What does pink mean? It’s a lousy measure, so why does CDC use it to measure hamburger risk?

(although imperfect)

Those words, in parentheses, are the most important in a paper by CDC-types about self-reported consumption of pink beef, and impair the conclusions.

Researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control used FoodNet data from a 2006-2007 survey of 8,543 respondents to conclude 75.3% reported consuming some type of ground beef in the home, and of those respondents who ate ground beef patties in the home, 18.0% reported consuming pink ground beef.

That’s a high number, but is pink hamburger correlated with cooking temperatures of less than 165F? Not always.

For purposes of the paper, pink hamburger is equated to undercooked and therefore potentially dangerous hamburger, except for the acknowledgement that color is an “imperfect” indicator for the consumption of undercooked ground beef.

The authors do mention in the paper that “color is not a reliable indicator of ground beef doneness, and thermometer use was not assessed so self-reported consumption of pink ground beef may not truly represent consumption of undercooked beef.

A series of studies beginning in the 1990s and led by Melvin “Hunter” Hunt of Kansas State University concluded that color is a lousy indicator of whether hamburger has reached a microbiologically safe internal temperature of 160F with something like 30 per cent of burgers browning prematurely, based on levels of different forms of myoglobin within hamburger. The U.S. Department of Agriculture agrees, and has a thorough summary of the problems with color at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/Color_of_Cooked_Ground_Beef/index.asp.

So why base a consumer study on color, which research concludes and U.S. and Canadian governments agree in the form of consumer advice, is unreliable? Guess it was easier.

The survey did further verify a long-standing observation that is apparently ignored by every local, state or federal agency that says rates of E. coli O157:H7 increase in summer months because more people barbeque: there’s no correlation with cooking. Instead, the correlation is with microbial loads in cattle, which increase in spring and summer.

“We noted a distinct lack of seasonality in the consumption of ground beef or pink ground beef patties in the home. This contrasts with the marked seasonality reported for E. coli O157:H7 infections in humans, which peaks in the summer months. These data suggest that factors other than seasonality in ground beef consumption, such as differences in food handling practices or increases in the amount of bacterial contamination on meat and other foods or environmental sources during warmer months, are responsible for the seasonal increase in E. coli O157:H7 infections. Shedding of E. coli O157:H7 by cattle peaks during the spring and summer months, corresponding to the period of the highest incidence of human infections. Others have suggested that fluctuations in E. coli O157:H7 prevalence in cattle may be linked to human infections. Our data support this hypothesis and suggest that further attention to pre-harvest food safety interventions may be warranted to decrease the numbers of organisms shed in cattle feces and, ultimately, decrease the number of human infections."

For those who think consumers need to be better educated to reduce incidence of foodborne illness, the survey found yet another link to trash such a notion.

“Although persons with higher education and income reported consuming pink ground beef patties in the home more often, this group consumed ground beef overall less frequently. These findings do not explain these patterns, but we speculate that the increased level of risky behavior among more highly educated and higher income respondents may be due to several factors. These persons may not prepare food at home as often as other groups and
therefore may be less practiced in appropriate safe food handling and cooking practices or they may prefer pink ground beef. Higher income persons have been shown both to have more confidence in the safety of the national food supply and to be more likely to use unsafe food practices than lower income persons. Persons that are more educated may also perceive themselves to be at less risk for foodborne illness and consequently be more likely to engage in risky behaviors. The increased willingness among this population to engage in unsafe food-related behaviors has been suggested to rise from more prevalent beliefs that they understand and can control food safety risks.”

Or, smart people can be dumb. Certainly applies to me (the dumb part).

The abstract of the paper is below.

Ground beef consumption patterns in the United States, FoodNet, 2006 through 2007
Journal of Food Protection®, Volume 75, Number 2, February 2012 , pp. 341-346(6)
Taylor, Ethel V.; Holt, Kristin G.; Mahon, Barbara E.; Ayers, Tracy; Norton, Dawn; Gould, L. Hannah
Infection resulting from foodborne pathogens, including Escherichia coli O157:H7, is often associated with consumption of raw or undercooked ground beef. However, little is known about the frequency of ground beef consumption in the general population. The objective of this study was to describe patterns of self-reported ground beef and pink ground beef consumption using data from the 2006 through 2007 FoodNet Population Survey. From 1 July 2006 until 30 June 2007, residents of 10 FoodNet sites were contacted by telephone and asked about foods consumed within the previous week. The survey included questions regarding consumption of ground beef patties both inside and outside the home, the consumption of pink ground beef patties and other types of ground beef inside the home, and consumption of ground beef outside the home. Of 8,543 survey respondents, 75.3% reported consuming some type of ground beef in the home. Of respondents who ate ground beef patties in the home, 18.0% reported consuming pink ground beef. Consumption of ground beef was reported most frequently among men, persons with incomes from $40,000 to $75,000 per year, and persons with a high school or college education. Ground beef consumption was least often reported in adults ≥65 years of age. Men and persons with a graduate level education most commonly reported eating pink ground beef in the home. Reported consumption of ground beef and pink ground beef did not differ by season. Ground beef is a frequently consumed food item in the United States, and rates of consumption of pink ground beef have changed little since previous studies. The high rate of consumption of beef that has not been cooked sufficiently to kill pathogens makes pasteurization of ground beef an important consideration, especially for those individuals at high risk of complications from foodborne illnesses such as hemolytic uremic syndrome.

