Salmonella stays with chickens, from birth to kitchen

 News21 is part of a national Knight-Carnegie university reporting project that worked on a bunch of food safety stories over the summer. I spent a lot of time on the phone with these students, as did many others. One of the results was published in the Washington Post over the weekend; excerpts below.

On a late June morning, thousands of newborn chicks in a West Virginia chicken house huddled together for warmth, forming a fuzzy, moving yellow carpet.

Over the next two months, these chicks pecked at the dirt, nibbled on pellets, grew up. They were packed into crates, trucked to a slaughterhouse, cut into parts and sent to a distribution center for shipment to supermarkets and restaurants.

At every step along the way, some of those chickens were infected with salmonella, a pathogen that lives in the intestinal tracts of birds and other animals and can easily spread. Invisible, tasteless and odorless, it doesn’t make the chickens sick. But transferred to humans, it can lead to salmonellosis — an infection that causes diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps, and, in severe cases, can spread from the intestines to the bloodstream.

A look at how the nation’s food safety system operates in the case of salmonella-infected poultry shows how a combination of industry practices and gaps in government oversight results in a fractured effort that leaves the ultimate responsibility for safe food with the consumer.

Food safety experts and poultry scientists say that salmonella control must start on the farm, but federal food safety inspectors never set foot there. The Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service lacks the legal authority to test for salmonella on farms or to require farmers to have a food safety plan.
As a result, attempts to prevent salmonella are done voluntarily by farmers or because poultry processing companies ask them to — leading to a patchwork of efforts, some of which work better than others.

Stan Bailey, a retired USDA microbiologist, said that during his career, he noticed that some companies worked harder than others on food safety. “I think different people have different attitudes on how much they’re willing to spend,” he said.

And no matter how much salmonella USDA finds in raw meat, it cannot be kept off the market.

Students sickened with E. coli O157:H7 after playing in farm’s mud pit at party

In June 1997, at least seven persons who attended the Glastonbury Music Festival in the U.K. were infected with Escherichia coli O157. A cow belonging to a herd that had previously grazed the site tested positive for the same strain, leading researchers to conclude the most likely vehicle of infection was mud contaminated with Escherichia coli O157 from infected cattle.

??In June 2007, hundreds were stricken and 18 tested positive for campylobacter during the annual Test of Metal mountain bike race in Squamish, B.C.?? Dr. Paul Martiquet, the chief medical officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, said, "This was an outbreak with a high attack rate. Our future advice to the race organizers is to inspect the route prior to the race to ensure it is not littered with animal feces, and not end the race at the horse ring. If there is any horse poop, they have to remove it."

Up to 160 people who attended the Merida Bikes mountain bike Marathon July 5-6, 2008, based on Builth Wells, in Wales, fell ill, and 10 of the riders tested positive for campylobacter. The report described the course as,??“very muddy and contaminated with sheep slurry in certain areas, leading to significant amounts of mud splashing over participants and their equipment. … The most statistically significant risk was the inadvertent ingestion of mud.

Today, the News Star reports three Ouachita Christian School students in Louisiana were admitted to local hospitals late last week with E. coli O157:H7 after attending an end-of-the-year party at a farm and playing in a mud pit.

Dr. Shelley Jones, Region 8 director of the Department of Health and Hospitals, said Tuesday, “The most important thing people can do is properly wash their hands. Parents of other students at the party need to make sure they and their children wash their hands thoroughly.”

Or not party in mud pits on farms.

E. coli from petting farm left my girl like a bag of bones

The mother of a girl who contracted E. coli O157 after visiting Godstone petting farm in Surrey told the London Evening Standard how her daughter nearly died from kidney failure.

Six-year-old Faye Jones (right) had to undergo dialysis as well as two blood transfusions and could face long-term organ damage because she visited the petting farm.

Her mother Wendy hit out at health officials for not closing the farm sooner, then unfairly blaming parents for ignoring handwashing notices, adding,

"This has affected our whole family. Faye was like a bag of bones – her body went into shock from the toxins. I hope that no other child ever has to endure what mine did and that lessons have been learned. I’m angry that the farm didn’t act soon enough and that there was not enough of a concern with the Health Protection Agency to shut it. They said parents were neglectful at not getting children to wash their hands. But that’s not true."

