What’s For Dinner: The Shine family and the separation between mainstream and food safety geeks

Real meals in real homes, from the Toronto Star (that’s in Canada).

Featuring a real doctor; a 54-year-old anesthesiologist who works in the sterile confines of a hospital where he’s also the operating room medical director.

Dr. Kevin Shine planned to show me how an “obligate carnivore” and his diabetic vegetarian wife get along on the food front.

He may or may not have realized that the most unusual thing about mealtime in his Oakville home is how involved the family’s cats Angel, Katanya, Sasha and Sam are.

The feline foursome eats on the spacious granite island in the kitchen. Their food bowls and automatic water dispenser are kept there so Rusty and Tino, two Cavalier King Charles spaniels, don’t get “a constant feast” (pic from Toronto Star).

The cats freely roam the countertop, even as Kevin’s wife Cheryl chops veggies for her spaghetti sauce on one end and lays out buns and salad fixings on the other.

A curious Katanya gives one crusty Italian roll a thoughtful lick.

“I’ll eat that one,” says Kevin with a shrug, explaining how this adored cat needed unusual jaw surgery to survive. “Katanya thinks she’s a person. She sits with us. She eats with us.”

The Shines don’t usually eat in the dining room, but they decide to do that tonight. They warn that the cats may sit on the table and sample the meal.

Their oldest daughter Elyse, 26, is at veterinary school in Edinburgh. The younger two live at home. Rebecca, 23, is a research coordinator at York University and hopes to do graduate studies in psychology. Connie, 20, is studying culinary nutrition at George Brown College.

An anesthesiologist, a vet student, a chef student and a possible shrink, and they’ve never heard of zoonoses.

“We are most entertaining and live in a very modest house full of cats and dogs as well so be warned!”

The modest home features a 16-foot dining table and seats 22 people.

Maple Leaf CEO: get your butt off that kitchen counter, someone may make food there

I don’t let cats or dogs or lizards on my food prep area, and I don’t let anyone plant their behind on my food prep area – who knows where that behind has been.

That’s what I took away from Maple Leaf Foods latest attempt to woo wary customers back to their delicious deli flavor.

Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain and some other food safety types from the company hosted a dine and lecture for bloggers on May 27 in the Toronto area, to update would-be social media leaders to go forth with the food safety crusade that has taken over Maple Leaf since the 2008 listeria outbreak which killed 22 people.

A number of bloggers have written about this event. They talk about the sweet food, the sincerity of the Maple Leaf types and the super swag. No one raised any hard questions like:

• why did Maple Leaf wait so long to issue a public recall of its killer products in 2008 when epidemiology clearly implicated the product;
• why aren’t listeria test results in Maple Leaf plants made public;
• why aren’t there warning labels on deli meats for at-risk populations, like pregnant women and all those old people that unnecessarily died; and,
• why aren’t Maple Leaf’s food safety efforts marketed at retail so consumers can choose?

Other companies that want to lead are already working in these areas, rather than wining and dining trendy bloggers.

In the U.S., Beef Products Inc. is figuring out how to make all its E. coli tests public, and Cargill is expanding the use of video in its slaughterhouses to enhance animal welfare and food safety.

The Publix supermarket chain in the southeast already labels its deli products to say,

“The Publix Deli is committed to the highest quality fresh cold cuts & cheeses.? Therefore we recommend all cold cuts are best if used within three days of purchase.? And all cheese items are best if used within four days of purchase.”

And not one of the bloggers mentioned, OMG, did you see that those nurses and doctors at Toronto Sick Kid’s hospital said pregnant women can eat all the cold-cuts and raw seafood they want, listeria’s not such a big deal after all.

But all I take away from reading all the blogs is this pic: dude, get your butt off the food prep area.

Tiny turtles still making kids sick

Growing up in late-1960s suburbia, I had a turtle.

Turtles were inexpensive, popular, and low maintenance, with an array of groovy pre-molded plastic housing designs to choose from. Invariably they would escape, only to be found days later behind the couch along with the skeleton of the class bunny my younger sister brought home from kindergarten one weekend.

But eventually, replacement turtles became harder to come by. Reports started surfacing that people with pet turtles were getting sick. In 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned commercial distribution of turtles less than 4 inches in length, and it has been estimated that the FDA ban prevents some 100,000 cases of salmonellosis among children each year.

