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.


For Thanksgiving, I got campylobacter; food safety isn’t simple, neither are stool samples

It’s been a poopy couple of weeks. Literally. Turns out that I’ve been dealing with a Campylobacter infection for a while which has knocked me on my ass. Here’s the story.

Two weeks ago I was preparing to head to Manhattan (Kansas) to hang out with Doug, chat about a few projects, give a talk and take in the K State/Mizzou football game (with tailgating). The trip happened, but I gave a somewhat incoherent talk while sweating, slept most of my visit away, left the football game at halftime and spent two of the nights rushing to the bathroom every hour to evacuate my intestines (which sounded a bit like I was pouring a glass of water directly into the toilet). I wanted to blame Doug. He brings out the best in people.

As we walked to the game I remember saying to Doug that I wished the illness was a hangover because I knew there would be a defined end to it. It wasn’t. I didn’t eat much beyond Cheerios, yogurt and Gatorade for about a week. It was pretty nasty, probably the worst I can remember feeling.
After a feverish trip home and crashing for the remainder of the weekend I made an appointment to see the doctor to get things checked out. At this point I was a bit scared, tired of spending a couple of hours a day on the toilet and had a tender tush. I was also washing my hands like a mad man. With a one-year-old around I was super paranoid about negligently passing anything on to him. Of course, one of his favorite things to do is to stick his hands in the toilet, which is a bit like licking a raw turkey.

At the doctor, I described my symptoms, had a rectal exam (fun) and was given the materials needed for a stool sample. I’m not going to lie; I was a bit excited by the stool sample stuff. I was looking for anything to cheer myself up and I kept thinking about the ironic blog post at the end of the ordeal. Or as my friend Steve said “Wow – [Campylobacter] sucks. Although once you’re healthy again, it automatically becomes funny.” Yes it does.

The idea of stool sample harvesting was way more fun than the actual act. It’s amazing any foodborne illnesses are confirmed with stool samples because the process is a bit nuts.  It took some thinking to figure out how to catch the sample without contaminating it with water or urine. The final decision was to use the bucket from our salad spinner – which has now been retired – and place it in the toilet bowl. I then proceeded to do what I had been doing eight or nine times a day and produced a sample. I had three vials to fill (one for C. difficile, one for parasites and another for other pathogens), and a bonus margarine-like tub for “other things.” The vials were easy, they came with their own spoons. After ten swipes across the base of the former salad spinner I was able to messily get the rest of the sample collected in the tub. Then came the clean-up.  This whole episode took me about 45 minutes and made me think I was on Dirty Jobs.

I proudly returned to the doctor’s office with samples in hand and then waited a few days. On Monday I received a call from the physician’s assistant explaining that I’m now the owner of a culture-confirmed Campylobacter infection. The doctor prescribed some ciprofloxacin and I’m feeling much better than I was 13 days ago.

My stool is beginning to resemble what it did before this whole ordeal, but I’m not totally done. Although rare, I could still develop arthritis problems or Guillain-Barr syndrome (an immune system issue that can lead to paralysis) but I hope not.

I’ve been telling folks over the past couple of days about the campylobacterosis and the responses can be grouped into two categories: “that’s ironic;” and, “where do you think you got it?” The second question is more interesting and easier to answer: I’m not sure.

The Campylobacter could have come from lots of sources. It might have been something Dani or I did at home.  We try to avoid cross-contamination and I’m religious about using a food thermometer, but those practices reduce, not eliminate, risks. I eat out a few times a week and put my trust in the front-line staff at restaurants to do what they can to keep me from getting sick. I also eat a lot of fresh produce that could be contaminated with fecal matter pretty much anywhere from farm-to-fork. Who knows? 

Being a food safety nerd I’m still waiting on follow-up information on the typing and whether I’m part of a larger cluster of illnesses.  If I am, maybe that will help answer the source question. To be continued.

What this incident has shown me, better than I understood before, is that foodborne illness really isn’t as simple as some make it out to be. I like to think that I have some basic knowledge about what I can do to avoid it.  But I still spent 13 days on the toilet and I don’t really know what led to the fun.


Jail time for poor health inspections in UAE

Maktoob Business reports that a poor health inspection in Abu Dhabi could land a food outlet’s operator in jail. In response to two outbreaks earlier this year that caused the deaths of three children, the emirates food standards regulator has proposed a new law establishing jail time for outbreaks and infractions.

The authority has already stepped up its campaign to clean up the emirate’s eateries, shutting down close to 70 food establishments for health and safety violations so far this year, according to the paper.
“These regulations will be in place so that it’s obligatory for every food establishment to follow them,” ADFCA spokesman Mohammed al-Reyaysa was quoted as saying.