Faye is among 27 children set to receive what may amount to millions in compensation. This week the farm’s owners revealed they would not contest a legal action brought on behalf of the children and one adult after the outbreak in August 2009.

A total of 93 people developed the potentially fatal bug and 76 of those taken ill were children under 10.

Mrs Jones, 35, revealed that Faye was at first wrongly diagnosed with dysentery when she began passing blood a week after visiting the farm.

"Her grandparents, who took her, went through hell blaming themselves. I’m not a parent to wrap a child in cotton wool but I won’t take her to a farm again without gloves. … Faye’s grandmother is fastidious about hand-washing and she always carries gel. There was just one sign about washing. The real reason this happened was the children were near straw covered in animal feces."

UK petting farm accepts liability in E. coli outbreak

The petting farm at the center of an E.c oli O157 outbreak that sickened 93 in Aug. 2009 and left several children seriously ill will not be disputing liability in the legal case against it, lawyers have said.

Seventy-six of those taken ill after visiting Godstone Farm, near Redhill, Surrey were children under the age of 10.

Law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse, which is representing 27 children affected by the outbreak, said it had received confirmation from Godstone Farm that it would not be disputing liability in the case.

Two of those worst affected were twins Todd and Aaron Furnell (right, exactly as shown) now aged three, who became infected with the bug while on a school trip to the farm. They suffered kidney failure and spent several weeks in hospital, leaving Todd with 80% kidney function and Aaron with just 64%, the law firm said.

A report released in June last year found there were numerous failings in the way the farm handled the outbreak, the largest linked to an open farm in the UK, and in its appreciation of the risk associated with E.coli O157.

Promote handwashing at petting zoos and farms or no school visits

In the fall of 1998, I accompanied one of my five daughters on a kindergarten trip to the farm. After petting the animals and touring the crops — I questioned the fresh manure on the strawberries –we were assured that all the food produced was natural. We then returned for unpasteurized apple cider.

The host served the cider in a coffee urn, heated, so my concern about it being unpasteurized was abated. I asked: "Did you serve the cider heated because you heard about other outbreaks and were concerned about liability?" She responded, "No. The stuff starts to smell when it’s a few weeks old and heating removes the smell."??

I’m all for farm visits, local markets, petting zoos, but I want the operators to have a clue about the dangerous bugs that make people – especially little kids – sick.

What I haven’t written about before is that I called the local board of education after the farm visit and insisted the specific farm be removed from future school visits because it was obvious the operators were clueless about the dangerous microorganisms that can sicken kids.

And it happens a lot.

The U.K. Health Protection Agency reported today in Emerging Infectious Disease that it recorded 55 outbreaks of gastrointestinal diseases, such as E.coli and cryptosporidium between 1992 and 2009.

Lead author Dr Fraser Gormley, a HPA epidemiologist, said,

"Handwashing is the single most important prevention step in reducing transmission of gastrointestinal infections after handling animals and it’s crucial that handwashing in young children should be supervised, especially after touching or petting animals or their surroundings on a visit to a farm."

Those ‘Visitors Must Wash Hands’ signs are not enough. Operators need to take this seriously. So do education officials who send kids to substandard farms. If farms and petting zoos want to make money off school visits, they should actively promote handwashing and microbial awareness; if not, no school visits.

The report is available here.

CDC: what’s with blaming consumers

As an agency that prides itself on data – I guess that’s why it took 11 years to update the incidence of foodborne illness – I’m wondering, why did the U.S. Centers for Disease Control find it necessary to specifically finger consumers when it comes to food safety.

“CDC continues to encourage consumers to take an active role in preventing foodborne infection by following safe food-handling and preparation tips of separating meats and produce while preparing foods, cooking meat and poultry to the right temperatures, promptly chilling leftovers, and avoiding unpasteurized milk and cheese and raw oysters.”

