Food is getting safer, but still might make you sick

Scott Canon of The Kansas City Star writes in a good food safety feature, go ahead and eat out. Or eat in (edited excerpts below).

produceWhether you dig into Mom’s casserole, feast on the local diner’s daily special or snarf up something from a mega-corporation’s drive-through, America’s meals may arrive as safe now as mankind has ever known.

Just not 100 percent.

Government rules continue to tighten. Various industries, fearful of lawsuits and the lost business that follows bad publicity, put more muscle into keeping things clean.

Yet experts also describe an increasingly elaborate system that tests the power to keep a meal safe.

“The marketplace is probably more complex,” said Charles Hunt, the Kansas state epidemiologist. “The produce that you get in the store today was in Mexico or someplace else just a few days before.”

The Chipotle chain saw multiple, high-profile problems last year. An E. coli outbreak traced to its restaurants in October. In December, the company also was tied to a norovirus incident in Boston, following outbreaks of the pathogen earlier in the year at outlets in California and Minnesota.

In the Kansas City area, more than 600 people got sick after attending shows at the New Theater Restaurant in January, and tests confirmed infections of the norovirus in at least some. It also struck at least 18 staff and patients at the University of Kansas Hospital’s Marillac Campus that month. And about a dozen people were hit with the same vomiting and diarrhea shortly afterward at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Overland Park.

Upticks in detections of outbreaks of food-borne illness, analysts say, likely reflect our increasing powers to spot them — not a growing danger.

In 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration traced an outbreak of salmonella agona to a Malt-O-Meal processing plant in Minnesota. Ten years later, the same plant again shipped out cereal tainted with salmonella, sickening at least 33 people.

With the two incidents separated by a decade, any link seemed coincidental.

But a few years later, the FDA built a powerful tool for analyzing bacterial strains — Whole Genome Sequencing. It can identify down the lineage of any bacterium in its database. In this case it showed the new salmonella was the direct descendant of the earlier one.

barfblog.Stick It InIt turned out that the first outbreak stemmed from contaminated water used to clean the plant during a renovation. That same water was mixed in with mortar for the construction. Dangerous salmonella had been preserved in that mortar. Over the years, the surface of the mortar turned to dust, got wet and gave new life to that distinct family of salmonella.

Imagine the implications. The plant could prevent repeats by painting a sealant over the unlikely culprit — mortar in its walls.

But think of the child who becomes sick down the road with salmonella. The source could be any of thousands of ingredients consumed by an American kid in a normal day. But what if a doctor shares the salmonella sample with federal disease trackers? By looking at the particular genetic line, scientists can spot the family tree and the likely source.

“It tells you who’s related to who even over many years,” said Eric Brown, the director of the Division of Microbiology at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition.

Technology, food safety experts say, only goes so far.

The bigger payoffs come from diligence. That means, foremost, avoiding contamination from feces.

“Our food safety starts on the farm,” said Doug Powell. A former Kansas State University professor of food safety, he’s now the chief author of barfblog.

“It has to be systemic, repeated and relevant.”

For starters, farmers should not use manure on fresh produce. They need to know where their irrigation supply comes from and whether runoff during heavy rains travels from feedlots or other places where livestock or farm workers defecate. Washing those fruits and vegetables later down the line is necessary, but that often can’t overcome massive exposure to E. coli and other potentially fatal bacteria that thrive in poop.

Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who’s made a high-profile career filing lawsuits in food-borne illness cases, speaks with less alarm about the direction of Big Meat.

After years of restaurants and meat packers weathering expensive lawsuits and public relations disasters, he said, they’ve changed.

Take the slaughterhouse. Cattle arrive splattered with barnyard waste. For years, that created problems because the tainted hides would inevitably taint the skinned carcasses. But now, packing operations routinely steam-clean or treat the carcasses with an acid wash.

“You started to see an amazing turnaround and recalls linked to hamburger have fallen like a stone,” Marler said.

Meantime, he said, restaurants better recognize the business risk of not killing pathogens that cling to meat. Marler said big chains, in particular, devote increasing effort to thoroughly cooking beef, pork and poultry.

And federal rules on the required temperature for cooked meat have increased. Some chains, such as Taco Bell, now cook meat at centralized locations before shipping it to franchises. The local teenager preparing that food for customers still needs to be wary of temperature control, but much of the responsibility for safety has been standardized by corporate operations.