Frank Yiannas of Wal-Mart writes of the behavioral effects of consequences in his book Food Safety Culture. Frank says:

Although negative consequences should be used from time to time in the field of food safety, they should be used with care and discretion. Ideally, negative consequences for knowingly or intententional unsafe behaviors can be integrated into the disciplinary or performance management process already established.

Studies have repeatedly shown that an emphasis on positive consequences over negative consequences generally leads to enhanced performance.

The proposed law definitely establishs some negative behavior consequences; whether they are culturally apporpriate behavior modifiers and will result in less sick people is unknown.

Gratuitous food porn shot of the day – oven baked salmon, squash soup, garlic bread, strawberries and melon

Farmed salmon fillets with oil, lime, garlic, rosemary and white wine, baked in a 400F oven. Roasted butternut squash soup with apple, cinnamon, nutmeg potato and carrot, pureed, and using a homemade chicken stock (the stock makes the soup). Cheap whole wheat buns I picked up at Dillion’s at 7 a.m. after dropping Chapman off at the airport, topped with roasted garlic in butter, rosemary and some shredded Italian cheese (the bread, not the Chapman).

She’s also eating whole strawberries and chunks of melon. Her six teeth are helping with that.

The Slammin Salmon: new movie puts food porn in its place?

Hopefully. It’s from the creators of Super Troopers and Beerfest, two quality, underrated flicks, and the trailer for the film, opening Dec. 11/09, shows promise.

The wiki entry says,

The Slammin’ Salmon is a 2009 film by Broken Lizard. The film is about the owner of a restaurant initiating a contest to see which of his waiters can earn the most money in a single night, with a prize of $10,000. For the loser, a beating by the owner, Cleon Salmon (played by Michael Clarke Duncan). Kevin Heffernan will be directing the film; it is his first time directing a Broken Lizard film. "Salmon" was filmed in 25 days at the beginning of 2008.

Campylobacter week: two great papers on the pathogen

A couple of cool papers on Campylobacter were published last week — one discussing outbreaks  of the pathogen in Australia (and the most common sources) and another suggesting that generic E. coli is a lousy indicator of campy in water.

In the first paper, Outbreaks of Campylobacteriosis in Australia, 2001 to 2006, researchers looked at 33 outbreaks of campylobacterosis between 2001 and 2006 resulting in 457 probable and 147 confirmed illnesses. These outbreaks only captured 0.1 per cent of laboratory confirmed outbreaks suggesting that sporadic cases are much more problematic than outbreaks. The group found that commercial settings were implicated in 55 per cent of the outbreaks, and the most common suspected food vehicle was poultry (41 per cent of outbreaks). Salads were also suspected in two of the outbreaks.

In the second paper, Thermotolerant Coliforms Are Not a Good Surrogate for Campylobacter spp. in Environmental Water, researchers in the former home of the Nordiques, Quebec, analyzed over 2400 samples of river water from 25 sites over a two year period. The samples were tested for the presence of indicators (thermotolerant coliforms and generic E. coli) and Campylobacter. The group found that there was a weak association between the distributions of Campylobacter spp. and thermotolerant coliforms and between the quantitative levels of the two classes of organisms. Their results suggest that sampling water for thermotolerant coliform does not provide a good indication whether or not Campylobacter is present.

This is important information for the produce industry which, as the first paper shows, plays a role in Campylobacter infections. By testing water for common indicators, producers and packers may be missing campylobacter risks entirely.

A good way to get campylobacter? Use raw chicken to reduce swelling.

Hinting at food safety – marketers play games but invoke consumer concerns

I shop at Dillons in Manhattan (Kansas), owned by Kroger. I’ve gotten to know the staff, we talk food safety stuff, and I’ve really enjoyed the few times I’ve chatted with Gale Prince, who used to be head of food safety at Kroger.

But I don’t understand the press release Kroger sent out today about its new line of salads which includes new technology on the packaging that enables customers to learn where the produce was grown as part of Kroger’s "Quality You Can Trace" program.

I don’t really care where it was grown. I do care if it was grown in cow shit.

The Kroger’s Fresh Selections are the only salads with HarvestMark technology sold in the U.S. today. Each bag carries a 16-digit code shoppers can enter at to learn more about the salad’s origin, packing location, ingredients, date and time the product was packed.  Customers can also offer their feedback on the product.