Why didn’t the CDC press release also say,

“CDC continues to encourage spinach farmers to keep cow poop off the produce.”

“CDC continues to encourage egg farmers to keep piles of poop away from fresh-market eggs.”

“CDC continues to encourage processors to cook the crap out of pot pies, pizzas and pet food that may sicken consumers (and their pets).”

“CDC continues to encourage retailers to sell food from sources that are known to manage food safety.”

“CDC continues to encourage restaurant-types to not let employees work while sick and to wash the damn poop off their hands before preparing salad.”

Consumers have a role. But the amount of cross-contamination that goes on in a home or food service kitchen means the contaminants have to be reduced before entering the next environment in the system, beginning on the farm.

Does CDC have meaningful data on where foodborne illness happens and whose fault it? We’ve published a paper on the silliness of blaming any particular group; the numbers simply aren’t there, and there are so many opportunities for contamination from farm-to-fork.

The FoodNet surveillance system was established within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in 1995 to determine more precisely and to monitor better the burden of foodborne diseases and to determine the proportion of foodborne diseases which are attributable to specific foods and pathogens. Whatever criticisms and uncertainties exist, the establishment of FoodNet was revolutionary in better understanding the impact of foodborne illness.

For every known case of foodborne illness, there are 10 -300 other cases, depending on the severity of the bug. Most foodborne illness is never detected. It’s almost never the last meal someone ate or whatever other mythologies are out there. A stool sample linked with some epidemiology or food testing is required to make associations with specific foods.

Foodborne illness is vastly underreported – it’s known as the burden of reporting foodborne illness, or the burden of illness pyramid (left), a model for understanding foodborne disease reporting. Someone has to get sick enough to go to a doctor, go to a doctor that is bright enough to order the right test, live in a State that has the known foodborne illnesses as a reportable disease, and then it gets registered by the feds.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that up to 30 per cent of individuals in developed countries acquire illnesses from the food and water they consume each year. U.S., Canadian and Australian authorities support this estimate as accurate, or did, (Majowicz et al., 2006; Mead et al., 1999; OzFoodNet Working Group, 2003) through estimations from available data, active disease surveillance and adjustments for underreporting. WHO has identified five factors of food handling that contribute to these illnesses: improper cooking procedures; temperature abuse during storage; lack of hygiene and sanitation by food handlers; cross-contamination between raw and fresh ready to eat foods; and, acquiring food from unsafe sources.

Food safety is much more than consumers.

Majowicz, S.E., McNab, W.B., Sockett, P., Henson, S., Dore, K., Edge, V.L., Buffett, M.C., Fazil, A., Read, S. McEwen, S., Stacey, D. and Wilson, J.B. (2006), “Burden and cost of gastroenteritis in a Canadian community”, Journal of Food Protection, Vol. 69, pp. 651-659.

Mead, P.S., Slutsjer, L., Dietz, V., McCaig, L.F., Breeses, J.S., Shapiro, C., Griffin, P.M. and Tauxe, R.V. (1999), “Food-related illness and death in the United States”, Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 5, pp. 607-625.

OzFoodNet Working Group. (2003), “Foodborne disease in Australia: Incidence, notifications and outbreaks: Annual report of the OzFoodNet Network, 2002”, Communicable Diseases Intelligence, Vol. 27, pp. 209-243.

Stephen Colbert to testify at House hearing on farm labor this morning

Real farming is not like Facebook’s Farmville. It requires work – and a lot of it. Then nerds like me come along and say – hey, while you’re doing that minimum-wage piece work that Americans won’t do, make sure you stay healthy and be aware of all the food safety risks associated with fresh produce.

The Packer reports Stephen Colbert, star of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, is scheduled to testify at the “Protecting America’s Harvest,” House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law.

Part II of Colbert’s stint as a farm worker is below.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Fallback Position – Migrant Worker Pt. 2
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election Fox News

Big egg farms don’t mean dirty egg farms.

Newly released reports pointing to years of positive salmonella tests at an Iowa egg facility have baffled some experts and egg producers.

