Food fraud: Is that really oregano? Is it? Is it?

Herbs are about the only thing I can grow that aren’t eaten by birds, possums and skinks.

oreganoExcept when the cats decide to self-bathe in the wonderful aroma of my herbs, when someone lets them out onto the piece of concrete substituting for a back yard.

Seven of the 12 dried oregano samples sampled by Choice Australia contained other ingredients, including olive and sumac leaves.

Last year a study reported that 25% of dried oregano samples in the UK were adulterated. Concerned that Australian consumers might be affected by the same issue, CHOICE decided to carry out a spot check on the authenticity of oregano being sold here. We bought a selection of dried oregano products from supermarkets, grocers and delis in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth – 12 different brands in total – and had a single sample of each product analysed.

Shockingly, the results of a unique screening test for oregano adulteration showed that of the 12 samples, only five were 100% oregano. The other seven – from brands Master of Spices, Hoyt’s, Stonemill (Aldi), Spice & Co, Menora, Spencers and G Fresh – contained ingredients other than oregano, including olive leaves (in all seven samples) and sumac leaves (in two samples). Ingredients other than oregano made up between 50% and 90% of the adulterated samples.

It’s important to note that we tested just one sample of a single batch from each brand, so the results aren’t necessarily representative of each of those individual brands and companies’ whole range of oregano products.

What about microbial food safety? Food industry launches phone-based disclosure amid labeling battle

Phillip Brasher of Agri Pulse reports the food industry is launching a smartphone-based system that companies hope will satisfy consumer demands for information about genetically engineered ingredients, livestock production methods and other product attributes. SmartLabel system, which also will allow consumers to find the information on the web as through the phone-based QR code on package labels, is designed in part to address demands for labeling of biotech foods.

“We all have a desire to get the information that consumers want to them,” said Pamela Bailey, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. “We happen to think that electronic disclosure is the very best way to do that.” 

The Hershey Co. will be the first company to adopt the SmartLabel in coming weeks.

Now adapt it for microbial food safety – the things that actually make people sick.

Raw milk sickened scores despite inspections

The majority of those sickened in raw milk outbreaks is children under 10-years-old. And there’s good immunological reasons for that. If adults want to take the risk with raw milk, they will, just like with cigarettes and alcohol. But parents generally don’t have a scotch and smoke with their 4-year-olds.

That’s what I told Karen Rowan of My Health News Daily in her report about a report appearing in Clinical Infectious Diseases, summarizing a Jan. 2012 campylobacter outbreak linked to raw milk that sickened 148 people in four states.

The dairy that sold the milk had a permit for selling unpasteurized milk, and had passed all inspections. The farm was among the largest sellers of unpasteurized colbert.raw.milkmilk in the state.

The dairy also tested its own milk for E. coli bacteria more often than was required. The vast majority of the sick people drank the milk before its “best by” date.

The only deficiencies that investigators found were that a mechanical milk bottle capper was broken, so employees had capped the bottles by hand, and that the water used to clean equipment was cooler than recommended (110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, instead of 160 to 170 degrees F).

But these issues were “minimal,” and this campylobacter outbreak demonstrates “the ongoing hazards of unpasteurized dairy products.”

Douglas Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University advises that raw milk not be given to children. “As adults, you’re free to choose. But don’t give it to your kids.”

The people sickened in the outbreak ranged in age from 2 to 74, the report said. Typically, campylobacter infections cause diarrhea, abdominal pain and fever that last about a week, and most people get better on their own. In the outbreak, 10 people were hospitalized.

The dairy immediately suspended unpasteurized milk sales when it was informed of the outbreak.

The researchers recommended that state officials consider more regulation of unpasteurized milk, such as monthly pathogen testing.

Live free or die, but keep raw milk away from kids

Even as outbreaks involving raw milk continue to mount, the movement is attracting followers of faith-based food safety into the fold.

