Cute but careful: Guidelines for human-animal interactions published

Just in time for our annual school Fete (it’s a British thing) that will feature animals of some sort, I get to further play Dougie Downer and distribute this 2-page guide for playing with animals.

ekka.petting.zooOur paper on human-animal interactions is about to be published (hard copy this time) in Zoonoses and Public Health, and includes a 2-page checklist for parents, and the teachers who book these events.

Gonzalo Erdozain, Kate KuKanich, Chapman and I have all seen microbiologically terrible practices at petting zoos or in homes, and read about them from around the world, so we thought, maybe we should try and provide some guidance.

The uniting factor is we all have kids, and in my case, grandkids, and keep adding more (congrats, Gonzo)

In Brisbane, they have the Ekka, something like the Texas State Fair. The petting zoo was absolute madness, and after living in Brisbane and hanging out with micro-types I got the message, don’t go to the Ekka, you’ll get sick. We didn’t go in 2013: 49 people, primarily kids, got sick from E. coli O157 (and in typical Queensland style, the outbreak has never been written up, there has been no follow-up, nothing; guess it would be bad for agriculture).

North Carolina has had repeated and terrible outbreaks.

As a father of five daughters, I’ve had many requests over 20 years to go on a school trip to see the animals. As a food safety type, I’ve been routinely concerned about best practices. The other parents may dislike microbiology, but I’m concerned with the health and safety of the children involved.

A table of petting zoo outbreaks is available at

Best practices for planning events encouraging human-animal interations

Zoonoses and Public Health 62:90-99

Erdozain , K. KuKanich , B. Chapman and D. Powell, 2015

 Educational events encouraging human–animal interaction include the risk of zoonotic disease transmission. ‘It is estimated that 14% of all disease in the USA caused by Campylobacter spp., Cryptosporidium spp., Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) O157, non-O157 STECs, Listeria monocytogenes, nontyphoidal Salmonella enterica and Yersinia enterocolitica were attributable to animal contact. This article reviews best practices for organizing events where human–animal interactions are encouraged, with the objective of lowering the risk of zoonotic disease transmission.





’Nothing can be done to ensure seeds are safe’ sprouted seeds pose an unacceptable risk to health

As officials in Brussels meet Jan. 26, 2012, to discuss the introduction of new control measures to prevent a repeat of last year’s E. coli O104 outbreak in Germany and France, food safety experts have questioned the effectiveness of the measures proposed.

At a meeting last week of the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF), which advises the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), Dr Norman Simmons, a former ACMSF member said after the meeting: “There is no doubt about it, sprouted seeds are a risk … nothing can be done to ensure the seeds are safe. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next outbreak is even bigger.”

Among the control measures up for discussion are:

• sourcing seeds only from approved establishments;
• ensure only potable (drinking quality) water is used for irrigation and cleaning; • one-up-one down traceability of seeds;
• the use of microbiological testing for common bacteria before products can be released to market; and,
• rules governing the frequency of sampling.

ACMSF member Roy Betts, head of microbiology at Campden BRI , expressed concern about the use of microbiological analysis as a control measure. “I get nervous when we go to microbiological criteria in any detail: it’s not a control measure,” he said, since it is not good at picking up low levels of contamination.

What’s missing in all this is the lack of clear warnings to consumers, and any kind of verification. Guidelines and rules are nice but what if no one pays attention?

Try harder: retailer tells cantaloupe growers to improve food safety

As the official toll in the listeria-in-cantaloupe outbreak rose to 13 dead and 72 sick in 18 states, a major retailer said cantaloupe growers need to do more to prevent outbreaks of foodborne disease.

“I don’t think the cantaloupe industry can continue on doing the very same thing and expecting a different result,” said Craig Wilson, the head of food safety for Costco, the Seattle-based warehouse retailer, which is regarded as a leader in requiring food safety measures from its suppliers. “It’s time for companies to get more aggressive. If they know this is going to happen, let’s step up and not let it happen.”

William Neuman of the New York Times reports federal officials on Tuesday that there had been at least 19 previous outbreaks involving more than 1,000 illnesses and three deaths resulting from cantaloupe consumption since 1984. We count at least 36 outbreaks.

Wilson further said Costco would consider setting standards for how melons are grown and how they are cleaned and handled after they are picked. He said the company would most likely require that suppliers test melons for pathogens before shipping them to Costco.

He called on the industry to finance research into the best way to wash or clean cantaloupes to remove contaminants.

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said that investigators had yet to determine how the melons became contaminated.

