But we’ve never had E. coli – petting zoo visitor freefall

Staff at the Stonebridge City Farm want to reassure potential visitors that the farm has never been affected by E. coli as the number of visitors continues to decline in the wake of a petting zoo outbreak that sickened 93 children.

Mark Barry, funding development worker at the farm in St Ann’s, said,

"We’ve been quite severely affected by E.coli scare stories, but luckily, the last week has been excellent. We’re E.coli free, like most city farms, and that message needs getting across."

Does that mean no illness or death has ever been connected to the farm? Does that mean the owners are routinely screening the animals for dangerous E. coli and have test results they can share with the public to bolster confidence?

The story also says that only one in 50 of all E. coli cases are linked to petting farms.

Such statistics may be factually correct but get sorta lost when 93 kids become unnecessarily sick from a leisure activity. People need to eat – they don’t need to kiss turtles and they don’t need to visit petting zoos.

Consumer groups, industry, lots of others, misuse food safety data for political gain

Chapman already commented on some of the, uh, failings of the recent top 10 (PR stunt) allegedly most dangerous foods issued by the poorly named Center for Science in the Public Interest – there wasn’t much science or public interest in that last report.

The produce industry types responded with the blame-the-consumer routine, which is (incredibly dumb) unfortunate given that many outbreaks involving fresh fruits and vegetables clearly need to be prevented on the farm and have nothing to do with consumers.

“Consumers and other food handlers play a huge role in preventing illnesses, and they do need more information on safe handling.”

Neither approach is helpful. Casey Jacob and I tried to contribute to the public conversation about foodborne illness, where it happens and who’s to blame, with the appropriately titled paper, Where Does Foodborne Illness Happen—in the Home, at Foodservice, or Elsewhere—and Does It Matter? in the journal, Foodborne Pathogens and Disease.

The paper has been published online ahead of print. We conclude,

While some occurrences of foodborne illness result from unsafe practices during final preparation or serving at the site where food was consumed, others are consequences of receiving contaminated food from a supplier, or both. Data gathered on instances of contamination that lead to illness make greater contributions to the development of programs that reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses, than data or assumptions that describe locations where contaminated food is consumed.

The abstract is below.

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.


Will PB&J as a hedgehog boost Jif sales?

An 8-year-old Wisconsin girl is heading to New York City next week to compete for a $25,000 college scholarship in a national peanut butter competition for her sandwich shaped like a hedgehog.

Jif peanut butter announced Tuesday that Alexandra Miller’s sandwich created in the image of a hedgehog received enough votes in an online competition last month to earn her one of five finalist spots in the Jif Most Creative Peanut Butter Sandwich Contest (the Jif website totally sucks and I can’t find the picture; it’s also quite sexist; here’s a hedgehog, right).

The recipe, dubbed The Happy Hedgehog, places 1 tablespoon of Jif Creamy Peanut Butter and 1 teaspoon of Smucker’s sugar-free red raspberry preserve between two slices of whole wheat bread. It’s cut into a circle, with the edges pressed together to seal it. Ten pretzel sticks form the hedgehog quills, and almond slivers create ears with raisins for eyes and a Bugle chip for a nose. The hedgehog is complete with raspberry fruit strip feet, and green apple slices with peanut butter piped on top for grass.

Will the gimmick help sales?

Americans bought 41.8 million pounds of jarred peanut butter in the four-week period ending Feb. 21 – 13.3 percent less than in the same period the previous year, research firm Nielsen reported Tuesday.

The period’s sales were the lowest of any in the three years Nielsen has tracked the U.S. food, drug, and mass merchandisers segment, which includes Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation’s largest retailer.

Executives said last month that they were seeing weakness in Jif sales because of the outbreak, even though Jif was not affected. The company ran ads in more than 100 papers and aired national consumers saying the Jif brand is safe.

But that safety data is not publicly available. The best food producers, processors, retailers and restaurants should go above and beyond minimal government and auditor standards and sell food safety solutions directly to the public. The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food safety culture; and use technology to be transparent — whether it’s live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the website — to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.

Maple Leaf takes on the tough issues

A press release this weekend explained that Maple Leaf Foods now tests for listeria daily in its plants.

And it looks like the company wants to address one of the tough issues by releasing data from its microbiological testing.

The release stated,

“Over the past three months Maple Leaf has collected over 42,300 test results across its 24 packaged meat plants… Our rate of positives tests across our plants is consistently less than 1%…”

Ben also noticed a statement on Maple Leaf’s website this weekend that indicated some action on another tough issue: communication with vulnerable people about possible risks involved with eating the company’s products.

A tip sheet for consumers says,

“Pregnant women, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems should always reheat deli meat and hot dogs until they are steaming hot.”

Now, will that kind of information show up on the package?

Only time will tell.

King Nut stops talking

King Nut is evidently done talking about peanut butter.

Following a comprehensive recall by Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) of 21 lots of its peanut butter—including the King Nut product found by the Minnesota Departments of Health and Agriculture to contain a strain of Salmonella genetically identical to that found in over 425 sick people across the nation—King Nut deferred all further questions about the outbreak to PCA.

Clamming up is not good risk communication.

However, after a couple unfounded claims, it may be wiser that King Nut stop talking.

King Nut’s last statement to the press was a letter from President and CEO Martin Kanan refuting the suggestion that contaminated King Nut peanut butter could have caused people in 43 different states to become sick.

Kanan argued, in bold font,

“We only distribute in seven states and therefore King Nut peanut butter could not possibly be the source of a nationwide outbreak of salmonella.
(King Nut peanut butter is distributed to food service companies in Ohio, Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, Arizona, Idaho and New Hampshire.)”

Really? It couldn’t possibly? How do you know?

Do you track the consumption of all the peanut butter you distribute? Many states with sick people share borders with those seven states, don’t they? Maybe it’s not probable that all 425 people were sickened by King Nut peanut butter, but it’s still possible.

It’s a better idea to talk intelligently about those small possibilities than to make big claims that can’t really be proven.

Another silly claim I noticed was found upon closer inspection of the January 10 press release. There, I realized Kanan did say “sorry” once. But he also said,

“All other King Nut products are safe and not included in this voluntary recall.”

Really? They’re all safe? How do you know?

Do you have data? The pinky promise (i.e. certificate of safety) PCA gave you didn’t seem to hold up, so why should we believe you?

Talking about the possible risks—however minute—is the only way to gain the trust of an intelligent public. Pushing unfounded beliefs or assumptions onto society is just one effective way to create chaos.

Just ask the South Koreans.