In New Hampshire, Kathie Nunley started milking her back yard cow, Dixie, six years ago. But a Jersey girl like her produces up to seven gallons of milk a day, "So we had to offer the extra to our community," says Nunley. "What we didn’t know is everyone wanted it."

Even with three cows, Nunley has a wait list of more than 70 raw milk customers as more and more people want to know where their food comes from.

"The closer our food is to the way it started the better off we are," says long time customer Pinky Rines. "Tastes better, is healthier."

NECN reports New Hampshire stands to loosen the rules on who can sell raw milk. A bill on the Governor’s desk would allow backyard dairies like Nunley’s to sell up to 20 gallons a day without a license. That cap is currently set at five gallons a day.

Same story in Chicago where the Sun-Times reports Max Kane, director of a Chicago food-buying club, said that raw milk eases the excruciating gastrointestinal distress he’s suffered all his life. Last winter, Kane rallied a disgruntled coterie of raw milk revolutionaries in Chicago’s Independence Park.

Several in this group of “mothers and others” defied federal law by transporting 100 gallons of raw milk from Wisconsin to Chicago.

Chicago mother Elise Kloster brought her children to the event in Independence Park, where they enjoyed treats of raw milk and cookies offered to assembled champions of the unpasteurized.

Kloster prefers raw milk because “you know it’s whole, so it’s really very flavorful and rich-tasting, and it changes with the season, depending upon what the cows are eating. Some batches are very mild; others have much more farm-flavor.”

David Hammond concludes by proclaiming, “it’s our natural right to consume whatever the hell we want.”

Except parents are supposed to look out for kids.

A mother told OPB News in Oregon her two-year-old has been hospitalized for 28 days after drinking raw milk connected to an E. coli outbreak, and she recommends not giving children milk that hasn’t been pasteurized.

She had strokes early on and pressure in the brain and most recently had a surgery to remove some dead bowel and colon. And now has a ostomy, that will get reversed in six to eight weeks."

In the last few weeks as many as 21 cases of food-borne illnesses have been traced to raw milk from a farm outside of Willsonville, Oregon.

A table of raw milk related outbreaks is available at

Raw meat raves in New York

Lawyers, prepare your briefs.

And put on clean ones.

The New York Post reports on Gotham’s burgeoning food porn trend to consume meat raw, and lining up for the privilege.

Takashi is one of a small but growing number of restaurants around the city catering to those who are rah-rah about consuming their animal flesh raw-raw.

The first dish to come out is the yooke, ground chuck prepared like a Japanese version of steak tartare. Topped with a raw quail egg, it’s adorned with Japanese seaweed and an enormous shiso leaf.

It’s also by far the tamest uncooked dish at Takashi, which gets its meat from some of the better purveyors around, such as Dickson’s Farmstand and Pat LaFrieda.

Maybe they have those CSI UV goggles that make dangerous bacteria visible. Otherwise, it’s hucksterism to charge a premium.

“Raw meats or undercooked foods leave you at risk of infection [of parasites or a slew of other illnesses],” says Dr. Michael Mansour of the division of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital.

According to NYC’s Department of Health, restaurants must notify diners when food isn’t cooked to required temperatures — either verbally or by printing this on the menu. A diner may also request such a dish. Basically, it’s buyer beware — though the DOH says it will investigate complaints of people getting sick from eating raw food. But with so many New Yorkers obsessed with high-quality ingredients, meat so fresh it can be served raw is seen as a benchmark — not a danger.

Food porn trumps.

At downtown’s Acme, you’ll find endive leaves stuffed with a mix of raw bison and sweet shrimp. At Manzo in Eataly, Piedmontese beef is hand-cut and ground to order. Hakata Tonton, just a couple of blocks from Takashi, offers veal liver sashimi on its menu, as does EN Japanese Brasserie on Hudson Street. Last fall, Hecho en Dumbo in the East Village offered venison tartare on the chef’s menu. (It plans to bring it back next fall, too.)

