Recycling politically convenient foodborne illness myths

There are some recurring myths in the public discussion of foodborne illness and the reasons 76 million Americans barf every year from the food and water they consume, and the New York Times is recycling them all.

Author Eric Schlosser (“Unsafe at Any Meal,” New York Times, Op-Ed, July 25) overstates the protective role of government while casting aspersions against what he calls industrial agricultural and unchecked corporate power. His rant on the Colbert Report last year was legendary.

Henry Miller who used to do biotechnology work at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration writes in the Times this morning, “The vast majority of food poisoning is caused by individuals’ mishandling of food; common lapses include the mishandling or undercooking of poultry and the inadequate refrigeration of food. More expansive, expensive, onerous regulation is not the answer; better education of consumers is.”

Our review of the data found a complete mish-mash about where “the vast majority of food poisoning illness is caused” and that no conclusions could be drawn. Produce, pot pies, pet food and pizzas don’t have much to do with consumers. And how would this better education be conducted?

If someone wrote in and said Americans have the safest food supply in the world, all the big three mythologies would be represented.

Food safety is not simple and the public discussion – which affects individual behaviors from farm-to-fork – is a mess.

Food safety education hasn’t hit me yet

Toronto-based Blue Rodeo’s Five Days in July was my favorite album of 1993 (at least the first 6 tunes). The song, Hasn’t Hit Me Yet, remains evocative. I got to meet-and-greet the band at one of those corporate concert thingies when they performed for the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributers in 2003.

Chapman got to see them last night somewhere in North Carolina (right, exactly as shown). About 100 people showed up.

I talk about good music because it makes me smile. When I hear about how people want to educate consumers, it makes me frown.

Some people write in peer-reviewed journals, some people pontificate. Me and Chapman and some Blue Rodeo groupies have written several papers about how to get the attention of food handlers, at home, in food service or on the farm, in the same way a catchy tune gets peoples’ attention.

Others say, educate consumers.

Kansas State University meat scientist James Marsden says he hears it over and over again – that there’s a need to better educate consumers about proper food handling and cooking. Such an effort could go a long way in minimizing the risk of foodborne illness.

Maybe Marsden should listen to other folks. Marsden did acknowledge, that food safety is everyone’s responsibility – from the producer to the processor to the consumer.

I’m all for providing food safety information in a compelling, creative and critically-sound manner. However education is something people do themselves.

Lewis Lapham wrote in Harper’s magazine in the mid-1980s about how individuals can choose to educate themselves about all sorts of interesting things, but the idea of educating someone is doomed to failure. Oh, and it’s sorta arrogant to state that others need to be educated; to imply that if only you understood the world as I understand the world, we would agree and dissent would be minimized.

These may be subtle semantics – to communicate with rather than to; to inform rather than educate – but they set an important tone.

I know this is repetitive. Guess it hasn’t hit me yet.

I’ll take Tragically Hip over food safety education

I started picking people up about 7 p.m. Amanda, Sarah, Janis, Lynn and Marty.

Marty was last and not ready, as usual.

Marty had no reason going to the first food safety educators conference in Washington, D.C. in 1997. He was working as a student life advisor or something but, I had gotten in the habit of taking Marty along on the 12-hour D.C. road trip from Guelph –got lost once in some New York mountains in the middle of the night and thought we were going to die – for fun and driving chores.

The 1996 Nissan Quest minivan still had the new car smell, and as a new prof with a carload of students, I decided driving all night was better than dishing out non-existent cash for an extra night of hotel rooms.

We arrived in Georgetown about 7:30 a.m., ate at a dive, and found the on-campus conference room. People looked at us like we had just rolled out of a vehicle and been driving all night.

We had.

Most of us went and changed into fresh clothes, while Marty crashed somewhere until the room was available.

The conference started and we were pumped.

I may have fallen asleep.

I remember that Peter Sandman gave a keynote and was treated like a rock star – I thought he was ineffectual, especially when it came to the hazard and outrage around foodborne illness.

There were descriptions of many food safety education programs but the evaluation components were either non-existent or sucked.

