The blame game: Factory worker lunches in Vietnam edition

According to Thanhnien News, 33 outbreaks resulting in over 2000 cases of foodborne illness have been linked to cheap, work-provided lunches in Vietnam this year, including one a couple of weeks ago. National health officials blame poor local oversight over kitchens.

Nice support from folks that are supposed to work together.

Lunch for workers at a shoe factory in Binh Duong Province is mostly rice and a little pork and vegetables.P1030832

The mass food poisoning suffered by 441 workers at the factory on October 21 was a reminder of the unhealthy factory lunches provided in Vietnam, which has been a major cause of wildcat strikes and the fact that its productivity is among the lowest in the world.

Truong Thi Bich Hanh, vice chairwoman of the Labor Union in Binh Duong, an industrial hub with 150,000 companies, said at least 8 percent of them pay only around 40 cents for a worker’s meal, or less than half the price of a cheap meal at a street eatery.

At least 33 cases of mass food poisoning involving 2,302 people, most of them factory workers, have been reported across the country this year.

Nguyen Thanh Phong, head of the food safety department at the health ministry, said the cost of the meal is too low to ensure quality.

“Low-quality ingredients easily suffer bacterial or toxic contamination,” Phong said, adding that some kitchens even use ingredients that are already spoiled.

He also blamed local authorities for failing to monitor hygiene in factory kitchens, many of which are open for a long time before receiving any food safety and hygiene checks.

Another lunch at home in Brisbane: gratuitous food porn shot of the day

The weather is perfect, highs of 68F, lows of 50F and nothing but sun. I walk around in shorts. Everyone else, including Amy, is freezing. I’m planning a year in shorts.

Lunch today was accompanied by the Love Boat’s Captain Stubbing tap dancing in the background as we dug into some goldband snapper, prawns, roasted red peppers, sweet corn, home fries and accessories.

Everything was cooked on the grill but I overdid the prawns. However, the snapper was a thermometer verified 125F when I pulled it off, rising after that, and topped with Tahitian-lime-mint-garlic butter. And this is winter.

Can eating at your desk make you sick?

 A new survey, released by the American Dietetic Association and ConAgra Foods’ Home food Safety program, found that while lots of us remain chained to our desks at meal time – 62 per cent at lunch time and 27 at breakfast – we’re skipping out on basic precautionary measures that reduce the risk of foodborne and other illnesses.

Alyssa Schwartz of writes that while experts say perishable food needs to be refrigerated within two hours of leaving home or it will start to spoil, half of the survey respondents admitted they left theirs sit out for three or more hours.

That may not be particularly risky for some items, says Dr. Doug Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, but not storing others properly could put you at risk for serious – even deadly – bugs such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria. And here’s the rub: “It’s probably not the foods you think that will make you sick,” Powell says.

An egg salad sandwich, for example, will likely keep unrefrigerated until lunchtime – provided you use store-bought mayo, which acts as a built-in preservative. On the other hand, eat with caution when it comes to deli meats and soft cheeses and commercially prepared dishes (“all the foods they warn pregnant mummies about,” Powell says).

Powell also cites some unexpected culprits – in particular, salad fixings and rice. “When you cut produce, you create a lot of opportunities for existing microorganisms to grow,” he says. In the case of rice, leaving it sitting at room temperature, whether at home after cooking or on your desk at work, can allow spores to grow. For both, refrigeration is key. And for rice and other cooked foods, make sure to reheat your dish in the microwave up to at least 60°C, the minimum temperature for killing bacteria.

“If you do get sick,” Powell says, “it’s likely not going to happen for a few days. In the case of listeria, it can take up to 30 days. It can be very difficult to attribute food poisoning to a certain food.”

That’s why you shouldn’t assume that just because you haven’t gotten food poisoning in the past that your lunchtime practices are just fine.

“Most people mistake food bugs for the stomach flu. But they’re wrong.”

School lunch food safety

School lunches are on the buffet of N.Y. Times stories and columnist Jane E. Brody comes in with some somewhat contradictory advice.

Brody correctly notes that chances are you worry more about whether your children will eat the food in their lunch boxes than about whether that food will be safe to eat after spending hours unrefrigerated.

(Sorenne is 2.5-years-old and I’m having daily debriefing sessions with various teachers to figure out what she likes and doesn’t like. Yesterday I was told by three different teachers that Sorenne was hungry and I needed to do better. Today, below, featured yoghurt and frozen berries, the usual morning snack, a lunch of whole-wheat rotini covered with a tomato, chicken and capsicum (red pepper) sauce left over from dinner along with whole wheat bread and butter, and afternoon snacks of orange slices and watermelon.)