And then there’s raw chicken, a dish not for the squeamish. “There are a lot of places in the city that serve raw chicken,” says Dave Pasternack, chef-owner of Esca in Hell’s Kitchen. But you might have to ask, with a nudge and a wink, to go off the menu.

For some, raw meat is uncontroversial. “It’s my soul food,” says Takashi’s Inoue, who grew up in Osaka. “That’s how we eat in my home in Japan. The meat is very, very fresh.”

Very fresh, except when it sickens and kills, like it did in Japan last year, leaving four dead and at least 70 sickened with E. coli O111 from raw beef.

Pick your poison.

Fantastical food safety tales is some web site that has published fantastical food safety tales over the years.

A correspondent from Tampa Bay writes that, “by pledging to only use wholesome, organic foods … the chance of foodborne illness is lessened as you are buying from a trusted source. Buy organic when possible – Markets such as Whole Foods and your local farmers market are good sources for quality earth-grown produce."

Whole Foods sucks at food safety. Organic is a production standard that has nothing to do with food safety. Enjoy the Armstrong and Miller Farmer’s Market. 

Raw milk sickens Colorado kids

The Denver Post reports this morning, at first, Mary Pierce (right, photo by Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post) thought her 2-year-old couldn’t stop throwing up because she had a typical stomach bug. A few days later, she watched in terror as the lethargic little girl was rushed by helicopter to The Children’s Hospital, her little kidneys shutting down.

Then Nicole’s 5-year-old brother, Aaron, fell ill, following her into the hospital and onto a dialysis machine. The cause of their potentially deadly illness: drinking raw goat’s milk from a local dairy.

"I’m not a typical Boulder person," Pierce said. "We were just trying it because my son is allergic to dairy. We’re not going near it anymore. … It’s not worth it. You can’t understand until it’s your kid lying in the bed."

The outbreak in June that sent the Pierce children to the hospital for three weeks and sickened about 30 others has state health officials ramping up efforts to warn people against drinking unpasteurized milk.

There are lots of foods that make people sick, and people are free to pick their poisons. But if raw milk is about choice, then pasteurized milk is safer and more affordable. And it’s always the kids that suffer from their parents’ choices.

The poon choi is ripe this year in Hong Kong

It’s Christmas, and when I’m not celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus, or the pagan rituals of winter solstice by going to a hockey game in Minnesota (versus the former Frenchies of Quebec City, now known as the Colorado Avalanche), I’m enjoying a bowl of poon choi, a traditional type of food originated from Hakka cuisine.

According to Wikipedia, which can make someone sound knowledgeable in a Coles Notes sorta way, Poon Choi was invented during the late Song Dynasty of China. When Mongol troops invaded Song China, the young Emperor fled to the area around Guangdong Province and Hong Kong. To serve the Emperor as well as his army, the locals collected all their best food available, cooked it, and put it in wooden washing basins. By doing so Poon Choi was invented

Hong Kong’s Centre for Food Safety (CFS) today released the test results of a seasonal food surveillance project for "poon choi" which is popular at festive gatherings. A CFS spokesman said the centre recently collected 15 samples of "poon choi" from food factories, restaurants and cooked food stalls for microbiological tests, including those for pathogens Bacillus cereus, Clostridium perfringens, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus and Vibrio parahaemolyticus.

All the poon choi samples passed the tests.

Faith-based food safety? Market microbial food safety directly at retail so consumers can choose

Most food purchases are based on faith. That’s why an extensive series of rules, regulations and punishments emerged beginning in 12th century Mediterranean areas.

Faith-based food safety systems are prevalent from the farmer’s market to the supermarket, especially in the produce section. And almost anything can, and is, claimed on food labels – except microbial food safety.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced they are going to examine the growing number of nutrition claims found on the front of food packages after complaints the labels promote health fairytales.