There was a big deal about social marketing, presented to the attendees like we had all arrived on the short bus.

I remember going out to a Georgetown bar later that night, watching The Truth About Cats and Dogs in the hotel room while Marty farted, and commenting that Janis looked like Janeane Garofalo. I remember the drive home.

I don’t remember much about the conference.

Which is why I haven’t gone back.

Tomorrow, the International 2010 Food Safety Education Conference kicks off in Atlanta and its focus is to identify “communication and education strategies to increase the public’s knowledge of the causes of foodborne illnesses and improve food safety practices.”

Admirable goals. But what has happened since 1997?

I’m all for providing food safety information in a compelling, creative and critically-sound manner. However education is something people do themselves. Lewis Lapham wrote in Harper’s magazine in the mid-1980s about how individuals can choose to educate themselves about all sorts of interesting things, but the idea of educating someone is doomed to failure. Oh, and it’s sorta arrogant to state that others need to be educated; to imply that if only you understood the world as I understand the world, we would agree and dissent would be minimized.

These may be subtle semantics – to communicate with rather than to; to inform rather than educate – but they set an important tone.

At least it’s not a consumer food safety education conference. With outbreaks in pizza, pot pies, pet food, peanut butter, bagged spinach, carrot juice, lettuce, tomatoes, canned chili sauce, hot peppers, cookie dough, and white pepper, I’m not sure what consumers have to do with it.

Chapman is going, apparently as part of a southeast IKEA tour for his wife, and also to present a paper we wrote entitled, I updated my Facebook status to ‘I just got food poisoning:’ using social networking services (SNS) to communicate food safety risks. The abstract is below.

Bill Marler says he’s gong to educate consumers by handing out refrigerator magnets at the conference.

Me, I’ll be hanging out somewhat east of the 100th meridian, wondering why Americans don’t understand The Tragically Hip (especially the early stuff). 

Chapman, B. and Powell, D. 2010. I updated my Facebook status to “I just got food poisoning”: using social networking services (SNS) to communicate food safety risks. FSIS/NSF Food Safety Education Conference. March 24, 2010. Atlanta Georgia.

Up to 30 per cent of individuals in developed countries become ill from the food and water they consume each year. Recent outbreaks of foodborne illness involving produce, peanut butter and potpies have further elevated the public discussion of microbial food safety risks. With the expansion and ease-of-use of non-traditional, Internet-based communication tools such as Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube and blogs, individuals are discussing high-profile food crises online. As an estimated 60 per cent of online American adults use SNS, an opportunity exists to utilize these communities to engage individuals around foodborne risks by providing information and establishing relationships, to prepare for or mitigate potential catastrophic incidents. The rapid dialogue between individuals with common food safety interests can impact belief formation and affect food decisions. Using case study methodology and media analysis of the coverage of recent outbreaks of E. coli O157 linked to spinach and Salmonella linked to fresh tomatoes and peppers, a catalogue of mediums and will be presented. Through examples gleaned from and an online food safety communication template and strategies for food safety communicators will also be presented. Understanding target audiences, using communication technology while providing rapid messages can enhance both risk management awareness and trust with stakeholders.  Communicators developing food risk behavior change programs can be more effective by monitoring and utilizing diverse media to adjust strategies and maintain message relevance.

Food inspection vs. investigation

Allen Mozek, M.P.H., Supervising Food Inspector, New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, writes in this contribution to that,

I find that food inspectors in all regulatory agencies have a tendency to confuse their inspection techniques with their investigative techniques. This results in lost evidence (primarily food samples) to prove the cause of a foodborne illness.

A little background…

The spirit of public health and food inspection is education and prevention. Food inspectors are allowed access without a warrant because they are looking for compliance, whereas police officers are denied access without a warrant because they are looking for evidence. This difference in emphasis on compliance versus evidence gathering reflects a difference in approaches. Evidence is gathered during routine inspection, but a food inspector’s initial expectations are compliance (or so says public health law).