Elizabeth Weise writes in today’s USA Today that Congressional investigators have obtained records that show Wright County Egg had evidence of even more problems than filth and vermin, as reported by the Food and Drug Administration last month. The records show that over the past three years, Wright County, the company at the center of the outbreak that sickened about 1,519 people and led to the recall of 550 million eggs, had multiple positive tests for salmonella in its plant that it did not report.

Numbers that high over that time period indicate "the environmental contamination is widespread on these farms," says Darrell Trampel, professor of production animal medicine at Iowa State University in Ames. "Maybe six to 12 positives … wouldn’t be surprising, but 73 is relatively high."

Besides, "if he’s getting repeated positives back on consecutive tests, that tells you that you’re not getting to the root cause of what the problem is," says Patricia Curtis, director of the poultry products safety program at Auburn University in Alabama.

Dave Thompson, owner of Pearl Valley Eggs in Pearl City, Ill., who produces 800,000 to 850,000 eggs a day, seven days a week, and was featured in a Weise report last month, says he can’t imagine getting numbers like Wright County’s. "I’ve never had a positive, and I test all the time," he says.

Under FDA rules put into place in July, large egg production facilities that have positive tests for salmonella enteritidis will be required to test 1,000 eggs four times at two-week intervals. "If even one egg tests positive, it’s mandatory that those eggs … be pasteurized," Trampel says.

Big ag doesn’t mean bad ag. Organic or conventional, local or global, big or small, there are good farmers and bad farmers. The good ones know all about food safety and continuously work to minimize levels of risk.

Consumers have no way of knowing which eggs or foods were produced by microbiologically prudent farmers and which were produced on dumps. Market microbial food safety at retail so consumers can choose.

Food porn excess: chefs court farmers for the best ingredients, nothing about food safety

Chef Jonathan Benno visited a farm recently, a crucial stop in his yearlong quest to open a $20-million restaurant at Lincoln Center in September.

In a standard food porn piece, The New York Times reports this morning that once, farmers begged top chefs to give their produce a whirl. But with carrots, corn and tomatoes being accorded the fanatical attention once reserved for foie gras and truffles, chefs now come knocking.

Mr. Benno, 40, said,

“It’s not enough now to pick up the phone and say to a distributor: ‘What have you got? O.K., give me a case.’ Now you want to see. You want to go there. They get to know us, and they see the possibilities for us. And for them.”

Michael White, the chef and an owner of Marea, along with Alto and Convivio, all in Manhattan, said, “Our customers travel to food and wine festivals and food devotees are more and more aware of the sourcing of products.” At the table, they can even surf the Web on their iPhones to check out the provenance of the steak, the chicken and the chicory.

Benno was further quoted as saying,

“This is not about currying favor, it is about developing a relationship. In this business, it’s about the handshake — looking them in the eye.”

Look your farmer in the eye and ask what water he or she irrigated with as the crops were withering and about to die (that was my farmer, left, 10 years ago, and he engaged in frank food safety discussions). Ask about the microbial tests done on water and soil. Ask about the hand sanitation for workers in the field and in the packing shed. Trust, but verify.

Less food porn, more food safety.

Nosestretcher alert: small farms produce safest food?

Are small farms incompatible with food safety rules?

Deborah Stockton, executive director of the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (NICFA), said today,

"Small farms produce the safest food available, without regulation. … Just like family farms brought us out of the Great Depression, they can bring us out of the food safety problem and this recession, if they are allowed to thrive.”

Sounds like someone is compensating for inadequacy issues and responding with exaggeration, like a 50-year-old in a Miata rag-top.

The idea that food grown and consumed locally is somehow safer than other food, either because it contacts fewer hands or any outbreaks would be contained, is the product of wishful thinking.?

Maybe the majority of foodborne outbreaks come from large farms because the vast majority of food and meals is consumed from food produced on large farms. To accurately compare local and other food, a database would have to somehow be constructed so that a comparison of illnesses on a per capita meal or even ingredient basis could be made.

NICFA is gonna lobby Washington, D.C. types and then hold a local foods feast for Congress tomorrow night. I hope no one gets sick – faith-based food safety is a lousy approach.