Silence of the public health lambs; 13 sick with E. coli in Sask maybe linked to XL beef recall

There is nothing more condescending to sick people than to tell them it’s their fault, especially if the cause was something like needle-tenderized steak, that they had no way of knowing about. But that’s exactly how the Saskatchewan (province in Canada) Ministry of Health led off in “reminding consumers to use safe beef handling and cooking practices, in the wake of the recent recall of Alberta beef products by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

The Ministry of Health is aware of 13 reported cases of E. coli infection in Saskatchewan in September; the usual number of cases in that month ranges from zero to four. Public health authorities are investigating these cases and conducting tests to determine whether they are linked to the recall. Laboratory results are expected within the next few days.”

And it gets worse:

“People can reduce their risk of E. coli infection by taking very simple, common sense steps,” Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said. “Consumers should be vigilant about thorough hand washing when handling or preparing food, and ensure that all meat is cooked thoroughly.”

But what about the cross-contamination? Hockey goon and microbiology professor Kevin Allen at the University of British Columbia got it exactly right when he told The Province today it isn’t worth the risk to cook beef products if you’re unsure about their safety adding, “If you suspect it’s part of the outbreak, not even to try, especially if you have children.”

Kevin has two kids.

Traces of listeria found in Vancouver ready-to-eat fish products

Kevin Dr.-Dreamy Allen, (right, sortof as shown) found traces of listeria in ready-to-eat fish products sold in Metro Vancouver, according to this boring University of British Columbia press release.

There’s so much Kevin Dr.-Hockey-Goon Allen material to work with, but UBC went with the boring and predictable.

Allen tested a total of 40 ready-to-eat fish samples prior to their best before date. Purchased from seven large chain stores and 10 small retailers in Metro Vancouver, these products included lox, smoked tuna, candied salmon and fish jerky.

The findings – published in a recent issue of the journal Food Microbiology – show that listeria was present in 20 per cent of the ready-to-eat fish products. Of these, five per cent had the more virulent variety of Listeria monocytogenes.

Allen says although the Listeria monocytogenes levels in the ready-to-eat fish products met federal guidelines, the bacteria can multiply during handling and storage – particularly toward the end of shelf life.

“Additional handling of ready-to-eat foods in stores, such as slicing, weighing, and packaging, may increase the potential for cross-contamination,” says Allen. “While listeria bacteria can be killed by high heat, most people eat these fish products without further cooking. What this means for consumers is that pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system should be aware of the health risks.”

Listeria plentiful in BC ready-to-eat seafood at retail

Hockey goon and budding academic Kevin Allen of the University of British Columbia says there’s lots of listeria in ready-to-eat seafood in British Columbia (that’s in Canada).

According to a new paper in Food Microbiology, Allen along with Lili Mesak and Javana Kova?evic found lots of anti-microbial resistant Listeria monocytogenes in ready-to-eat salmon, but none in RTE deli meats. The paper offers a thorough microbiologial and genomic description of the listeria strains isolated but what this means for consumers is less clear.

But Kevin, describing listeria-vulnerable populations as “the really young and the elderly?” What about the really, really young? Or the super-young. The uber-young?

Abstract below.

