Food safety doesn’t happen in an office

About 15 years ago, I was a goofy grad student without a lot of ambition.

I had an interest in infectious diseases, genetics and how people talked about risk. Not necessarily in that order.

I found Doug and he set me up with a project working with a bunch of greenhouse tomato and cucumber producers.

His advice was watch everything, ask questions and write it down or you will forget it.

Being on farms and in processing plants I learned about the real challenges that folks encounter when they try to manage risks and ended up finding a passion for food safety. I saw food safety in action daily.11024653_10205679691698903_6143155856293942610_n

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent a bunch of time out of my office doing food safety stuff in the real world like working with chefs on HACCP plans, visiting storage facilities, providing risk communication messages for an outbreak.

But the most food safety fun I’ve had recently was talking to a friend’s Brownie troop about micobiology and handwashing. Grad students Natalie Seymour, Nicole Arnold and Katie Overbey did the heavy lifting, showed the girls what science is and were excellent scientist role models. I just showed up.

But I guess my handwashing prowess blew a mind or two (above, exactly as shown).


Cheech and Chong may be the cooks: why people shouldn’t purchase brownies from streets vendors

I can’t wait until Sorenne goes to pre-school, only to be greeted by a teacher giggling, muttering to herself, “Dave’s not here.”

That’s what happened in April, 2009, when the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) notified officials from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH) in California about a group of preschool teachers with nausea, dizziness, headache, and numbness and tingling of fingertips after consumption of brownies purchased 3 days before from a sidewalk vendor.

As reported in today’s U.S. Centers for Disease Control weekly update, “the findings also underscore the need to consider marijuana as a potential contaminant during foodborne illness investigations and the importance of identifying drug metabolites by testing of clinical specimens soon after symptom onset.

On the morning of April 7, 2009, a preschool teacher put brownies, which she had purchased on April 5, on a table in a break room to share with staff. The day before, she also had given two brownies to her adult son at home. Five preschool teachers (not including the teacher who had purchased the brownies) and the teacher’s adult son were the only persons who ate the brownies. Each person ate only one brownie. At approximately 1:30 p.m., the preschool director and the administrator noticed that one of the teachers suddenly looked drowsy and was complaining of drowsiness, ataxia, dizziness, shortness of breath, and numbness and tingling of the face, forehead, arms, and hands. When the director and administrator learned that the teacher who had shared the brownies had purchased them from a sidewalk vendor for a church fundraiser, they suspected the affected teacher’s drowsiness was associated with her ingestion of the brownie 30 minutes before onset of symptoms. The teacher did not seek medical care.

The brownies were sold as single, unlabeled units, individually wrapped in plastic wrap, costing $1.50 each. The preschool director contacted the head pastor of the church, who reported that the church had not held a fundraiser, and the pastor subsequently notified LAPD to investigate. After interviewing persons at the church and the preschool, LAPD suspected foodborne illness and contacted DPH on April 8.

Dairy-free brownies and other sacrifices

It has been almost three months now that my diet has been more or less dairy free. Shortly after Sorenne turned two months old, she became plagued with eczema. Her pediatrician never recommended I change my diet, as he was satisfied that she continued to gain weight, but I couldn’t stand watching her turn red and try to scratch herself with little hands that she could barely control. A friend of mine, and many articles I read, suggested cutting dairy. My first reaction was – that will be the end of nursing. I am a cheese addict, I love butter, and really, dairy is one of my main sources of protein. Soy is fine – but giving up cheese? How cruel can life be?

I eventually decided that cutting dairy for a couple of days would not kill me, and Sorenne did seem to get a little better. But Doug and I were really not sure if it was the dairy or any number of other variables in our daily life that could be affecting her. I had changed detergents and soaps and made sure she wore only 100% cotton material in the meantime.

The first two weeks of avoiding dairy were very difficult. Giving up cheesecake was almost painful, but I eventually found substitutes and cheated a little here and there when necessary. Sorenne had flare ups that I attributed to a dairy allergy, but we really have no way of knowing for sure. Sorenne doesn’t complain – neither does Doug – and I brought this challenge entirely on myself. After I discovered tofutti cream cheese and (yes it’s gross) veggie cheddar, quitting milk no longer seemed like such a big deal. I noticed I’m generally less gassy (pleasant for everyone around me) and Sorenne vomits significantly less.

For the past week Sorenne’s skin has been almost entirely clear. Today, while contemplating the dairy-free brownies I was about to make, I realized that living dairy free is a challenge I enjoy. I still salivate thinking about Roquefort, but I lived without most of my favorite cheese throughout my pregnancy due to the risk of listeria. (At least now I can eat pâté without much worry.) Finding substitutes has been somewhat enjoyable with some pleasant side effects. For those who cannot enjoy dairy due to serious allergies or lactose intolerance, the diet may feel more like a burden. Worse yet, it’s scary to not know if an allergen has contaminated your food when you’ve been careful to protect yourself or your child. I’m fortunate to have a choice and a knowledgeable partner tolerant of my neurotic parenting.