Chefs do the darnedest things

My experience as a dishwasher was short lived. When I was in grad school studying restaurant food safety I volunteered at a local restaurant. I wanted to know what it was like, even just a little bit, to be a food handler – figuring I’d be better at food safety if I understood the pressures of the job. I spent most of my time in the dish pit, listening to Tom Petty working with fun folks, who were into lots of different substances.

One day, one of my last, I was doing salad prep, and trying to wash my hands between handling lettuce (with bare hands) and dirty dishes. The chef yelled at me because we didn’t have time to waste – and I skipped the whole handwash process.

That’s my self-reported story. Researchers in the UK (Jones and colleagues) published a paper a couple of weeks ago about the self reported behaviors of chefs, managers and catering students. They didn’t fare much better than I had. And surveys have their limitations.

Foodborne disease poses a serious threat to public health. In the UK, half a million cases are linked to known pathogens and more than half of all outbreaks are associated with catering establishments. The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has initiated the UK Food Hygiene Rating Scheme in which commercial food establishments are inspected and scored with the results made public. In this study we investigate the prevalence of food risk increasing behaviours among chefs, catering students and the public. Given the incentive for respondents to misreport when asked about illegal or illicit behaviours we employed a Randomised Response Technique designed to elicit more accurate prevalence rates of such behaviours. We found 14% of the public not always hand-washing immediately after handling raw meat, poultry or fish; 32% of chefs and catering students had worked within 48 hours of suffering from diarrhoea or vomiting. 22% of the public admitted having served meat “on the turn” and 33% of chefs and catering students admitted working in kitchens where such meat was served; 12% of the public and 16% of chefs and catering students admitted having served chicken at a barbeque when not totally sure it was fully cooked. Chefs in fine-dining establishment were less likely to wash their hands after handling meat and fish and those who worked in award winning restaurants were more likely to have returned to work within 48 hours of suffering from diarrhoea and vomiting. We found no correlation between the price of a meal in an establishment, nor its Food Hygiene Rating Score, and the likelihood of any of the food malpractices occurring.

Fewer food violations in school cafeterias

Cafeteria food inspections tend to have fewer critical violations than let’s say your full scale service restaurant due to minimal food preparation involved. Everything is essentially pre-packaged and heated in a microwave prior to service or deep fried for the non health-conscience consumer. As such, cafeteria food operators need to pay attention to effective hand washing as well as verifying internal cooking temperatures of what actually goes in the microwave. Food products that are generally cooked in the microwave are initially frozen and thus may not achieve the desired temperature that will inactivate food borne pathogens and keep you from barfing.
I thought this article was interesting as I just returned from the Twin Cities from a fantastic concert (Jonsi).
The Duluth News Tribune reports
Inspections of school cafeterias turn up far fewer problems than inspections of restaurants and convenience stores, say the people who probe the pantries, refrigerators and sinks of local schools.
Government inspection reports of several area school districts for the past three years showed only a few incidents that would make you say: “Ewww.”
Reasons for violations include: expired freshness dates for products, dented cans, rotten vegetables, a lack of hand-washing or glove changes between tasks, thawing and refreezing pizza, water not hot enough and milk not cold enough.
“Typically, schools are pretty good inspections for us,” said Brian Becker, an environmental health specialist with the Douglas County Department of Health and Human Services. “They are well-trained, maintained; they’ve had their staff for a while. Oftentimes in other industries in food, you’ll see a higher turnover.”
School cafeterias must be inspected twice a year. Most schools this year had low numbers of critical violations — those that can lead directly to food-borne illnesses — or none at all. Non-critical violations — of which there were higher numbers — don’t directly cause illness; they often relate to equipment or flooring. But even they can lead to food-borne illness.
Improper hand-washing is the practice most potentially harmful to the health of students in cafeterias, said Ryan Trenberth, supervisor of the Duluth District Office of the Minnesota Department of Health, which has taken over for St. Louis County inspections.
“We’re finding that’s how most viruses get spread,” he said. “Sick employees … not hand-washing, or cross-contamination going from a raw product to a ready-to-eat product.”
Neither inspector could remember any food-borne illnesses spread in school cafeterias in Douglas or St. Louis counties.

Petting zoo: Don’t feed the pigs

The past few weeks in Wellington have been windy and rainy, so to fight the black cloud blues my Canadian visitor and I traveled north to the Coromandel peninsula for some sun. The beaches were gorgeous and the skies cloudless.