Occurrence and characterization of Listeria spp. in ready-to-eat retail foods from Vancouver, British Columbia
Food Microbiology
Jovana Kova?evi?, Lili R. Mesak, Kevin J. Allen
The occurrence of Listeria spp. and L. monocytogenes in retail RTE meat and fish products in Vancouver, British Columbia (B.C.) was investigated. To assess potential consumer health risk, recovered L. monocytogenes isolates were subjected to genotypic and phenotypic characterization. Conventional methods were used to recover Listeria spp. from deli meat (n=40) and fish (n=40) samples collected from 17 stores. Listeria spp. were recovered only from fish samples (20 %); 5 % harboured L. innocua, 5 % had L. monocytogenes and 10 % contained L. welshimeri. Listeria monocytogenes isolates serotyped as 1/2a and 1/2b, possessed dissimilar PFGE patterns, and had full-length InlA. Three 1/2a clonal isolates encoded the 50 kb genomic island, LGI1. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) profiling showed all Listeria spp. possessed resistance to cefoxitin and nalidixic acid. Listeria monocytogenes were resistant to clindamycin, two were resistant to streptomycin, and one to amikacin. Reduced susceptibility to ciprofloxacin was seen in all L. monocytogenes, L. innocua and three L. welshimeri isolates. Reduced susceptibility to amikacin and chloramphenicol was also observed in one L. monocytogenes and three L. welshimeri isolates, respectively. Recovery of L. monocytogenes in fish samples possessing AMR, full-length InlA, LGI1, and serotypes frequently associated with listeriosis suggest B.C. consumers are exposed to high-risk strains.
? Listeria spp. were frequently recovered from RTE salmon samples, but not deli meat. ? High risk strains of L. monocytogenes were present in BC retail RTE seafood. ? This is the first report of the LGI1 genomic island from retail RTE seafood. ? AMR was observed in all Listeria, and included clinically relevant antimicrobials

Commercially grown sprouts risky: UBC study

Full-time hockey goon Kevin Allen (right, exactly as shown), who unfortunately lives in Vancouver and had to tolerate the indignity of the Boston Bruins stealing the Stanley Cup (that’s hockey) has decided to drown his misery by focusing on his real job and talking about the risks of raw sprouts.

He was even nice enough to mention me, although he had no trouble shooting pucks off my head, skating by, and going, uh, sorry.

Didn’t care, the equipment was better and you don’t score goals shooting off the goalie’s head.

Although it can be unnerving.

Sorta like the faith-based food safety system that has evolved around fresh produce, especially sprouts.

Randy Shore of the Vancouver Sun reports that a University of British Columbia.-led study of microorganisms on domestic produce found detectable levels of bacteria on 93 per cent of samples of sprouts taken from grocery stores across Canada.

Sprouts are grown in a warm, moist environment for three to five days, a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, said lead researcher Kevin Allen, a UBC food microbiologist, who likens the risk associated with eating commercially grown sprouts to consuming uncooked seafood.

Although the enterococcus bacteria detected on the sprouts poses no direct threat to health, the growing conditions that allow it to thrive can also encourage the growth of more harmful bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella.

Nearly 80 per cent of sprout samples — including bean, alfalfa, broccoli, garlic and onion — showed microbial loads too numerous to count. Herbs, salad greens and spinach showed far fewer positive results and generally lower microbial loads.

Allen’s produce testing revealed that seven per cent of fresh herb samples and two per cent of sprout samples contained a generic non-deadly form of E. coli, while about half of all samples of herbs, spinach, sprouts and leafy greens contained detectable levels of coliform, which may indicate fecal contamination of soil or water.

The distribution and concentration of enterococcus in the sprouts was much higher than expected, Allen said. Samples of produce were collected from grocery stores in five Canadian cities, including Vancouver, in March.

Kansas State University food safety professor Doug Powell, a collaborator with Allen, has recorded 38 outbreaks of illness associated with the consumption of raw sprouts over the past 20 years.

“From a consumer’s perspective, if produce is contaminated when it comes into the household, there is almost nothing they can do short of cooking it that will reduce or eliminate that risk,” said Allen.

But a note from the old prof to the former student: publish before press release.

High bacteria levels in bean sprouts

CBC News asked hockey goon and University of British Columbia microbiology type Kevin Allen to test 44 packages of sprouts for bacteria from across the country and he found lots.

There was no salmonella but Allen found 93 per cent tested positive for bacteria, and in some cases, high levels of enterococci bacteria, which is an indicator of fecal contamination.

"They [bacteria found] come from our intestinal tract and we don’t want the contents of our intestinal tract on our food," he said.

Sprouts are particularly susceptible to contaminants because they are grown in moist, warm environments, which are ideal for the rapid growth of bacteria, Allen said, adding that washing them before consuming them likely wouldn’t help.

"Personally, I don’t consume sprouts and I would not feed them to my children, either," Allen said.

