I’m barfing; does it matter where foodborne illness happens?

Some people publish in peer-reviewed journals; some publish reports; some publish for a vanity press.

According to a report from the U.S. Center for Science in the Public Interest, outbreak data show that Americans are twice as likely to get food poisoning from food prepared at a restaurant than food prepared at home.

Except that outbreaks from a restaurant — where many people could be exposed to risk — are much more likely to get reported.

blame_canadaI don’t know where most outbreaks happen, but I do know there are a lot of people and groups that make bullshit statements.

It’s OK to say, I don’t know. Especially when followed with, this is what I’m doing to find out more. And when I find out more, you’ll hear if from me first.

And yes, one could argue that it matters where foodborne illness happens to more efficiently allocate preventative resources, but we’re not even close to that in terms of meaningful data collection.

C.J. Jacob and D.A. Powell. 2009. Where does foodborne illness happen—in the home, at foodservice, or elsewhere—and does it matter? Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. November 2009, 6(9): 1121-1123

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.

CSPI, Ramsey race to the gutter of food gimmicks

Hunter S. Thompson wannabe and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain sorta got it right when he told a recent interviewer that “I, personally, think there is a real danger of taking food too seriously. Food should allen-spermbe part of the bigger picture. I think the Italian’s have the right balance.”

I cook a lot of Italian.

The U.S. Center for Science in the Public Interest, or CSPI, released a report today that was essentially a top-10 list of risky meats.

Top-10 lists are great entertainment, but lousy public policy.

I was shown an advance copy of the report, and told Rachael Rettner of My Health News Daily (who had no trouble tracking me down, even though my geographic location always changes) the report was a gimmick. Probably designed by some PR hack.

“Douglas Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, called the rankings a “gimmick” that distracts people from the big picture that all foods come with risks.

“To my mind, all food is risky and should be treated with care,” Powell said. It’s important, he said, “to treat all foods, not just meat, but produce — everything — as a potential sources of dangerous microorganisms.

“Over the last decade, the biggest source of foodborne illness has been produce, which consumers often eat raw, he added.

“Consumers should use a thermometer to tell when their food has reached the proper internal temperature, Powell said. They should thoroughly wash all produce and discard vegetable peels.”

(I compost mine.)

To the boring details, CSPI says between 1998 and 2010, chicken products, including roasted, grilled and ground chicken, were definitively linked to 452 outbreaks of foodborne illness and 6,896 cases of illness in the U.S.

Ground beef came in second.

Meanwhile over at Hell’s Kitchen, a show I never watch, a pregnant woman was apparently fed raw chicken.

I understand the economics behind these cooking shows, amazing celebrity.chefstrips, and real housewives of wherever.

They are cheap to produce and broadcast.

We wrote a peer-reviewed paper about dumb celebrity chefs 10 years ago; nothing has changed; the gutter can be more interesting but only  with an open mind. This is nothing but hackdom.

Are fewer people getting sick from food? Is reporting getting worse

Foodborne illness outbreaks are trending downward, according to a new review of outbreaks by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

From 2001 to 2010, the latest 10-year period for which data is available, outbreaks related to E. coli, Salmonella, and other dangerous pathogens appear to have decreased by more than 40 percent. Better food safety foodnet.pyramid.fbi.reportingpractices, notably the adoption of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) programs in the meat, poultry, and seafood industries, may have contributed to the decline, says CSPI. But the group cautions that incomplete reporting of outbreaks by understaffed and financially stretched public health agencies may also influence the data.

“Despite progress made by the industry and by food safety regulators, contaminated food is still causing too many illnesses, visits to the emergency room, and deaths,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “Yet state and local health departments and federal food safety programs always seem to be on the chopping block. Those financial pressures not only threaten the progress we’ve made on food safety, but threaten our very understanding of which foods and which pathogens are making people sick.”

CSPI says food safety is Russian roulette; I prefer faith-based

Every time I’m interviewed about food safety stuff, the reporter will ask, “What can consumers do to protect themselves?”


It’s a lousy answer but often the truthiest one.

In that ConAgra Banquet Pot Pie outbreak that sickened 400 with Salmonella, Amy Reinert said she cooked the pot pie – at the time proclaiming ‘Ready in 4 minutes’ — for her daughter for 7 minutes in the microwave, then 10 minutes in a conventional oven to make the crust crispy. Yet Isabelle still got sick.

Now, the company says, consumers need to use a meat thermometer to ensure their 50-cent pot pie won’t make them barf.

These stories and more are covered in a food safety feature in the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Nutrition Action publication this month. It’s a comprehensive retelling of some food safety lowlights of the past four years that ends, as usual, with a bunch of things consumers can do to protect themselves.

I said,

“Everyone in industry and government says consumers have to do more, which is just silly. Controlling these kinds of contamination shouldn’t be a consumer problem. Producers and industry need to do better.”

The story is soft on spinach and leafy green producers – why did it take 29 outbreaks before industry took microbial food safety issues seriously – and appropriately harsh on the Ponzi scheme of food safety audits.

Mansour Samadpour said,

“These third-party inspections have become an industry that churns out meaningless certificates. Companies pay somebody $1,200 to come in and look at this paper and that paper and then give the company a certificate that says they passed by 96 percent.”

Top 5 Records top ten list of riskiest foods

I love High Fidelity. The book introduced me to Nick Hornby, the movie introduced me to Jack Black and the soundtrack introduced me to Bruce Springsteen.

Okay, I knew about the Boss before, but the soundtrack indirectly led me to discover Thunder Road (which has helped me forget Dancing in the Dark).

The High fidelity-esque, Top 5 Records Rob Gordon-style, Center for Science in the Public Interest released a list of the top ten "riskiest" foods.