Brody says that just as it is unwise to consume at any time foods made with raw egg, undercooked poultry or ground meat, or unpasteurized milk, these absolutely should be avoided in a packed lunch. Also, all raw fish, and shellfish that can be safely consumed raw, must always be kept cold.

No, I won’t be sending any raw shellfish to school with Sorenne.

Are the lunches you send to school making your kid sick?

Sorenne has been going to full-time daycare – she doesn’t like that term so we call it school – since arriving in Australia. At 2-and-a-half years old, we knew she was getting bored with us, and needed to be hanging out with other kids.

The kids all have to wear sunhats, and high-powered sunscreen is applied liberally, not the mild stuff used in North America.

Amy’s been making a lunch every day, and I’m starting to help out. Today is was leftover spaghetti, cheese, a yoghurt (anything pre-packaged is wildly expensive, with those little yoghurts going for about $1.20 each) and apple slices. Everything is labeled Sorenne, and it goes into the fridge as soon as we arrive. Seems like a good system.

But after dealing with the tyranny and boredom of school lunches for about 12 years with the four Canadian daughters, I’m well aware of the challenges: most schools don’t have fridges for kids to use. Standard advice is to pack food with ice packs or use cooler bags, but that may not be enough.

Researchers at the University of Texas, Austin, measured the temperatures of food in bag lunches 90 minutes before children at air-conditioned Texas child-care centers were scheduled to eat them.

Ninety percent of the lunches were in insulated bags. Even so, the results were disgusting.

Less than 2 percent of the perishable items were in what the researchers deemed a safe temperature zone: less than 39.2 degrees or more than 140 degrees. Only 14 of 618 items — they focused on meats, dairy products and vegetables — in lunches with one ice pack were a safe temperature. Multiple ice packs weren’t much better: Just 5 of 61 items were safe.

Unsafe temperatures allow bacteria to grow, increasing the odds that kids will get a nasty foodborne illness, Fawaz Almansour, lead author of the new study, said.

The study, published Monday in Pediatrics, did not look at how many kids actually got sick. The important thing, Almansour said, is that their lunches put them at risk for a long list of bugs. Children younger than four are especially susceptible to foodborne illnesses.

The authors wrote, “These results indicate an urgent need for parents and childcare personnel to be educated in safe food practices.”

As usual, there were no recommendations for how this education was to magically happen.

More food prep means more food safety basics; lunch ladies going gourmet

I was always more of a brown-bagger when it came to lunch. The high school cafeteria food was gross – although I did have a penchant for their ham and cheese melts on some sort of white wallpaper bun – but cost was the primary factor. Why would anyone pay for stuff that could be made at home for nothing when parental-types bought the food.

That was in Canada. The U.S. school lunch program is a little different.

And now the lunch ladies are developing their culinary skills to go along with the demand for so-called healthier foods.

Dawn Cordova, a longtime school cafeteria worker attending Denver Public Schools’ first "scratch cooking" training this summer, told Associated Press,

"It’s more work to cook from scratch, no doubt."

Cordova and about 40 other Denver lunch ladies spent three weeks mastering knife skills, baking and chopping fruits and vegetables for some of the school district’s first salad bars.

Denver is among countless school systems in at least 24 states working to revive proper cooking techniques in its food service staff.

The city issued its 600 or so cafeteria employees white chefs’ coats and hats and plans to have all its kitchen staff trained in basic knife skills within three years.

Well-known area chefs visit for primers on food safety, chopping technique and making healthy food more appetizing to young diners (hint: kids prefer veggies cut into funky shapes, not boring carrot sticks).

Chefs say that schools embraced processed food so completely that many newer cafeterias lack the basics of a production kitchen, such as produce sinks, oven hoods or enough cold storage to keep meat and produce fresh.

No mention of microbial food safety, but with all the extra kitchen prep, the risk potential increases, especially with cross-contamination. Here’s hoping they master the basics unlike the TV cooks who routinely serve up microbiological disasters.

Are you making kids barf with the lunch you pack?

After a couple months in the sun, the Aussie kids are getting ready to go back to school, which means warnings from health types.

I’ve packed a lot of lunches over a lot of years and 5 daughters. Didn’t use ice packs. Did use a variety of cooler bags given out as swag at conferences that would keep things cool.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports the NSW Food Authority examined the lunches of 766 Sydney primary school students. Didn’t say what they found. Awesome.