Unfortunately, the daily emphasis on education and prevention creeps into investigations of foodborne disease. I say "creep" because I suggest that the habit of educating prevents inspectors from finding the evidence necessary to solve cases.

Once a case is reported, an inspector should be gathering evidence and
no longer educating at the expense of "showing your hand" or otherwise
reveal too much information. I think it’s about changing gears from an
inspection mentality to an investigation mentality — the two are very

You’ve got to fight for your right to relevant and reliable food safety information

Chapman asks me the other day, “How do we fight the dogma?”

Is that like fight the power? Fight the man? Fight for your right to party?

What he was talking about was food safety dogma, the kind where seemingly good people give bad food safety advice. Like the Brits and their piping hot turkey.

But this was directed at home. Why do good people reference bad advice, such as the cumbersomely named U.S. Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education, and their Holiday food safety success kit, which says people should always wash their hands for 20 seconds with warm water and never defrost turkey on the counter (with exclamation marks, so readers know they are seriously serious).

When washing hands, water temperature doesn’t matter, 10 seconds is sufficient
. Turkey can be thawed on the counter, don’t leave it there forever and don’t let the cat nibble on it.

The dogma part is, where are the references? How do groups like the horribly named Partnership come up with food safety advice? Is it some magical mystery tour or is there some reference to something credible? Who knows. It’s not publicly available.

So why anyone would reference the awkward Partnership as a credible source is bizarrely baffling.


bites, barfblog and food safety need your continued support

There’s no shortage of food safety news; there is a shortage of evidence-based, incisive approaches that challenge food safety norms and may eventually lead to fewer sick people.

The International Food Safety Network evolved into over the past year as a way of consolidating and making food safety news delivery more efficient. In addition to the web repository, the bites-l electronic newsletter is distributed 2-3 times a day to a dedicated subscriber base of some 10,000 in 60 countries; a list that has been focused and refined by offering continuous, daily food safety news since 1994. – averaging well over 10,000 unique hits a day — along with weekly food safety infosheets (available in multiple languages), and videos, are now prominent food safety resources.

Sponsorship opportunities are now available for,, and the bites-l listserv (as well as the infosheets and videos; how about a movie?).

In addition to the public exposure – why not stick your company logo on the bites-l newsletter that directs electronic readers to your home site or whatever you’re flogging that week — and reaching a desired audience, you can receive custom food safety news and analysis. We’ve also resurrected the food safety risk analysis team – assessment, management and communication – and offer 24/7 availability and insanely rapid turnaround times. If your group has a food safety issue — short-term or long-term — work with us, rather than having us write it up in, book chapters and scholarly papers as another case study of what not to do.

The money is used to support the on-going expenses of the news-gathering and distribution activities, and to develop the next generation of high school, undergraduate and graduate students who will integrate science and communication skills to deliver compelling food safety messages using a variety of media. Research, training and outreach are all connected in our food safety world.

If you have a sponsorship idea, let’s explore it. Feeling altruistic? Click on the groovy new donate button in the upper right corner of Want to just send a check? Make it out to:

K-State Olathe Innovation Campus, Inc.
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Olathe, KS 66061
913-541-1488 Fax
and send to the attention of Terri Bogina

Here’s some additional information. is a unique comprehensive resource hosted at Kansas State University for all those with a personal or professional interest in food safety. We find credible, current, evidence-based information on food safety and make it accessible to domestic and international audiences through multiple media. Sources of food safety information include government regulatory agencies, international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), peer-reviewed scientific publications, academia, recognized experts in the field and other sources as appropriate.

All bites activities emphasize engaging people in dialogue about food-related risks, controls and benefits, from farm-to-fork. bites strives to provide reliable, relevant information in culturally and linguistically appropriate formats to assist people in identifying, understanding and mitigating the causes of foodborne illness.

