has been published online ahead of print. We conclude,

While some occurrences of foodborne illness result from unsafe practices during final preparation or serving at the site where food was consumed, others are consequences of receiving contaminated food from a supplier, or both. Data gathered on instances of contamination that lead to illness make greater contributions to the development of programs that reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses, than data or assumptions that describe locations where contaminated food is consumed.

The abstract is below.

Foodservice professionals, politicians, and the media are often cited making claims as to which locations most often expose consumers to foodborne pathogens. Many times, it is implied that most foodborne illnesses originate from food consumed where dishes are prepared to order, such as restaurants or in private homes. The manner in which the question is posed and answered frequently reveals a speculative bias that either favors homemade or foodservice meals as the most common source of foodborne pathogens. Many answers have little or no scientific grounding, while others use data compiled by passive surveillance systems. Current surveillance systems focus on the place where food is consumed rather than the point where food is contaminated. Rather than focusing on the location of consumption—and blaming consumers and others—analysis of the steps leading to foodborne illness should center on the causes of contamination in a complex farm-to-fork food safety system.


France: Recall of Carrefour Discount brand frozen hamburger patties

The bites/barfblog French team of correspondent Albert Amgar and Manhattan (Kansas) translators Abby Herald and Amy Hubbell have provided news of the latest E. coli related recall from France, this time in Carrefour Discount Frozen Hamburger Patties (right).

Product recalled by: Carrefour

Department: Food and Drinks

Brand: Carrefour

Product: Lot Number/Serial Number: The aim of this recall is for lot number IE 565 EC with a “best by” date of August 5th, 2010.

Reason for recall: Discovery of contamination by the E.coli bacteria

Recommendation: Consumers having bought this product are asked not to consume it.

Place of recall: Consumers who have purchased the product are asked to bring it back to the store where they will be reimbursed.

Additional information: Carrefour states that they have received no consumer complaints. According to the distributer this bacteria is destroyed at a temperature of 65° C (149° F) and the hamburgers are of no risk if they have been thoroughly cooked. The products related to this recall have been removed from Carrefour, Carrefour Market and Champion stores.

Consumer Hotline: For more information, call the toll free hotline 0 805 90 80 70

Again, the recommended cooking temperature seems low, and it’s really risky to say there’s no-risk with any product. Cross-contamination in any food preparation area is a huge issue. That’s why everyone tries to get the pathogens out, rather than blaming the cook.

From the we’ve never had a problem file: Salmonella in lasagna edition

NBC 29 reports that a group of central Virginia guests have Salmonellosis that appears to be linked to frozen lasagna from a popular pasta shop. In a classic blame game maneuver and "wha happened?" defense, the owner of Mona Lisa (the pasta shop) says that if his food is the source of the outbreak, it was likely customer error.

The owner of Mona Lisa pasta says his kitchen is not to blame for six central Virginia dinner guests coming down with salmonella. While he says he sold the frozen lasagna, it was not his kitchen that was responsible for cooking it to code.

Chef Jim Winecoff has been creating Italian dishes at his Mona Lisa Pasta Shop on Preston Avenue in Charlottesville for years. Winecoff said, “We’ve been here for eight years now providing lasagna, fresh pastas, sausage, ravioli, through the company.”

Winecoff is confident his kitchen is not to blame. Winecoff stated, “We’ve had no trouble whatsoever with our food in the past and I hope this is not a problem with our food. The customer has written instructions as to how to prepare the food, to bake at a certain temperature for a certain amount of time, and that’s a food-safe temperature.”

It’s early on in the investigation and not much information is available but the "we’ve been doing things this way for a while and never had a problem" optimistic attitude doesn’t do much to build trust.

Especially in an outbreak situation.

An operator with a good food safety culture knows about the microbial risks associated with their products and who might screw up, whether it is suppliers, staff or customers. Blaming the customers is never a good thing, especially if you happened to sell them something with a pathogen in it. Ask the ConAgra pot pie folks. Or the Nebraska Beef ground beef folks.

Telling a customer the time of baking and at what temperature misses the measurable risk reduction step — endpoint temperature. Food businesses selling this-needs-to-be-cooked items should be stating what temperature the dish needs to be cooked to and how the temperature needs to be measured.

Food safety for people who don’t cook: stop blaming consumers

The N.Y. Times asked me to comment on the food safety feature running this morning as part of their electronic Room for Debate section.

Douglas Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University and the editor of, writes:

ConAgra Foods said on Nov. 14, 2007 when it reintroduced pot pies that, “… redesigned easy-to-follow cooking instructions are now in place to help eliminate any potential confusion regarding cooking times.”

I tried to them out at the time and found the instructions inadequate.

Were the new labels tested with consumers? Is there evidence from ConAgra that pot pie fans were actually following the instructions on the labels? If the company was serious about making sure the instructions worked, it should have tested the new labels with at least 100 teenagers in observational studies to prove that a target market could actually follow the instructions before introducing the product to the mass market.

