Going public: Iowa paper says food-poisoning cases should result in more disclosure

I never liked Hy-Vee in Manhattan, Kansas.

They were sorta uppity and didn’t seem to know shit about food safety.

hy-vee.food.safeAn editorial in The Des Moines Register echoes those sentiments:

More than 50 people were sickened by cooked taco meat that was served to the staff at Des Moines’ Roosevelt High School last month.

The cooked meat was purchased from a grocery store shortly before it was served at the school as part of a staff luncheon. Subsequent testing detected a temperature-sensitive bacteria in the meat. The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals said the food was likely tainted during preparation at the store since the bacteria wouldn’t have had enough time to grow between the time the meat was purchased and the time it was served.

The official public report from the Polk County Department of Public Health said that while a “specific point” in the preparation and handling process couldn’t be identified as the culprit, food-safety and food-handling guidelines were reviewed “with those involved.” The state inspections agency said the store had given assurances the staff was being retrained.

The trouble is, the county and the state chose not to disclose the name of that store. Fortunately, community members stepped forward and identified the business as the Hy-Vee store in Windsor Heights. Had they not done so, the identity of the food supplier might still be unknown.

A Hy-Vee spokeswoman acknowledged the store provided the food, but denied that it was responsible for the food poisoning. She then appeared to cast blame on the store’s own customers, saying, “We can’t control how food is handled after it leaves our stores.”

That statement contrasts sharply with the state’s calming reassurance that the Hy-Vee staff is being retrained, and it only serves to underscore — perhaps unintentionally — the importance of disclosing the names of food suppliers in cases like this.

But public disclosure is traditionally the road less traveled in Iowa, a state where regulations are written largely to protect business and industry — even at the expense of the public welfare.

Our state law says public health reports should be written in a manner that doesn’t identify a business that may be at fault. It goes on to say that “information disclosing the identity of the business may be released to the public when the state epidemiologist or the director of public health determines such a release of information (is) necessary for the protection of the health of the public.”

In the Roosevelt High School case, state health officials say, no public health threat was identified, as only those people who attended the school luncheon were sickened. The logic in that position is hard to fathom, especially when one considers the volume of food a store such as this is capable of dispensing on any given day.

When public health officials identify a supplier of food that is later found to have sickened 50 people, that supplier should be publicly identified. People in the community deserve to know who may have been responsible — not so they can organize a torch-bearing mob, but so they can make fully informed decisions as consumers.

Promise of food safety law largely unfulfilled

Waiting for government is like Waiting for Godot. Which is why the most important part of a USA Today feature on delays to implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act is a throw-away at the end of the story. “While some businesses are waiting until the food safety rules are published, many companies are already incorporating their own food safety handling and transportation measures into their operations. The threat of potential litigation, long-term damage to their brand and a surge in the use of social media tools by the public to communicate has put more pressure on businesses to meet or exceed existing food safety requirements, said former FDA food czar David Acheson. “Hy-Vee, the 234-store, West Des Moines-based grocery chain has hired an outside auditor to do inspections of its stores. It also has worked with its distribution centers to make sure they handle and transport food using the same standards, such as ensuring sanitary conditions and uniform temperatures are maintained. “There is cost involved but it’s a cost of doing business and certainly it’s nothing compared to not doing it,” said Ruth Comer, assistant vice president of media relations with Hy-Vee. “If something isn’t done and there is a food borne illness outbreak or another situation that one incident could be far more costly than any protective measures.” Hy-Vee has only now just hired its own auditors, and is implementing standards across its supply chain? Maybe that’s why I never shop there.

Safely prepared and handled food keeps students safe

Veterinary student, masters of public health student, newspuller and occasional blogger Gonzalo Erdozain writes:

As a veterinary student at Kansas State, I get a lot of free food – pizza, BBQ, even fully catered meals. This past Tuesday, at our Bovine Club meeting, we had our food catered by Hy-Vee here in Manhattan, KS. To my surprise, and delight, I observed the delivery chef test each one of the lasagna platters with a digital thermometer, and write down each temperature on a temp. sheet. Our club’s president then signed the sheet and we went about our business. Today, I called Hy-Vee to ask a few questions. Here’s the scoop.

Everything they cook is up to par with the recommendations made by the Kansas Department of Health. I specifically asked about poultry, and the manager quickly answered, “we cook all our poultry to 165 ºF.” He explained that all hot foods must be over 141 ºF at the time of delivery, while cold foods must be bellow 41 ºF. If they are out of that range, they ask the customer whether to reheat it or make a new batch. They fill in the temp. sheet, have it signed by the customer and leave printed instructions to discard any leftover food within 4 hours due to food safety risks past that timeframe. Now that I don’t have to worry about food poisoning from these events, I can focus on not contaminating my food with formalin.