The listserv is a free web-based mailing list where information about current and emerging food safety issues is provided, gathered from journalistic and scientific sources around the world and condensed into short items or stories that make up the daily postings. The listserv has been issued continuously since 1995 and is distributed daily via e-mail to thousands of individuals worldwide from academia, industry, government, the farm community, journalists and the public at large.
The listserv is designed to:
•    convey timely and current information for direction of research, diagnostic or investigative activities;
•    identify food risk trends and issues for risk management and communication activities; and
•    promote awareness of public concerns in scientific and regulatory circles.
The bites listserv functions as a food safety news aggregator, summarizing available information that can be can be useful for risk managers in proactively anticipating trends and reactively address issues. The bites editor (me – dp) does not say whether a story is right or wrong or somewhere in between, but rather that a specific story is available today for public discussion. is where Drs. Powell, Chapman, Hubbell and assorted food safety friends offer evidence-based opinions on current food safety issues. Opinions must be evidence-based – with references – reliable, rapid and relevant. The barfblog authors edit each other – viciously.

Breaking food safety news items that eventually appear in bites or barfblog are often posted on Twitter (under barfblog or benjaminchapman) for faster public notification.

Food safety infosheets
are designed to influence food handler practices by utilizing four attributes culled from education, behavioral science and communication literature:
•    surprising and compelling messages;
•    putting actions and their consequence in context;
•    generating discussion within the target audiences’ environments; and
•    using verbal narrative, or storytelling, as a message delivery device.
Food safety infosheets are based on stories about outbreaks of foodborne illness sourced from the bites listserv. Four criteria are used to select the story: discussion of a foodborne illness outbreak; discussion of background knowledge of a pathogen (including symptoms, etiology and transmission); food handler control practices; and emerging food safety issues. Food safety infosheets also contain evidence-based prescriptive information to prevent or mitigate foodborne illness related to food handling. They are now available in French, Spanish and Portugese.

bites bistro videos
A nod to the youtube generation, but we don’t really know what we’re doing.

These are the various information products we deliver daily, in addition to research, training and outreach. If you or your group is interested in sponsoring any or all of these food safety activities, please contact me directly.

Dr. Douglas Powell
associate professor, food safety
dept. diagnostic medicine/pathobiology
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS
cell: 785-317-0560
fax: 785-532-4039

Sarah Reasoner: Enhancing food safety distance education

Daughter Courtlynn is going to visit for American Thanksgiving in late November. Got her plane tickets last night. But even with the new flights from Dallas, getting to Manhattan (Kansas) just isn’t that easy.

That’s one of the reasons folks at Kansas State University went big into distance education. It’s just too much time spent on travel. My mother even figured out Skype last week so she could see granddaughter Sorenne.

But is there a better way to deliver food safety information by distance? And who better to answer that question than a food safety distance education person who wants to get an advanced degree?

Sarah Reasoner (right, with her hubby) had to watch and film me so much for distance education, I figured, maybe it’d be useful to actually figure out what works and what doesn’t for distance ed. So she’s been doing a part-time Masters degree while having more babies. And now she gets to tell her academic department, Diagnostic Medicine/Pathobiology at Kansas State University, all about it.

Sarah writes:

Distance education has experienced rapid growth in recent years in enrollment and technological advancements. These advancements have created a unique opportunity for instructors to implement emerging technologies into distance education courses and enhance student’s learning experiences. This presentation explores food safety distance education at Kansas State University, emerging web tools and how to affectively implement such tools into existing food safety distance education courses. Future research possibilities regarding the enhancement of distance education are also discussed.

Sarah talks at 8:30 Friday morning in Mosier 202. That’s in the vet college. In Manhattan (Kansas). Her slides are below. We’ll tape the talk, because how can you not tape a talk about distance education. And put it on the web. Students hate seeing themselves talk, and so do I, but it’s a useful learning tool. I’ve learned to dress better after seeing myself on video. Food Safety Distance Education.pptx

The failure that is Food Safety Education month

Linda Rivera (right, pic from Washington Post)  is the face of everything that is wrong with Food Safety Education month.

As The Washington Post reports this morning:

In Room 519 of Kindred Hospital, Linda Rivera can no longer speak.