The Primary Industries Minister, Steve Whan, said warmer summer temperatures provided an ideal environment for bacteria to multiply but less than a third of lunchboxes – 29 per cent – surveyed were stored safely with an ice brick or frozen drink to keep food cool.

”It is essential that lunches are kept cool for school – sandwiches with meat or chicken can sit for up to five hours before kids eat them, so they can have much more bacteria if food is stored at room temperature. ‘On a very hot day that can be a recipe for food poisoning.”

In 2006 NSW Food Authority research found that lunches packed in paper bags were 12 degrees warmer than lunches packed with a frozen drink, the authority’s chief scientist, Lisa Szabo, said.

”I remember when I first started school it was a very exciting day, with so many new things to do, but the experience of food poisoning is not one of those things you want to have.”

Show us the data, or the sick people.

This is how irrelevant Washington, D.C is when it comes to setting food safety policy

Washington can set a minimal food safety standard, and taxpayers should get something for their money, but the resources and time spent lobbying the politicians and bureaucrats seem to have a low return on investment.

Tomorrow’s USA Today reports that a senator on the committee overseeing the National School Lunch Program called Monday for the government to raise its standards for meat sent to schools across the nation because McDonald’s, Costco, Burger King, and Jack in the Box all do a better job of food safety sampling.

Food safety standards for fast-food far better than for school lunches

Every semester I give a couple of lectures in an introductory food science class at Kansas State University and every semester I ask the same question: what is safe food, and what retailers come to mind when thinking about safe food?

Safe food is food that doesn’t make you barf; food that doesn’t make you barf is based on food safety programs validated with microbiological testing. Whole Foods Markets may be trendy and a nice place to shop, but they suck at food safety. Good food safety programs can be found at places like McDonald’s, Burger King, Costco and WalMart.

Students are generally surprised.

As will be readers of today’s USA Today, which once again slams the U.S. school lunch program as behind the times and proclaims that “McDonald’s, Burger King and Costco, for instance, are far more rigorous in checking for bacteria and dangerous pathogens. They test the ground beef they buy five to 10 times more often than the USDA tests beef made for schools during a typical production day. And the limits Jack in the Box and other big retailers set for certain bacteria in their burgers are up to 10 times more stringent than what the USDA sets for school beef.”

David Theno, who developed the safety program at Jack in the Box before retiring last year, says,

"We look at those (measures) to gauge how a supplier is doing.”  If shipments regularly exceed the company’s limits on indicator bacteria, "we’d stop doing business with them.”

Mansour Samadpour, a Seattle-based food safety consultant and microbiologist says the AMS approach to sampling "is not robust enough to find anything."

US school lunch program needs more food safety accountability

Today’s USA Today has a feature story today about meat served in the U.S. school lunch program and asks why certain batches of meat were excluded from a Salmonella-related recall and outbreak last year. What stands out is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture initially refused to match suppliers with positive test results as part of an analysis of 146,000 tests for bacteria including salmonella and E. coli.

USDA spokesman Bobby Gravitz wrote in an e-mail to USA Today that divulging their identities "would discourage companies from contracting to supply product for the National School Lunch Program and hamper our ability to provide the safe and nutritious foods to America’s school children."

The newspaper appealed the USDA’s decision. On Monday, the department released the names of the companies.

Although one company, Beef Packers Inc., appeared to stand out for the wrong reasons – in 2007 and 2008, its rate of positive tests for salmonella measured almost twice the rate that’s typical for the nation’s best-performing, high-volume ground beef producers, USA TODAY found — the company kept getting government business. Since 2003, Beef Packers has garnered almost $60 million in contracts.

That sounds eerily familiar to what happened in the 2005 E. coli O157 outbreak in Wales that killed five-year-old Mason Jones (left) and sickened another 160 kids eating their school lunches, where buyers were quick to look the other way to save a pound. A public inquiry into the outbreak concluded the procurement process was, “seriously flawed in relation to food safety.”

One way to push food safety through the system is to demand continuous improvement from suppliers in terms of lowering the number of pathogen positive results. Any consumer-oriented company is going to insist on evidence of such steps or they will take their business elsewhere. Those overseeing school lunches for U.S. kids should demand the same.

What also stands out is that despite the focus on food safety of the feature and an additional heart-wrenching story about a child sickened 11 years ago through the school lunch program, a third story about a company trying to provide low-cost, healthier, natural (whatever that means) school lunches makes no mention of – food safety. The story cites a sample lunch that may now contain fresh lettuce and tomatoes in a wrap, rather than the canned or cooked variety of fruits and veggies. Fresh is great, but introduces an array of microbial food safety and supplier management issues that isn’t even mentioned. Sorta ironical.