Mital Pandya: Dangerous dolphin meat

Mital Pandya writes:

I consider myself a food enthusiast, and I spend a lot of time and effort reading reviews and traveling to seek out the best food out there. However, I don’t eat dolphin, but some people apparently do… Flipper anyone?

In certain regions of Japan, many consider dolphin meat to be a delicacy, though unaware of the dangers associated with the meal. Two elected officials of a Japanese whaling town, Taiji, tested random samples of dolphin meat at supermarkets.

“One dolphin sample had a mercury content 10 times above the health ministry’s advisory level of 0.4 parts per million, with a methylmercury readout 10.33 times over the ministry’s own advisory level of 0.3 ppm.”

The CDC also has an official report on mercury levels warning people of the health hazards of mercury, at http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts46.html.

“The form of mercury that accumulates in the food chain is methylmercury. When small fish eat the methylmercury in food, it goes into their tissues. When larger fish eat smaller fish or other organisms that contain methylmercury, most of the methylmercury originally present in the small fish will then be stored in the bodies of the larger fish. As a result, the larger and older fish living in contaminated waters build up the highest amounts of methylmercury in their bodies.”

High levels of mercury can cause severe damage to the nervous system, as well as permanent damage to the brain and kidneys, and children are especially susceptible.

Both the short term and long term damages caused by the consumption of dolphin meat are enough for me to say, “Dolphin it’s not for dinner."

Though this problem has been known for years now, it has recently been highlighted in the high-publicity documentary, The Cove, which won the audience award at Sundance Film Festival this year.

“Flipper was one of the most beloved television characters of all time. But ironically, the fascination with dolphins that he caused created a tragic epidemic that has threatened their existence and become a multibillion dollar industry. The largest supplier of dolphins in the world is located in the picturesque town of Taijii, Japan. But the town has a dark, horrifying secret that it doesn’t want the rest of the world to know. There are guards patrolling the cove, where the dolphin capturing takes place, who prevent any photography.” 

Mital Pandya is a current USDA research scientist in Orient Point, NY. In 2007 she received her Masters degree in Public Health from Ohio State University. She is passionate about food, loves to knit, and travel.

Canada’s governor general eats raw seal heart: EU says too bizarre to acknowledge

Canada’s governor general Michaelle Jean (below, right), the representative of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II – ‘hellooooo little people ‘ — ate a slaughtered seal’s raw heart today in a show of support to the country’s seal hunters.

Hundreds of Inuit at a community festival gathered Monday as Jean knelt above a pair of seal carcasses and used a traditional ulu blade to slice the meat off the skin. After cutting through the flesh, Jean turned to the woman beside her and asked: "Could I try the heart?"

‘It’s like sushi’

A spokeswoman for EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said, "No comment; it’s too bizarre to acknowledge.”

Could video games be a key to food handler training effectiveness?

Food handler training, required or encouraged in various jurisdictions across North America has been demonstrated by multiple studies to have various results. Most of the published research has focused on looking at inspection results, but in 2000, researchers in Oregon (April 2009 issue of Foodborne Pathogens and Disease) explored food handler food safety knowledge.

During April–September 2000 researchers administered a 28- question survey distilled from a longer survey obtained from the Oregon Food Handler Certification Program with 407 food handlers from 67 randomly-selected restaurants.The researchers found that their participants averaged 68% on the test. Significant differences were observed between managers’ average test scores and those of line staff: 74% versus 67%, respectively, and those with Oregon food handler training scored 69%, while those without one scored 63%.

Meatloaf sang that two out of three ain’t bad, but in food safety training, retention-wise, it’s not great.

The researchers conclude that survey demonstrates a limited level of knowledge among foodhandlers about food safety and that analyzing knowledge and comparing concurrent restaurant inspection scores would strengthen the understanding of food safety in restaurants.  The results of the survey also emphasize the need for educational programs tailored to improve foodhandlers knowledge of foodborne diseases.

I’d add that it’s not like knowledge translates automatically into practice. Demonstrating knowledge change is interesting, but not nearly as important as behavior change.

Food handlers need some sort of basic training, but it’s up to their managers and organization to make sure they stay up-to-date and that they have some sort of ongoing reminders (like food safety infosheets.

Reuters reports on a strategy for training that might have some applications with food handlers — video game simulations.

Many businesses use serious videogames designed for the PC but Hilton Garden Inn (HGI) has taken the virtual training concept portable for the first time with "Ultimate Team Play".

Working with North Carolina-based game developer Virtual Heroes, HGI has created a videogame for Sony’s PSP (PlayStation Portable) that allows employees to practice their jobs before they have to interact with customers.

It has the potential to be pretty cool and useful especially if used to demonstrate the team-like nature of foodservice and risk identification, but if it’s pulled off cheaply it could look like Duck Hunt.