In the U.K., the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has encouraged diners to boycott restaurants that cannot answer questions about the origin of their food.

British chefs Raymond Blanc, Peter Gordon, Martin Lam, Paul Merrett and Antony Worrall-Thompson issued a joint statement saying:

“The British public need to stop being so reticent in restaurants and start asking where their food comes from. It’s your right to know the origin of the food you are served and what types of farms are being used – and the mark of a good restaurant is one that is proud to tell you.”

In response to this news Freedom Food has launched a new long-term campaign called ‘Simply Ask’ which aims to get people asking about food provenance when eating out. This is in a bid to encourage restaurants, pubs and cafes to start sourcing products from higher welfare farms such as Freedom Food, free-range or organic.

Americans are questioning nutrition claims, Brits are questioning allegedly animal-friendly sources of food, maybe there’s room to ask for microbiologically safe food – the stuff that sickens up to 30 per cent of all people everywhere every year (so says the World health Organization).

Lots of companies and retailers are taking baby steps in the direction of empowering consumers to hold producers accountable, but lots aren’t.

Maple Leaf Foods, whose listeria-laden cold-cuts killed 22 Canadians last year, is continuing on its bad Journey to Food Safety Leadership by announcing today that, “Industry and government come together to make food safer for Canadians.”

Invoking the two groups shoppers distrust the most – industry and government – and proclaiming they are working together to better things may not be the best communication strategy to build trust and confidence.

Dr. Randall Huffman, Chief Food Safety Officer for Maple Leaf Foods, stated,

"The Canadian food industry is united that food safety not be used as a competitive advantage. Every member at every step in the production process is a steward of food safety. This spirit of cooperation heralds a new beginning for our industry, and together we will make Canada the gold standard for food safety. This symposium is the first in a series to ensure we share experiences and knowledge, and gain insights into emerging risks, technology advances and cutting edge science that can deliver safer food for Canadians."

That’s nice. Computer companies share technology all the time but that doesn’t stop them from marketing their individual technological advantages.

Stop pandering. Companies that are serious about food safety will go beyond the trust-me approach of faith-based food safety systems and provide public access to food safety test results, provide warnings to populations at risk, and market food safety at retail, to enhance the food safety culture back at the producer or processor level, and to build consumer confidence. May even make money.

Raw milk: ‘media coverage far beyond its importance’

Here’s the most important point in a column written by long-time Toronto Globe and Mail medical reporter Andre Picard:

The trial of Ontario raw milk farmer Michael Schmidt has garnered media coverage far beyond its importance.

Oh, and the outcome is largely irrelevant.

It seems somewhat absurd to jail a man for selling a product that clients desperately want and which, on the surface at least, seems harmless. But, hey, it happens to pot dealers every day.

What is not harmless is Mr. Schmidt’s attack on pasteurization and on food-safety regulations more generally.

Under the guise of civil liberties and freedom, he and his supporters have uttered all kinds of nonsense and portrayed themselves as martyrs for pure food. …

Farmer Schmidt and his acolytes can suckle the milk from the teat of a cow, a goat, a cat, or any other lactating mammal to their hearts’ content.

Their rights and freedoms are in no way compromised.

What the law restricts is the commercial sale of raw milk.

Mr. Schmidt tried to circumvent this fact by selling "cow shares" and arguing that his clients were actually proprietors and free to consume raw milk from their own cows.

Whether that little manoeuvre exempts him from the law is up to the courts to decide. But it seems unlikely. After all, bar owners tried this technique to sidestep anti-smoking laws, selling "shares" in their establishment and arguing that patrons were smoking in a private club. Judges saw through the subterfuge. …

Another argument is that meat – which can also contain pathogens – is sold raw, so why not milk? The practical reason for this is obvious. It is easy and efficient to pasteurize milk; it is not practical to cook meat before selling it, but its refrigeration (designed to minimize the growth of bacteria) is mandatory and regulated.