Trevor V. Suslow, an extension specialist at the University of California, Davis, who has done industry-financed research into food safety and cantaloupes, said that the fruit’s rough skin made it more susceptible to harboring unwanted bacteria.

“You have these tremendous hiding places, if you will, nooks and crannies, lots of areas for microbes to get in and attach and hide,” Dr. Suslow said.
It is best to keep cantaloupes dry to reduce the possibility that bacteria will grow on them, he said. In California, growers typically do not immerse melons in water to wash them and use chilled air to cool them.

In other regions, he said, cantaloupes are often washed in a large tank or with a water spray and are cooled with sprays of cold water as well. Those techniques may be more likely to spread bacteria.

Stephen F. Patricio, a melon shipper who is the chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, a trade group, said that sales were plummeting, even though only melons from the farm in Colorado were implicated.

“The entire melon category needs to look at the best practices and research that’s been done by the California industry and others to best analyze their own risks,” Mr. Patricio said. “Or we’re all going to continue to suffer.”

New guidelines in Ireland for ready-to-eat sprouted seeds

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has published guidelines for the safe production of sprouted seeds to be consumed raw, following the recent outbreaks of E. coli O104:H4 in Germany and France linked to the consumption of these seeds.

These guidelines introduce pathogen control measures for seed suppliers and sprouted seed producers. These include testing and certification requirements for seeds and a disinfection step and testing for sprouted seeds. The measures are being introduced to reduce risks to consumers’ health.

Most sprouted seed outbreaks have been attributed to contamination of the seeds used for sprouting. The moist, warm conditions of sprouting can allow small numbers of pathogens present on seeds to multiply by several orders of magnitude during the sprouting period.

To avoid confusion among consumers, the FSAI is advising producers of sprouted seeds who are using these guidelines; to label their products as ‘ready-to-eat’. Sprouted seed producers who cannot implement the control measures specified in the new guidelines should continue to ensure that their products are labelled as ‘cook before consumption’. Retailers and caterers should check that their suppliers of ready-to-eat sprouted seeds are following these FSAI guidelines.

The FSAI is advising members of the public who choose to sprout seeds at home, that they should continue to cook these products before consumption. This is because seeds certified free of pathogenic bacteria are unlikely to be widely available for some time. These guidelines can be accessed on our website on the following link

Unfortunately, no one knows if any particular sprouter is following the guidelines.

A table of sprout-related outbreaks is available at

Organ transplants are risky – pets and food can make them worse

Keeping pets healthy can reduce infection risks for people who have received solid organ transplants and veterinarians should be seen as an integral part of the healthcare team.

That’s just one of the recommendations in a new supplement in the American Journal of Transplantation. Dr Robin K Avery from the Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, said,

"Our paper aims to highlight the infection risks that transplant recipients experience in their daily lives. These include pet ownership, food safety, safe sex, sporting activities and work-related issues."

Those are some of my favorite activities, although not in that order.

* Wash hands frequently and thoroughly to prevent infections transmitted by direct contact, such as food, pets and gardening, even if gloves are used. Patients should avoid changing baby’s diapers if possible.

* Steer clear of foodstuffs like unpasteurised cheese, salad dressings made with uncooked eggs, raw seed sprouts, cold cuts and smoked seafood.

* Balance the psychological benefits of pet ownership with the potential infection risk. A variety of infections can be transmitted to humans from animals like young cats, reptiles, rodents, chicks and ducklings. Animal feces are also dangerous, so cleaning out cages and litter boxes should be avoided or disposable gloves and face masks worn. Ideally the transplant recipient should wait at least a year before getting a new pet.

Greens and melons and tomatoes – oh my. Will new guidelines make produce safer?

Last Friday, U.S. regulatory types announced plans to increase testing of beef trim for E. coli O157:H7 and to strengthen safety protocols for fresh fruits and vegetables. The former got lots of attention, especially with a new Salmonella outbreak that has sickened dozens and is linked to ground beef; the latter, not so much.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are one of, if not the most, significant sources of foodborne illness today in the U.S. – and it’s been that way for over a decade. As consumers increase per capita consumption of fresh vegetables, methods of handling, processing, packaging and distributing produce locally and internationally are receiving more attention in terms of identifying and controlling microbiological, chemical and physical hazards.

That was essentially the prelude for FDA publishing its 1998 Guidance for Industry: Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. We took those guidelines, as well as others, and created an on-farm food safety program for all 220 growers producing tomatoes and cucumbers under the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers banner. And set up a credible verification system.

