Effective communication: Lewis Black and the nanny state

As the U.S. Senate votes on a food safety bill this morning, and with the monotonous repetition of food safety rules for Thanksgiving, Lewis Black provides his own risk communication advice on The Daily Show for those who want to regulate smoking, airport screening, toys in fast-food meals, and banning circumcision.

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Are third party food safety auditors as effective as financial ratings agencies?

I used to go on this annual golf trip that originated out of Guelph and ended up somewhere in Virginia or North Carolina about this time of year because it was relatively warm to people from Ontario and ridiculously cold to people in the south.

We got cheap rates.

I don’t golf much anymore. I like my wife.

One of the guys I used to regularly golf with worked for one of those financial ratings companies. He gave everyone golf balls. He was a bit tense last year, what with the financial meltdown and my endless taunting.

I thought of that person watching this bit from The Daily Show last night where Jon Stewart attempts to explain the underpinnings of the U.S. financial crapshoot.

And I couldn’t help think about the role of third-party food safety auditors in some of the spectacular (and tragic) outbreaks of foodborne illness in the past few years.

In the video below (takes a few minutes to get into it) use the words “food safety auditor” instead of third-party financial rating whenever it comes up.

Substitute money with safe food.

The Consumer Protection Agency is like the proposed single-food inspection agency; do people in Washington, D.C. really just play shuffle the chairs?

Substitute Peanut Corporation of America for Lehman Brothers, and Jimmy for AIB.

Sigh …

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‘Food safety in Canada is on the upper end of mediocre’

As a Canadian in America, watching the health-care advertisements, warning that any new U.S. system will be socialized like in Canada is as informative as watching a Michael Moore documentary.

Both are widely inaccurate.

Same with the orgy of listeria-in-Canada coverage following the release of the Weatherill report yesterday. Almost all of the commentary and analysis borders on the banal (the dictionary says banal means “so lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring,” so for once I used a word properly) but a few things stand out:

Weatherill zeroed in on a "vacuum in senior leadership" among government officials at the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that caused "confusion and weak decision-making."

Like a risk communication vacuum; covered that in the 1997 book, Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk.

Rob Cribb of the Toronto Star got things right when he summarized things this way:

Twenty-two dead.
Hundreds sickened.
Six months of inquiry.
Nearly $3 million in public money.

That’s $3 million in addition to all the publicly-funded salaries of bureaucrats sitting around figuring out what not to do and how to cover their own assess. The Prime Minister could have called the bureaucrats on the carpet and said – stop messing around, come clean on who knew what when and fix this. Instead, stand-up comedian wannabe and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz got to make jokes about the 22 dead people. And he still has his job.

The front-line public health types at the local and provincial levels seemed to know what they were doing. The feds at three different agencies – Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Health Canada, and the Public Health Agency of Canada – continually got in the way and messed things up.

Of course that didn’t stop the politicians and bureaucrats from praising the Canadian food safety system in the early days of the outbreak – when they had no clue what they were talking about. Like health care, it seems that the Canadian model is to tell citizens repeatedly they have the best system in the world, and they believe it.

Or, as Cribb said this morning in the Star,

At virtually every stage of the outbreak, it seems things could have – should have – gone differently in a food safety system repeatedly hailed by government officials as "one of the safest in the world."

Rick Holley, a microbiologist at the University of Manitoba and member of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s external advisory panel, responded with,

"I get so annoyed when I hear them say that. The food safety system in Canada is on the upper end of being mediocre."

Like health care.

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Swine flu? I’ll have the oregano oil?

People will pay to protect themselves — or at least for the positive perception they are protecting themselves. Industry is all too happy to oblige with a variety of products of questionable value.

When faced with outbreaks of foodborne illness on fresh produce, sales of veggie washes go up. Salmonella in the kitchen? Bring on the antibacterial sanitizers. Now with swine flu dominating the headlines, twitterscape and Jon Stewart (see below) USA Today reports today that marketers are out in force — particularly on the Internet — with items ranging from 99-cent face masks to potions such as oregano oil that fetch $70 a bottle to third-party overnight shipments of Tamiflu for $135 per prescription.

Some major marketers are seeing an uptick in sales of items such as masks, latex gloves, anti-bacterial soaps and hand sanitizers. Consumer gurus aren’t surprised that so many treatments and protective devices related to swine flu — legitimate or not — are getting plenty of traction from retailers and marketers.

Jerald Jellison, a social psychologist said,

"When we’re faced with a potential threat, we tend to imagine the worst," says. That’s what marketers are capitalizing on. In a state of high need, with our rational powers diminished, we’ll take almost any action.”

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Does organic produce need to be washed?

Organic produce is so virtuous that UK writer Lucy Siegle had to ask, Does organic produce need to be washed?

“Health professionals are adamant that all fresh produce should be cleaned to remove potential pathogens. … Even produce sold as ‘pre-washed’ needs to be washed. … As organic produce has been annexed by big commercial enterprises, it is increasingly scrubbed up in huge pack houses that bring together produce from large numbers of farms for a good dousing.”

Siegle needs to research beyond the big ag conspiracy. A panel of scientists with expertise in microbial safety of fresh produce concluded in 2007 prewashed bagged salads should not be washed again at foodservice or at home.

"Leafy green salad in sealed bags labeled “washed” or “ready-to-eat” that are produced in a facility inspected by a regulatory authority and operated under cGMPs, does not need additional washing at the time of use unless specifically directed on the label. The panel also advised that additional washing of ready-to-eat green salads is not likely to enhance safety. The risk of cross contamination from food handlers and food contact surfaces used during washing may outweigh any safety benefit that further washing may confer."

Jon Stewart did a nice job trashing stereotypes of big ag, stem cells and that scientific discovery is planned – all at once. See about 1:48 minutes into the video below.

Michelle Obama promotes fresh produce; how about microbiologically safe produce?

The New York Times continues the fascination with all things Obama this morning as it reports on First Lady Michelle’s focus on fresh produce.

“You know, we want to make sure our guests here and across the nation are eating nutritious items. Collect some fruits and vegetables; bring by some good healthy food. We can provide this kind of healthy food for communities across the country, and we can do it by each of us lending a hand.”

In a speech at the Department of Agriculture last month, Mrs. Obama described herself as “a big believer” in community gardens that provide “fresh fruits and vegetables for so many communities across this nation and world.”

I am too. Brought the seedlings in yesterday as a temporary cold snap hit Kansas, but the greens and asparagus will soon be sprouting from the family garden. I also know fresh produce is also the biggest source of foodborne illness today in the U.S. That’s because it’s fresh, and anything that comes into contact has the potential to contaminate.

So, yeah Michelle, promote the produce, but organic and local do not mean safe. Play up those producers who responsibly manage microbial risks. And if you’re going to put your kids dining habits front and center, you really don’t want them barfing.

Kristen Schaal, otherwise known as Mel from Flight of the Conchords, offered her take on First Lady Michelle last night on the Daily Show.

Peanut butter, spinach, tomato and Chinese toy sandwich

Jon Stewart was poking fun at critics of President Obama’s stimulus package on The Daily Show last night, and came up with this quip:

Funding for regulatory agencies? Please. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a peanut butter, spinach, tomato and Chinese toy sandwich to finish.

The line comes about 3:23 into this video.