I place riskiest in dick fingers not because I want to be a dick, but because I don’t think that’s the right word. The list has been generated through data collected from CDC outbreak listings, state health departments and other various sources. The list should be called "The top 10 foods that are in dishes with foods regulated by the FDA, at some point, which have caused the most microbial foodborne illness outbreaks". But that title is too long.

CSPI is better than anyone else at pulling this stuff together and has an outbreak database that I use all the time. The missing bit of information which is not captured in the list (but is alluded to a bit in the report) and is needed to put the info into context is where did the contamination occur or where was the risk reduction step missed. What is the attributed source?

Source alone doesn’t matter, food alone doesn’t matter but putting those two data sources together allows for a concentration on where risk reduction efforts are needed.

Potatoes are the food on the list I have the most problem with. And it’s not because I have a soft spot for Idaho or Prince Edward Island. It’s because the outbreaks that place potatoes on the list are associated with potato dishes. It just happens that potato salad is consumed a lot, is prepared alongside other foods that carry risks by foodhandlers who might suck at hygiene. Potato dishes (mainly because of the additon of other foods) also create a great medium for pathogens. Potatoes aren’t on this list because potatoes are a particularly risky food.

The report says that over 40% of the included potato outbreaks were linked to foodservice or processing. 60% come from elsewhere (which probably includes community dinners, festivals, and in-the-home). Should I not eat potatoes, or should I not eat potato dishes? What about potato chips? 

That information matters when it comes to dedicating resources to address the risky foods. It’s not a potato problem, it’s not an FDA regulated-food problem. Food safety is a farm-to-fork, almost every food, food handling problem.

Turkey tips: do not thaw in the pool, and cook to 165F

A food safety friend wrote me over Thanksgiving to say that his wife was visiting family in Florida, and had gotten into an argument with mom over how best to thaw the Thanksgiving bird.

“Her mother decided that there was no room in the fridge, so she did the next best thing, throwing the turkey into the swimming pool to thaw. It wasn’t heated, so the water was in the low 60s. The good news is that we convinced mom to rescue the bird from the pool. The bad news — we did not get a picture of the floating turkey.”

Then there’s my friend Steve, who is a moustache aficionado. The more we say he looks like an extra in Super Troopers, the more he defends the facial hair.

Steve works for the Ontario government arranging hockey times for about a dozen different teams and reading FSnet. He also does something with fish.

Steve noticed that a CSPI press release said to cook poultry to 180F, when the correct temperature is 165F. CSPI also parrots government by saying never thaw on a counter. Show us the data.

Here’s Steve in action with some visiting Russian team. As Chapman correctly notes, this photo perfectly exhibits Naylor:

• opposition has puck;
• puck is in Naylor’s defensive zone;
• Naylor has his head down, breaking to the other blueline ready to get a pass; and,
• Naylor is playing defense.

GAO and a single food inspection agency: Will it actually make food safer? Will fewer people get sick?

When it comes to the safety of the food supply, I generally ignore the chatter from Washington. If a proposal does emerge, such as the creation of a single food inspection agency, I ask, Will it actually make food safer? Will fewer people get sick?

Much is being made this morning about a new report from the U.S. General Accounting Office, and how the U.S. is lagging behind other countries – countries that have single food inspection systems. The Chicago Tribune says, On food safety, U.S. not No. 1, while the L.A. Times  offers an editorial, U.S. lags on food regulation.

So I spent the end of another stellar day in Melbourne, and the beginning of a new day back home, by reading the report and comparing it to some of the Washington chatter.

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said,

"Today’s GAO report shows that America ranked eighth out of eight countries — dead last — in terms of national food safety systems.”

There was no such ranking in the report. There was no ranking at all in the report.

Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro (CT-3) said,

“This GAO report highlights how effectively a single food safety agency could protect our food supply. … By focusing on the entire food supply chain, placing primary responsibility for food safety on producers, and ensuring that food imports meet equivalent safety standards. …”

The U.S. system already does that. And the report says nothing about how a single food inspection agency could better accomplish such tasks.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest says,

“The GAO report also shows that creating a unified food safety program is technologically and economically feasible, and most important, effective in helping to reduce foodborne illness.”

There were no measures of effectiveness for any of the single food inspection agencies, other than whether public opinion or confidence in the shiny, happy new agencies increased over time based on self-reported surveys. A few advertisements could have accomplished that.

There was certainly no mention of any agency reducing the incidence of foodborne illness. The seven countries studied – Canada, UK, New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark, Germany and The Netherlands – said they reorganized their food inspection agencies to improve effectiveness and efficiency; not one said to improve public health and have fewer sick people.

The GAO report — Selected Countries’ Systems Can Offer Insights into Ensuring Import Safety and Responding to Foodborne Illness – did say:

“The burden for food safety in most of the selected countries lies primarily with food producers, rather than with inspectors, although inspectors play an active role in overseeing compliance. This principle applies to both domestic and imported products.”

That’s good.

“None of the selected countries had comprehensively evaluated its reorganized food safety system … Most of the selected countries use proxy measures, such as public opinion surveys, to assess their effectiveness. Public opinion in several countries has improved in recent years.”

That’s bad.

In Canada, “At the consumer end of the spectrum, the food safety agency educates Canadians about safe food-handling practices and various food safety risks through its Web site, food safety fact sheets, and the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education, a group of industry, consumer, and government organizations that jointly develop and implement a national program to educate consumers on how to safely handle food.”

That’s awful.

To summarize: no rankings, no measures of effectiveness, and not much fact-checking.

Should there be a single food inspection agency in the U.S.? Maybe. But will it enhance the safety of the food supply? Will it mean fewer sick people?