While up north I decided to visit a petting zoo (animal farm). I know these activities are marketed towards families with children under 10, but I love animals and couldn’t resist. I paid the dollar for a bag of food, and as I proceeded to enter the zoo the lady at the counter told me to sign the waiver form. The form basically excused the zoo of any wrongdoing that happened to visitors, and instructed visitors not to feed the pigs. There was no mention of the potential illnesses that can be spread by being in contact with some of the animals, or the steps to prevent these illnesses (hand washing), although there were signs in the toilets (see right).

I cut my visit short after feeding a horse. I had a flashback to the North Carolina girl whose finger was bitten off by a zebra and decided to return to the beach instead – but not before I washed my hands.

Petting zoo zebra bites North Carolina girl’s finger off

While attending K-State as a veterinary student, I’ve had the chance to observe many clinical cases in the teaching hospital ranging from a broken puppy leg to a zebra exam. That’s right, a zebra. Last fall a zebra from a zoo came into the hospital, and upon hearing about it, I quickly went down to its stall to take a look at the animal up close. I quickly found out that ‘close’ was a relative term when it comes to zebras, as the animal was in a very secure pen with a large sign that read: “Caution: zebra is aggressive.” Who would’ve thought that a wild animal would be… wild? I left the hospital that day without any injuries, but unfortunately a little girl (right) in North Carolina found out how wild zebras really are when she left a petting zoo without half a finger.

According to the news story, nine-year-old Elizabeth was hand feeding a zebra at a petting zoo when it took off nearly all of her right pinkie finger. "It actually grabbed onto my hand and took it back a little bit. My papa had to smack it a few times to get my hand back. I was really scared," she said. Elizabeth is recovering with her bandaged half-pinkie and she’s also receiving a series of seven rabies shots.

"I still couldn’t believe it happened. It’s not something you hear every day that your daughter’s finger has gotten bitten off by a zebra," explained Elizabeth’s mom, Kristy Ross (left). "I just assumed if they’re giving me the food to feed them it will be OK. It’s going to be safe."

Unfortunately those assumptions didn’t protect the little girl from the zebra. I can see the appeal of feeding goats and sheep, but zebras?! They’re unpredictable animals and have been known to rear up and kick or bite attackers when cornered. In the case of Elizabeth in NC, there’s not just one person to blame. The petting zoo owner admitted that two kids and one volunteer have been bitten in the last couple of years at his zoo, yet he didn’t remove the zebra from the exhibit. Maybe the owner should replace it with a Tijuana zebra.  And as Elizabeth’s mom incorrectly assumed, being given food to feed a zebra doesn’t automatically make the zebra safe.

Animal behavior problems aside, I wonder how many of the petting zoo animals are infected with E. coli?  Are there hand washing stations nearby? 

To the right is a picture I took at the state fair last year.  Luckily I wasn’t bit.

Baking cookies with the Mazurs: Kids make terrible chefs

We have a delicious chocolate chip cookie recipe in our family and it puts the icing on the cake at our family gatherings.  Over Christmas my immediate family and I spent time with my uncle and his family in Wichita, KS.  My uncle has a seven-year-old boy and three-year-old girl, and after much playing with playdoh and coloring we soon became bored and started looking for a new activity.  Why not bake chocolate chip cookies?  

Well, all we had to say was the word “cookie” and the kids were on board with this activity.  My uncle and my mom were adamant about washing the kids’ hands before we started cooking, but that was a hopeless cause.  Their hands only had a tiny bit of soap on a few fingers, and there wasn’t even much scrubbing involved.  It was just a quick rinse.  And as soon as the kids were done washing their hands, they put their hands right back in their mouths, on the floor, on the dog, who knows where else.

I pointed out to my mom that letting the kids mix the ingredients and mixing the batter was a terrible idea.  They’ll stick their fingers in it, and they’ll sneeze in it.  But it had already been decided that EVERYONE was going to help out with the baking, so the kids went ahead and both took turns stirring the cookie dough.

I have to admit, I’m a bit of a germ-a-phobe, except for some cases  and watching these kids contaminate perfectly good chocolate chip cookies just broke my heart.  I can only imagine what kinds of germs were in that cookie dough, but hopefully all of the germs were killed when the dough was put into the oven.