Maybe I got sick from my turtle.

Maybe I picked up my turtle, rolled around on the carpet with it, pet it a bit, and then stuck my finger in my mouth. Maybe in my emotionally vacant adolescence I kissed my turtle. Who can remember?

A report that will be published tomorrow in the journal Pediatrics documents how 107 people in 34 states became sick with Salmonella from the small turtles between 2007 and 2008 – including two girls who swam with pet turtles in a backyard pool.

The paper notes that one-third of all patients had to be hospitalized, and in many cases, parents didn’t know turtles could carry salmonella.

Julie Harris, a scientist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the report’s lead author said other cases turned up elsewhere, many involving direct contact with turtles, including children kissing turtles or putting them in their mouths.

I’m familiar with that.

David Bergmire-Sweat, a North Carolina epidemiologist who investigated the Union County case, said he’s heard of families letting turtles walk on kitchen surfaces where food is prepared, and babies being bathed in sinks where turtle cages are washed.

Veterinarian Mark Mitchell, a University of Illinois zoological medicine professor, has been working with Louisiana turtle farmers in research aimed at raising salmonella-free turtles, says the industry has been unfairly saddled with harsher restrictions than producers of human foods also blamed for recent salmonella outbreaks.

Maybe, but people need to eat.  They don’t need to kiss turtles.

Yes Virginia, you can thaw turkey on the counter

I’ve gotten more done around the house in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years. Must be the nesting hormones. Amy figures she’s had enough. Baby’s due in a few days, but Amy would rather have it out now.  My youngest daughter, Courtlynn, arrives on Thanksgiving for five days, and we hope the baby arrives then as well.

But, there’s still work to be done, and every year, it’s the same issue. We say it’s OK for people to do what they are already doing – thawing turkey on the counter – and people freak out. After all, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and their extension types insist it is never OK to thaw turkey at room temperature.

We have lots of evidence and have written about it in peer-reviewed journals. But why doesn’t USDA or FDA, with all their resources, tell people why it’s not OK to thaw poultry at room temperature instead of repeating — as my friend Marty once quipped — like a fascist calling out country line dancing instructions, that it is never OK to thaw at room temperature?

Show us the data.

Pete Snyder at the Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management in St. Paul, Minnesota, has a summary available demonstrating the safety of thawing poultry at room temperature at http://www.hi-tm.com/Documents/Thaw-counter.html.

My group wrote a review note on the topic a few years ago, and it is included in its entirety at http://barfblog.foodsafety.ksu.edu/2007/10/articles/food-safety-communication/how-to-thaw-poultry-ignore-government/

However you thaw your turkey, use a digital, tip-sensitive thermometer to ensure it has reached an internal temperature of 165F. The laws of physics are apparently different north of the 49th parallel and poultry is required to reach 180F. No one knows why the Canadian government has different advice. And they’re not telling anyone.

How to thaw poultry: ignore government

I always thaw my turkey on the counter.

I put it in a roasting pan, to catch the juices, and more importantly, to prevent the cats from nibbling late at night. But with the Canadian Thanksgiving on Oct. 8, Health Canada has come out with its latest orders to Canadians, based on bureaucracy, not science, or even the best available evidence.

"Health Canada would like to remind all Canadians that there are simple steps they can take to help ensure their turkey feast is a safe one."

Food safety is not simple. If it was there wouldn’t be "between 11 million and 13 million cases of food-related illnesses in Canada every year" as the Heath Canada press release states.

Or consumers are just really stupid.

But more baffling is the lack of scientific references for Health Canada’s recommendations.

They say,

"Do not thaw your turkey at room temperature. Thaw turkey in the refrigerator or in cold water."

The water bit could lead to cross-contamination. And as myself and co-authors wrote in 2003,

"While several methods including thawing on the counter at ambient temperatures can be employed for thawing turkey, however, it is adequate cooking, validated with a meat thermometer, that is the more critical step."

The Health Canada advice got it right with the use a meat thermometer bit. But that’s it. Messages like consumers are too stupid to safely thaw meat on the counter are patronizing, patriarchial, and certainly not effective. And when Health Canada and the groups they cite, like the Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education — snappy name there — provide references in peer-reviewed journals, then maybe the rest of us will take them seriously.

Until then, they’re just hacks, offering advice based on bureaucracy, not evidence.