Allen also tested 106 samples of bagged veggies and found 79 per cent of the herbs and 50 per cent of the spinach had similar bacterial contamination.

Allens report can be found at We all look forward to the results being published in a peer-reviewed journal before being further bandied about.

A table of North American raw sprout-related outbreaks is available at

Listeria in BC smoked salmon product; Kevin Allen speaks again

Hockey goon and University of British Columbia by food microbiologist Kevin Allen found some listeria in samples of smoked salmon and said,

"A healthy adult … likely could consume it with no consequence. However, if I was going to feed that to my daughter or son, the answer is no, I wouldn’t."

And yes, kids eat smoked salmon. Almost-2-year-old daughter Sorenne especially likes brie cheese and smoked turkey breast, along with pickles and olives. Goofy kid (that’s in a loving way; she’s also apparently fascinated with money).

CBC News reports that traces of the bacteria Listeria have been detected in samples of smoked salmon bought at a Vancouver retailer.

Two contaminated samples — including one containing the potentially fatal strain Listeria monocytogenes — were found in chunks of smoked salmon, called salmon nuggets, purchased at Longliner Seafoods at the Granville Island Public Market.

A total of 53 samples of delicatessen meat and ready-to-eat seafood from nine stores around Vancouver were tested by Dr. Allen.

No Listeria bacteria were found in the deli meat .

The sample containing Listeria monocytogenes contained a concentration of bacteria that was below the federal threshold that would have necessitated a recall, but it is still a cause for concern, said Allen.

"It should definitely be ringing some alarm bells for these processors.”

People with compromised immune systems, including pregnant women and the elderly, are especially vulnerable to listeriosis.

Targeted microarray analysis of stationary phase Escherichia coli O157:H7 subjected to disparate nutrient conditions

Getting graduate students to publish their research in peer-reviewed journals is often painful. As a supervisor, I sucked at it for years, but am now more draconian.

I’m pretty sure Kevin Allen (right, exactly as shown) got some award for this research at the International Association for Food Protection meeting in Baltimore in 2005, so good to see the hockey goon finally got it published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology. (And if these details are wrong, write in and correct them; it’s a blog.)

K.J. Allen, D. Lepp, R.C. McKellar, M.W. Griffiths
Aims:  To determine how stress response and virulence gene expression of stationary phase (SP) Escherichia coli O157:H7 are affected by nutrient levels.

Methods and Results:  A targeted microarray (n = 125 genes) was used to determine the impact of nutrient deprivation [15 min in 3-(N-Morpholino)propanesulfonic acid buffer] on SP E. coli O157:H7. In total, 24 genes were significantly affected (>1·5-fold; P < 0·05) with 17 induced and seven attenuated. Additionally, 11 genes belonging to significantly affected stress response regulons were significantly induced (P < 0·05), though <1·5-fold. Induced genes included global and specific stress response regulators, the mar operon, iron acquisition and virulence genes. In contrast, transcript for major porins and replicative genes were repressed. Comparison of the nutrient deprived transcriptome to that derived from nutrient replenished cells revealed a disparate transcriptome, with 44 genes expressed at significantly elevated levels in nutrient replenished cells, including all queried global and specific stress response regulators and key virulence genes. Genes expressed at elevated levels in nutrient deprived cells were related to σS. The microarray data were validated by qRT-PCR.

Conclusions:  SP E. coli O157:H7 were affected by nutrient deprivation, with both starvation-related and unrelated networks induced, thereby demonstrating how the E. coli O157:H7 stress response transcriptome is fine-tuned to environmental conditions. Further, by comparison of starved cells to cells provided with fresh nutrients, it is clear starved E. coli O157:H7 undergo massive physiological reprogramming dominated initially by stress response induction to adapt to a nutrient rich environment.

Significance and Impact of the Study: This study demonstrated how σS-induced SP E. coli O157:H7 remain highly sensitive and adaptable to environmental conditions. Further, by examining how starved cells respond to nutrient-rich conditions, we show preliminary adaptation to a nutrient rich environment is dominated by the induction of diverse stress response networks. Combined, this provides E. coli O157:H7 stress physiology-based knowledge that can be used to design more effective food safety interventions.