The instructions direct consumers to use a food thermometer to test the temperature. But it appears that bimetallic thermometers (traditional kitchen thermometers) are used on both the ConAgra label and in the Times video; these thermometers yield inaccurate readings. For a more accurate reading, consumers would have to use digital, tip-sensitive thermometers.

Food safety isn’t simple – it’s hard. For decades, consumers have been blamed for foodborne illnesss – with unsubstantiated statements like, “the majority of foodborne illness happens in the home.” Yet increasingly the outbreaks in foods like peanut butter, pot pies, pet food, pizza, spinach and tomatoes have little to do with how consumers handle the food.

Everyone from farm-to-fork has a food safety responsibility, but putting the onus on consumers for processed foods or fresh produce is disingenuous — especially for those who profit from the sale of these products.

Preparing pot pies and blaming consumers

The N.Y. Times repeated my year-and-a-half-old home-alone reporting and video shoot with ConAgra pot pies and other frozen thingies in a front-page feature this morning and reached the same conclusion: the cooking directions suck.

(BTW, the Times video accompanying Friday’s story also sucks, and they appear to use the wrong kind of thermometer — always be tip-sensitive)

The frozen pot pies that sickened an estimated 15,000 people with salmonella in 2007 left federal inspectors mystified. At first they suspected the turkey. Then they considered the peas, carrots and potatoes.

Threatened with a federal shutdown, the pie maker, ConAgra Foods, began spot-checking the vegetables for pathogens, but could not find the culprit. …

So ConAgra — which sold more than 100 million pot pies last year under its popular Banquet label — decided to make the consumer responsible for the kill step. The “food safety” instructions and four-step diagram on the 69-cent pies offer this guidance: “Internal temperature needs to reach 165° F as measured by a food thermometer in several spots.”

… attempts by The New York Times to follow the directions on several brands of frozen meals, including ConAgra’s Banquet pot pies, failed to achieve the required 165-degree temperature. Some spots in the pies heated to only 140 degrees even as parts of the crust were burnt.

And in a staggering example of corporate arrogance coupled with blame-the-consumer, Jim Seiple, a food safety official with the Blackstone unit that makes Swanson and Hungry-Man pot pies, said pot pie instructions have built-in margins of error, and the risk to consumers depended on

“how badly they followed our directions.”

That’s assuming people can read, that they can read English, that the instructions are microbiologically validated and that the instructions are clear – meaning there has been direct or video observation of consumers attempting to cook following the instructions.

Does the majority of foodborne illness happen in the home?

Where does foodborne illness happen?

Usually people notice it sitting or kneeling at the toilet.

But for 10 years, various groups had made claims that most foodborne illness happens in the home. It’s the consumer’s fault.

It happened again today.

In an otherwise innocuous press release stressing the importance of handwashing and the creation of a group in Canada featuring “leading experts in the fields of microbiology, virology, paediatrics, infectious disease, public health and education,” the leading experts rhetorically asked, did you know,

“The vast majority of food-borne (sic) illnesses occur because food was not handled or cooked properly and 80% of the cases happen in the home?”

There is no basis to this statement. After years of irritation, we’re finally getting the paper together to review the available data.

But until that’s available, this is what I wrote 10 years ago:

"Research shows that improper food handling in the home causes a major proportion of foodborne illnesses."

That line has been repeated so many times, even moreso since the launch of the FightBac food safety consumer education program last Nov., that I had to know: what was the research.

My associate Sarah Grant first e-mailed the Canadian Food Inspection Agency via their web site, because the federal agriculture Minister had used the line a few weeks ago. No luck there. We were referred to Health Canada.

After a few messages, a couple of tables with an explanatory note arrived. At last, the data.

Except it showed that known cases happen pretty much everywhere except the home.

A bit overstated. But still, the data sucked.

First, was a table representing known foodborne illnesses in Canada from 1990 to 1993. In March 1999, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control published active foodborne surveillance data from the end of 1998. Weekly updates are on their web site. The best we can do in Canada is 1993, and I have to buy the publication. Health Canada says they have plans to publish their data on the web … soon.

Of the 23,322 known cases of foodborne illness in Canada between 1990 and 1993, 18,450 or 79 per cent were of unknown origin. Of the cases of known microbiological origin, 70 per cent were traced to food service; 11 per cent were traced to the home; 4 per cent were retail in origin.

The second table contained data on foodborne illness cases due to mishandling. Of the cases of known microbiological origin, 61 per cent were due to mishandling at the food service level; 11 per cent in the home; 6 per at retail and 6 per cent on farms or dairies.

I remain unconvinced.

Our surveillance capabilities are weak; certainly they are not strong enough to support statements such as, "research shows that improper food handling in the home causes a major proportion of foodborne illnesses." We simply do not know. Money was allocated to bolster Health Canada’s surveillance capacity in the last federal budget so maybe we will see improvements … soon.