Produce, he and others say, poses a more difficult problem. Food that’s not cooked lacks the critical “kill step” to render harmless the bacteria that do slip through.

That, goes the critique, sets up a corporate culture that valued freshness over safety.

The company has responded by shutting down its restaurants repeatedly for special training days and saying its redoubled efforts to track the practices of its suppliers.

(Many have noted that much of Chipotle’s problems related to contamination from sick workers, not from its pursuit of freshness. More on that later.)

food-handler-card-skillsBut consumers have shown an increasing interest in the source of their food, preferring fresh over processed and local or organic over cheaper commodity ingredients. That’s tied, analysts say, to the belief that food made on a smaller scale and without the use of antibiotics in livestock or pesticides in crops is safer.

Some evidence suggests that such methods provide a more nutritious meal that may avoid long-term health risks. Yet they can pose new challenges in dodging food-borne pathogens in the short term, said barfblog’s Powell and others.

“Natural, organic, sustainable, dolphin-free — those are lifestyle choices,” Powell said. “There’s been no study that has conclusively said one way or another if it’s more likely to make you barf more.”

He worries it might. Smaller farms might not have the resources, or the sophistication, to keep soiled rain runoff from their vegetable patches. The farmer’s market customers or restaurants drawn to their farm-to-plate marketing, he said, might be less inclined to question safety.

“McDonald’s has it covered,” Powell said. “At the boutique places, I say I want my meat cooked to 165 degrees and they look at me like I just came off the turnip truck.”


10 sick and yes, we know you take food safety very seriously: Another outbreak in richie rich part of Kansas

Health officials said Tuesday they are investigating reports of a gastrointestinal illness that has sickened at least 10 people who visited the Buffalo Wild Wings grill and bar at 7030 W. 105th St. in Overland Park last week.

buffalo.wild.wingsThe cause and source of the illness haven’t been determined, the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment said. Health officials are awaiting results of laboratory tests that may identify the illness.

The health department began receiving reports Friday from people who became ill beginning Thursday. Students from the Shawnee Mission School District were among the people who reported illness.

Reported symptoms included vomiting and diarrhea, “symptoms that can be attributed to a lot of things,” said health department spokeswoman Barbara Mitchell.

The Johnson County health department is working on the investigation with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Kansas Department of Agriculture and the city of Overland Park.

In response to the illnesses, the Agriculture Department inspected the restaurant Saturday and found 17 code violations. Among them: An employee was observed wiping his nose with the back of a gloved hand and then returning to the work area without washing his hands or changing gloves. Several bottles of liquor in the bar area contained small dead insects. Cooking utensils contained dried bits of cabbage, onion and other food debris. Boxed dinner napkins were stored on the floor of an employee restroom.

“We take food safety very seriously, and following a report Saturday of potential illness by the health department, we decided to close the Overland Park restaurant to allow for a third-party vendor to conduct a thorough cleaning,” a spokeswoman for the Buffalo Wild Wings corporate office said in a statement.

150 cases of Shigella in Kansas City

There have reportedly been 150 confirmed cases of Shigella in Kansas City, Missouri, prompting city health officials to warn the public of the disease outbreak that causes high fever and abdominal problems.

shigellaFox 4 KC, citing newly released numbers from the Kansas City Health Department on Friday, reports the city usually sees 10 cases of Shigella per year, but so far in 2015 there have already been 150 reported cases. From Jan. 1 to July 1, there were only 16 cases, but in the last two months there have been 134 additional cases. The outbreak is 15-times the annual average.

‘If a dead animal showed up, that would be terrible’ Reports reveal critical violations at some popular Kansas City eateries

Health inspection reports reveal critical violations at some Kansas City establishments participating in one of the biggest weeks in the restaurant world.

kc.restaurnt.inspection.jan.15Several dozen restaurants are participating in Restaurant Week beginning Friday.

KCTV5 News dug through Kansas City Health Department online inspection reports and found that most of the restaurants from downtown to the Country Club Plaza that are participating in the event appeared to have at least two critical violations of the food safety code.

Food inspectors hand out two types of violations – non-critical and critical. If an inspector catches a critical violation which includes problems with food, cleanliness or maintenance, then the restaurant must take action.