Ready-to-eat salads, new pathogens fuel rise in contaminated produce

Kevin Allen is still a goon – at least on ice.

He’s apparently a nice guy, loving father and snappy dresser when not bashing pucks off my goaltender’s head. He also plays academic sometimes.

University of British Columbia food scientist Kevin Allen told the Vancouver Sun this morning,

"If we look at the past decade, we can see a change in the epidemiology of food-borne disease, more specifically within the category of ready-to-eat foods. Part of the problem is that ready-to-eat foods are supposed to be ready to eat, so unlike poultry and your beef and your eggs, with salads and sprouts there is no cooking and so no pathogen-killing step. … Organisms like E. coli and salmonella that used to be associated solely with poultry and beef are now almost as frequently associated with leafy green vegetables. That is a tremendous shift from 20 years ago."

Christina Hilliard, a fresh fruit and produce specialist with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said,

"Twenty-five years ago we weren’t even thinking about lettuce in terms of food safety, even five years ago we didn’t think that someone could die from eating spinach.”

Allen’s research at UBC is dedicated to minimizing the presence of E. coli in cattle with an eye to stopping the pathogen’s spread through the food chain.

Canadian Olympic gold hockey post-doctoral fellowship opportunity at UBC

Kevin Allen (right, exactly as shown) is the kind of hockey player who would take a slap shot from 20 feet, bounce it off the goalie’s head and then skate by and go, “uh, sorry.”

I was often the goalie.

He would then laugh on the bench with the other goons.

This was odd because Kevin also played goal. I once used his equipment and figured out why he was laughing after hitting me in the head: his goalie gear was way better than mine; couldn’t feel anything, and the stuff was huge. There was no net left to shoot at. How did a graduate student have far better equipment than me?

I admired Kevin’s hockey skills, and how he could play so much hockey, have a couple of kids and take so long to finish his PhD; I admired his expensive goalie equipment even more.

Kevin finally finished his PhD at Guelph, won some award at the International Association for Food Protection in 2005, he may have won more, I don’t know, went to work with Bioniche — the E. coli O157:H7 vaccine people in Canada — and now has landed himself a professoring job.

It’s at the University of British Columbia, that’s in Vancouver, where the winter Olympics – what The Daily Show called a series of drunken dares on ice or snow – have just wrapped up, with a parade featuring a giant inflatable beaver.

Kevin’s building his research empire and, while I don’t run help wanted or conference announcements anymore, I will if they are solely in my self-interest or at least afford me the opportunity to taunt former students. Look at the first sentence of the job description – what was he going to write, a mind-numbing post-doctoral fellowship is available? It probably helps if the candidate plays hockey. Gender doesn’t matter.

Post-doctoral fellowship opportunity
The University of British Columbia
Discipline: Molecular Food Microbiology
Faculty: Land and Food Systems
Department: Food, Nutrition and Health
Location: University of British Columbia Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
An exciting post-doctoral fellowship is available for an ambitious and highly motivated individual who has recently completed their doctoral degree. This individual will lead a research program focused on utilizing traditional and molecular approaches to examine stress response physiology, comparative genomics, and antimicrobial resistance in foodborne pathogens such as Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, and Vibrio spp. Demonstrated experience with genomics, microarray analysis, and recombinant techniques is highly desirable.
The position is a 1-year term, renewable for up to 3 years. Renewal will be based on progress, which includes scientific presentation/publication and continuation of funding. Salary is commensurate with qualifications and experience according to UBC guidelines. Candidates graduated from Food Microbiology or Microbiology possessing a strong publication record and excellent academic credentials are encouraged to apply. Applicants should send their curriculum vitae, names and full contact information for three references, and a cover letter. The cover letter should detail previous efforts relating to their molecular biology expertise and experience with foodborne pathogens.
Please submit applications electronically to Dr. Kevin Allen. Note, UBC hires on the basis of merit and is committed to employment equity. Employment requires previous completion of a doctoral degree.
Application submission address: Competition closing date:
Until filled Webaddress:

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