Her mute state, punctuated only by groans, is the latest downturn in the swift collapse of her health that began in May when she curled up on her living room couch and nonchalantly ate several spoonfuls of the Nestlé cookie dough her family had been consuming for years. Federal health officials believe she is among 80 people in 31 states sickened by cookie dough contaminated with a deadly bacteria, E. coli O157:H7.

The impact of the infection has been especially severe for Rivera and nine other victims who developed a life-threatening complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome. One, a 4-year-old girl from South Carolina, had a stroke and is partially paralyzed.

In a baffling waste of resources, groups like the International Food Information Council, have decided that food safety education month – that apparently starts today – is all about educating consumers with sanitized messages; that if consumers were only made aware they had a role to play in food safety, outbreaks related to contaminated peanut butter, produce and cookie dough would be reduced.

Whenever a group says the public needs to be educated – in this case about food safety — that group has utterly failed to present a compelling case for their cause. ??????I cringe, and remember a Lewis Lapham column I read in Harper’s magazine in the mid-1980s about how individuals can choose to educate themselves about all sorts of interesting things, but the idea of educating someone is doomed to failure. Oh, and it’s sorta arrogant to state that others need to be educated; to imply that if only you understood the world as I understand the world, we would agree and dissent would be minimized.???

Given all the outbreaks – produce, pet food, peanut butter, that have nothing to do with consumers, any food safety information – not education — campaign should include what the World Heath Organization has been advocating since 2002: source food from safe sources. An evaluation of message effectiveness should also be a bare minimum and rarely happens.

An honest Food Safety Education month would include food safety stories, tragic or otherwise, and a rigorous evaluation of what has worked, what hasn’t worked and what can be improved, rather than a checklist of ineffective and often inaccurate food safety instructions with the cumulative effect of blaming consumers. Telling people to wash their hands isn’t keeping the piss out of meals.

But judge for yourselves in what I am sure is a completely spontaneous and unscripted video from IFIC on why ordinary consumers feel they should be doing more.

Shurly some mistake: Whole Foods to offer health advice, healthier foods

Whole Foods Market has terrible food safety advice, blames consumers for getting sick, sells raw milk in some stores, and offers up fairytales about organic and natural foods.

The Wall Street Journal reported this morning
that Whole Foods chief John Mackey is now going to reposition the Austin, Texas, chain as a champion of healthy living in a return to its natural-foods roots.

"We sell a bunch of junk," he said, vowing to promote healthier lifestyles for its customers and employees. "We’ve decided if Whole Foods doesn’t take a leadership role in educating people about a healthy diet, who the heck is going to do it?"

Given the track record outlined above, almost anybody and any group would be better qualified than Whole Foods. Besides, as soon as someone says they’re going to educate someone else, it’s propaganda rather than compelling, evidence-based information,

I look forward to the whoppers being offered up as educational material in Whole Foods’ future.

Another foodsafetyathome website – as bad as Journey

If you ran a $5.5-billion-a-year corporation that made a variety of ready-to-eat deli meats, and those products killed 22 people and sickened another 53, causing the company to lose millions and trust in the food safety system to be further undermined, how would you go about rebuilding that trust, that brand?

Maybe make public all the listeria test results the corporation undertakes in the form of a live, continuously updated website; maybe have live video cameras that people could check out on the Internet to see how these delicious deli-meats are made; maybe market these food safety initiatives at retail.

Or blame consumers.

Maple Leaf Foods announced yesterday as part of their continuing Journey to Food Safety Leadership – I wish they were already there, but Don’t Stop Believin’ – they were launching a food safety at home website.

“In keeping with our mandate of becoming a leader in food safety education, we have launched a new website to help consumers understand the important role of food safety at Maple Leaf and in your homes.”

(I have this stupid Journey video on in the background that I’m about to paste below and I can’t tell whether it’s the music or that statement that just made me barf a bit in my mouth.)

If Maple Leaf believes they can be leaders in food safety education, why is there no mention that pregnant women shouldn’t eat Maple Leaf or any other deli meats or other refrigerated ready-to-eat foods?

More data; less Believin’.

And Journey still sucks.