So why did regulators and industry make such a big deal about commodity-specific guidelines for tomatoes, melons and leafy greens that were published in the federal register last Friday – in 2009?

I looked at the 2009 CSGs and the 1998 FDA guidance document – and I can’t see much of a difference in the on-farm stuf. Maybe I’m slow on the uptake; maybe guidelines are meaningless without implementation and verification; maybe growers keep asking for government babysitters so when the next outbreak happens, they can say, but we followed FDA guidelines (good luck with that). One of the notices said the draft guidances were FDA’s first step toward setting enforceable standards for produce safety, so maybe it’s some lawmaking thing.

Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, said in a statement released July 31,

“Our industry has worked hard since 2004 to develop commodity-specific guidance documents in each of these areas, and now strongly supports FDA taking these efforts to a new level.”

2004? Why not 1998? And do the new and supposedly improved guidelines mean fewer sick people? No. Not unless an individual grower or groups of growers, or associations, take serious steps to implement and verify, something could have been done in 1998 and does not need government oversight. We did it – how hard can it be?

It’s not, and lots of growers do it on a daily basis. So maybe the talk from Washington was rightly shrugged off as no biggie.

But why did Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in making the announcement, choose to highlight the “vital role” consumers play in ensuring the safety of the fresh produce they eat and offer a laundry list of questionable food safety advice that would do little to reduce contamination of tomatoes, leafy greens and melons that happened in the field? Especially with all the caveats featured in the introduction to the tomato commodity-specific guide, included below.

This guidance is intended to assist domestic firms and foreign firms exporting tomatoes to the United States (U.S.) by recommending practices to minimize the microbial food safety hazards of their products throughout the entire tomato supply chain. It identifies some, but not all, of the preventive measures that these firms may take to minimize these food safety hazards. This guidance document is not intended to serve as an action plan for any specific operation but should be viewed as a start­ing point. We encourage each firm from the farm level through the retail or foodservice level to assess the recommendations in this guidance and tailor its food safety practices to its particular operations by developing its own food safety program based on an assessment of the potential hazards that may be associated with its operations.

In addition, effective management of food safety requires that responsibility be clearly established among the many parties involved in the production of fresh produce. There may be many different permutations of ownership and business arrangements during the growing, harvesting packing, processing, and distribution of fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes. For this reason, it is important to identify which responsibilities rest with which parties, and to ensure that these responsibilities are clearly defined. For example, growers commonly contract with third parties to harvest their crops. Also, it is important that growers clearly identify which party is responsible for each applicable provision of this guidance, such as providing adequate toilet and handwashing facilities and worker training. Approaches to addressing responsibilities include delegating them to individuals within the firm and formally addressing them in contractual agreements when third parties are involved. Each party should be aware of its responsibilities to ensure microbial food safety hazards for tomatoes are minimized at each stage of the supply chain.

The commodity specific guidelines are available for leafy greens, tomatoes and melons. Guidance, however, does not mean responsibility. That’s up to industry, and it begins on the farm.


Food and Drug Administration leaders say: we’re risk communicators in charge

The newly anointed leaders of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration say in a scientific journal this week that,

“… one of the greatest challenges facing any public health agency is that of risk communication.”

Lots of public health types say that. If only there were better communication, everyone would get along.

Life is messier than that.

Communication is one of those cop-out words that people and bureaucrats routinely use but really don’t want to use; the complications are far too messy.

Because communication would involve the actual transmission of feelings, and the hurt, pain, joy and angst of whatever anyone went through.

So when Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., and Joshua M. Sharfstein, M.D., the commissioner, and the principal deputy commissioner, of the Food and Drug Administration, Silver Spring, MD, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine yesterday that,

“We all accept small risks in our daily lives, from the risk of falling in the shower and sustaining a head injury to the risk of having a car accident on the way to the grocery store. One reason we are rarely fearful of these risks is our perception that we have control over them. When it comes to food and drugs, even small risks can cause considerable fear and anxiety, especially when they seem to be out of our control. Yet all pharmaceuticals have some potential adverse effects, and many raw foods may harbor natural pathogens.”

I fell asleep.

The author’s continued,

“Transparency is a potent element of a successful strategy to enhance the work of the FDA and its credibility with the public. Whenever possible, the FDA should provide the data on which it bases its regulatory decisions and other guidance and explain its decision-making process to the public.”

Right. So please provide public, transparent guidelines for going public about outbreaks of foodborne illness.