However, after the oven when the cookies were sitting on the cooling rack there were a few incidents of kids picking up cookies and then putting them back.  The kids were the exact opposite of food inspectors.  Instead of carefully examining the cookies with clean hands, the kids picked up the cookies with dirty hands and brought them quite close to their face (even sometimes touching it to their nose) to sniff and see if they tasted good.

Needless to say, I did not have a one of the cookies.

Handwashing is one of the major tools used to combat food borne illness.  Kids especially must be supervised to ensure that they use an adequate amount of soap and scrub their hands for at least 20-30 seconds.


Wash your hands and dry with paper towel…

Except when the paper towel dispenser has been lit on fire.

According to the Kansas State Collegian today
a fire was started in Aggieville at O’Malley’s Alley on Sunday around 8 p.m. when someone lit the paper towel dispenser in the restroom. If you really hate paper towel that much, it might be safer (although not more sanitary) to use an air dryer (see Doug’s letter to the editor of the Manhattan Mercury posted below). Visit for more handwashing information.

**photo is from the K-State Collegian, credited to Steven Doll**

***Letter to the editor***
Manhattan Mercury
p. A6
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 25 per cent of the 76 million annual cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. could be eliminated with proper handwashing.
Based on the available evidence, proper handwashing consists of:
o wet hands with water;
o use soap;
o lather all over hands by scrubbing vigorously, creating friction, reaching all areas of the hands, wrists and between fingers, and counting to at least fifteen; o rinse hands; and, o dry hands, preferably with paper towel.
The all-in-one handwashing units at the Manhattan Town Center and K-State student union restrooms may be insufficient to control the spread of dangerous microorganisms  (Look, Ma, no handles, Manhattan Mercury, Dec. 28/06). The washing time before the hand dryer is activated appears inadequate, as does the drying procedure itself. Any remaining moisture can support bacterial growth, or can limit people from washing their hands in the first place (who wants damp hands?). Anecdotal reports from campus reveal that some find the units inconvenient and that soap sometimes misses hands when being dispensed.
One research study found that average bacterial counts were reduced when towels (either cloth or paper) were used to dry hands, the most significant decrease being with paper towels; hot air dryers produced a highly significant increase in all bacteria on hands.
Another study concluded that dangerous bacteria could survive handwashing with soap and water if hands were not dried thoroughly with paper towels. The friction created when drying hands with paper towel removes additional microorganisms.
Proper handwashing begins with access to proper tools. That is why paper towels are a necessary addition to any public bathroom.
Doug Powell
Associate Professor
KSU Food Safety Network
1729 Pierre St

What gets in the way of washing your hands?

According to a new study appearing in the June issue of the Journal of Environmental Health, important barriers related to hand-washing in the restaurant environment include time pressure, inadequate facilities and supplies, lack of accountability, lack of involvement of managers and coworkers, and organizations that are not supportive of hand-washing – ouch!
The researchers used two focus groups (a total of 18 participants, although recruitment calls were made to 150 establishments) to interview food handlers currently employed in restaurants in two Oregon counties.
The advantage of using focus groups is to derive substantive content of verbally expressed views, opinions, experiences and attitudes that are not as easily accessed using means such as surveys. For instance, a food handler in the current study who expressed a desire for additional education and training about FBI’s that result from not washing hands during food preparation, was quoted as saying: "I am very curious. I know germs exist and they are out there. We hear about Salmonella and all that stuff. But I’m curious as to if we don’t wash our hands, what is the result? I think we should be educated because I don’t really know what happens. I mean yeah, you get sick. But what does Salmonella do to a person?" But, after having worked in the foodservice industry for several years prior to joining iFSN, one of my favorite quotes from the study regarding lack of accountability for hand-washing (because I don’t doubt that it’s a common fear in the industry) has to be: "I don’t think I could tell anyone I work with that they need to wash their hands. I’d get some swear words back in my face."
As a result of the focus group sessions, the researchers recommended that future educational and training programs include: a hands on training program that orients new employees to correct hand-washing practices and more advanced education about FBI’s; involvement of both managers and coworkers in the training; easily accessible hand-washing facilities stocked with necessary supplies; continued hand-washing training and support involving the food service industry, managers, and coworkers; and finally, involvement of health departments and inspectors in providing managers and food workers with advice and consultation on improvement of hand-washing practice.
For more pictures of hand-washing signs and miscellaneous food safety related notices that we’ve captured in our travels, check out our blog, Hygiene Aficionado.