More to come …

Blame consumers — German style

Apparently it’s International Green Week in Berlin, described as an Exhibition for the Food Industry, Agriculture and Horticulture, from Jan. 18 — 27 (that seems longer than a week).

Food News reports that the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is presenting its work so consumers can find out more about the risks lurking in their kitchens.

The story says,

around 200,000 food infections are reported every year in Germany. Experts believe that the actual number is far higher since by no means everyone who is affected goes to see a doctor. Most of the infections with Salmonella, Campylobacter or other germs are not contracted in canteens or restaurants but in the home.

BfR President Professor Dr. Andreas Hensel said,

"Many consumers have never learned how to store and cook food properly in the home. By following simple rules it is possible to avoid unpleasant food infections."

Like Bill Marler wrote about the Chinese this morning, maybe the Germans are on to something as well.

I’ll stick with a farm-to-fork approach to food safety. There are outbreaks everywhere. Stop blaming consumers.

85 confirmed with Salmonella at Western, frustration increasing

The Middlesex-London Health Unit reports that the number of people confirmed with salmonella food poisoning at the University of Western Ontario jumped by eight bringing the official toll to 85, with dozens of others suspected.

At least five students have been hospitalized from the illness.

Competing letters in the Western student paper, the Gazette, provide a glimpse of the growing frustration.

Mark Lepore says 85 confirmed sick people is no biggie:

"As with every food operation, there is always a risk of contamination. While measures are taken to prevent this — and Western is pretty strict — it is bound to happen eventually. …

"Yes, people were made sick and suffered discomfort, but before criticizing the first salmonella outbreak in 25 years, try looking around your own house for sanitation problems."

Susan Varills, has a less complacent view, saying she was "shocked and dismayed" by comments made by Susan Grindrod, vice-president housing and ancillary services at Western, in a Nov. 23 story,

"This is the first [salmonella contamination] we’ve had in 25 years. … We serve 30,000 people per week, and while it’s nice to have sanitary practices, there’s no 150 per cent guarantee.”

As a former cook, Varills asks,

"… is she kidding? First of all, having sanitary practices at a public food service establishment isn’t supposed to be “nice” – it’s supposed to be mandatory. After all, it is the law to ensure the food you prepare and serve is not contaminated.

"If a regular restaurant had such a contamination with so many confirmed cases, they would not only face closure, but I’m sure such a restaurant would face a number of lawsuits.

"The high level of traffic through Food Services is no excuse to become lax on sanitary practices; instead, the opposite should be true!"

Blaming consumers — Florida style

Pot pies, produce, peanut butter, pizza and pet food.

These are not consumer food safety issues. There are farm and processing issues.

But so many government, academic and industry types can’t help themselves, and have to make baseless declarations, like, "We have the safest food in the world," and, "The majority of foodborne illness happens in the home."

Estimates I’ve seen vary from 10 per cent to 90 per cent of identified foodborne illness happening in the home. But if I put peanut butter on bread, does that mean I should have taken steps to protect myself, like deep-frying the peanut butter? Should I cook all my fresh produce? How are the numbers counted?

Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said in a press release today that,

"Numerous food-borne illness outbreaks during the past year have heightened public awareness about the dangers with various types of food items. From E-coli in lettuce and meat to salmonella in poultry, more than 76 million people are sickened by food-borne illnesses every year in the United States, resulting in more than 5,000 fatalities.

"However, the majority of food poisonings occur as a result of unsafe preparation and cooking practices."

Show us the data.

Further, telling people — like Commissioner Bronson did — that, "once consumers have purchased the food it is up to them to follow safe and proper food handling practices" seems simplistic — or convenient. Especially considering the number of salmonella outbreaks linked to Florida tomatoes that consumers could have done … nothing to prevent.

You get your money from where?

Oh dear. The Ontario Home Economics Association sounds like a wonderful group, but why repeat unsubstantiated pap from groups like CanFightBac (look at their board of directors — it’s primarily commodity groups, and it’s in their interests to blame consumers for foodborne illness)?

In a press release, posted in today’s FSnet, the group states,

"Farmers’ Markets Ontario in partnership with the Association of Supervisors of Public Health Inspectors of Ontario, the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education, and local public health units recently embarked on a training and education initiative across Ontario, funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.  Workshops and print materials reminded farmers’ market managers, producers and vendors of the best ways to prepare, handle, transport, store and display fresh produce as well as other food products available at farmers’ markets throughout the province. 

"Although the consumer is the final partner in the food safety chain, he or she may have the biggest responsibility of all.  Studies indicate that most food-borne illnesses are caused by careless handling, improper storage or cooking, cross-contamination and lack of hand-washing."

Tell that to those who got sick or died from spinach. Or lettuce, tomatoes, peanut butter or any meal from a restaurant.

Contamination of fresh produce must be prevented on the farm — there is very little consumers can do. Really, it’s OK to say that. Stop blaming consumers.