The city does not grade restaurants on a scale, they just report the number of violations discovered at a dining establishment.

“Sometimes very good establishments have a bad inspection,” health department spokesman Jeff Hershberger said.

The department has 18 food inspectors that conduct unannounced visits at 3,400 places that have food permits all over the city. Restaurants could see upwards of five of those visits per year.

“These inspections for starters are a snapshot in time,” Hershberger said. “They are what was going on in that establishment on that day.”

The Foundry at 40th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Westport had the fewest number of critical violations – at just two – based on city inspection reports. None of the violations had anything to do with food.

“People try as hard as they can to keep it clean,” former food services worker Nate Sydney said.

Sydney said there are just a few things on an inspection report that would keep him away.

“I guess if a dead animal showed up, I think that would be terrible,” he said. “Mold, I think that’s very, very bad. If mold showed up, that would be a no go for me.”

The health department offers some advice when it comes to looking at restaurant inspections.

“Look at span of reports, don’t just look at one report and say, ‘oh that’s gross,'” Hershberger said.


Mexican restaurant closed after deer stored in KC freezer

The Kansas City Health Department has closed a westside restaurant after a health inspector found a fully intact dead buck inside a basement freezer.

Los Alamos Market and Cocina at 1667 Summit St. cannot reopen until the restaurant owner meets with health inspectors to work out concerns.

Owner Agustin Juarez told KCTV5’s Emily Rittman that a customer on Thursday asked to put a deer in the basement freezer for a few hours. By Friday, the customer had not picked up the deer but a health inspector came by at 12:45 p.m. Friday and undertook a 2 1/2 hour inspection.

An employee told the health inspector that ice was normally stored inside that freezer.

Juarez said he is working to prove the deer was killed legally and was not contaminated. He said the deer will go to a processor.

He stressed that the dead deer never came in contact with food.
FOX5 Vegas – KVVU

Don’t swim with the runs: crypto outbreak hits Johnson County

An outbreak of cryptosporidium has prompted the Johnson County Health Department to ask people to stay out of swimming pools if they’ve had diarrhea recently.

In the past two weeks, the department has received reports of 35 cases of cryptosporidiosis, Nancy Tausz, the department’s disease containment director, told the Kansas City Star Friday.

Other cases have been reported recently in the area, Tausz said. And schools are seeing children returning to class with diarrhea, a key symptom, she said.

Shortly before Labor Day 2007, six subdivision swimming pools in Johnson County were linked to a significant crypto outbreak. Health officials suspected toddlers with full diapers were the chief culprits. The pools were reopened after being treated with massive amounts of chlorine.

Say it loud, say it proud, blow dryers suck

Daughter Courtlynn – the 14-year-old – arrived from Canada last night for a last-minute weekend bonding session with Sorenne. And Amy. And me?

While waiting for Courtlynn’s plane to arrive in Kansas City – it’s not her plane, it’s Air Canada’s plane, but she was on it – we killed some time at the Zona Rosa outdoor mall near the airport. We found the restroom with the diaper-changing facilities and saw the biggest, eco-BS hand drying sign I’ve ever seen.

The friction from rubbing with paper towel is far more effective at reducing microbial populations than dispersing the bugs everywhere with a blow dryer that doesn’t really dry hands. The County health inspectors may want to check this out.

The City Market’s vendor provides hand sanitizer

A smile came to my face while walking the aisles of the Kansas City farmers’ market. A very nice lady selling oils, jams, and other goodies was wearing gloves, that she frequently changed, and had hand sanitizer for customers to use prior to tasting her delicious dips. My friend and I spent approximately two hours roaming the river-market area looking for various items and this particular booth was the only one to provide hand hygiene materials. Locally grown food doesn’t mean safer food, especially if your hands are dirty; wash your hands prior to eating and after handling unwashed produce.

Grandma knows best

I arrived in Kansas City International Airport Saturday evening after a long flight from Rome, Italy. Like many other passengers, once I gathered my belongings from the overhead compartment and the seatback pocket, I headed to the airport bathroom. After I was finished, I washed my hands (just like you’re supposed to) and was delighted to observe what I presumed to be a grandmother and her granddaughter.

“Don’t just slap your hands together, you have to rub them together to get the soap everywhere, then rinse them,” grandma said to granddaughter. It made me smile to know that handwashing is still being taught to the youngsters.