The PR BS goes on to say,

"Kroger continues to be a leader in offering customers innovative food safety tools and resources," said Joe Grieshaber, group vice president of Kroger’s meat, seafood, deli and produce departments.  …  Food safety is a top priority at Kroger.  Our partnership with HarvestMark makes it easy for customers who are interested to learn more about the food they purchase for themselves and their families. 

This has nothing to do with food safety. A food safety program for leafy greens would provide at retail – or at least through a url – practices on irrigation water testing, soli amendments and human hygiene programs for the workers. Market food safety directly and stop dancing.

Left, is a bag of Dole spring mix, purchased at Dillons. Included on the package is a salad guide that says taste, 4, on the mild to bold scale, and texture is 2 on the tender to crunchy guide.

The label also says the spring mix pairs well with balsamic vinaigrette, crumbled goat cheese, julienne sliced sun-dried tomatoes and a pinch of Mediterranean herbs. It’s thoroughly washed, preservative free and all natural. And Kosher certified and has a recipe for Balsamic vinaigrette.

I want to know if it has E. coli and is going to make me barf. Don’t eat poop. And if you do, cook it.

Gratuitous food porn shot of the day – rib eye steak and all the fixins

Sorenne eating dinner with mom and dad, 6:00 p.m., Oct. 25, 2009.

Should have taken the picture last night with seafood surprise (in Manhattan Kansas?) and grandma here, but tonight will have to do:

Grilled rib eye steak with rosemary and garlic, grilled sweet potato fries, grilled Portobello mushrooms and red pepper, garlic-lime butter on home-made whole-wheat baguette, and sugar snap peas.

Faith-based food safety? Market microbial food safety directly at retail so consumers can choose

Most food purchases are based on faith. That’s why an extensive series of rules, regulations and punishments emerged beginning in 12th century Mediterranean areas.

Faith-based food safety systems are prevalent from the farmer’s market to the supermarket, especially in the produce section. And almost anything can, and is, claimed on food labels – except microbial food safety.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has announced they are going to examine the growing number of nutrition claims found on the front of food packages after complaints the labels promote health fairytales.

In the U.K., the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has encouraged diners to boycott restaurants that cannot answer questions about the origin of their food.

British chefs Raymond Blanc, Peter Gordon, Martin Lam, Paul Merrett and Antony Worrall-Thompson issued a joint statement saying:

“The British public need to stop being so reticent in restaurants and start asking where their food comes from. It’s your right to know the origin of the food you are served and what types of farms are being used – and the mark of a good restaurant is one that is proud to tell you.”

In response to this news Freedom Food has launched a new long-term campaign called ‘Simply Ask’ which aims to get people asking about food provenance when eating out. This is in a bid to encourage restaurants, pubs and cafes to start sourcing products from higher welfare farms such as Freedom Food, free-range or organic.

Americans are questioning nutrition claims, Brits are questioning allegedly animal-friendly sources of food, maybe there’s room to ask for microbiologically safe food – the stuff that sickens up to 30 per cent of all people everywhere every year (so says the World health Organization).

Lots of companies and retailers are taking baby steps in the direction of empowering consumers to hold producers accountable, but lots aren’t.

Maple Leaf Foods, whose listeria-laden cold-cuts killed 22 Canadians last year, is continuing on its bad Journey to Food Safety Leadership by announcing today that, “Industry and government come together to make food safer for Canadians.”

Invoking the two groups shoppers distrust the most – industry and government – and proclaiming they are working together to better things may not be the best communication strategy to build trust and confidence.

Dr. Randall Huffman, Chief Food Safety Officer for Maple Leaf Foods, stated,

"The Canadian food industry is united that food safety not be used as a competitive advantage. Every member at every step in the production process is a steward of food safety. This spirit of cooperation heralds a new beginning for our industry, and together we will make Canada the gold standard for food safety. This symposium is the first in a series to ensure we share experiences and knowledge, and gain insights into emerging risks, technology advances and cutting edge science that can deliver safer food for Canadians."

That’s nice. Computer companies share technology all the time but that doesn’t stop them from marketing their individual technological advantages.

Stop pandering. Companies that are serious about food safety will go beyond the trust-me approach of faith-based food safety systems and provide public access to food safety test results, provide warnings to populations at risk, and market food safety at retail, to enhance the food safety culture back at the producer or processor level, and to build consumer confidence. May even make money.

Food safety doesn’t just happen in English – so why aren’t restaurant inspection disclosure results available in other languages?

You’d figure that getting stuff translated into other languages would be a breeze, since I have an in with the modern languages department. But to do it in real-time is a bit messy.

Whether it’s a recall, an inspection report or a warning label, not everyone who eats in the U.S. is fluent in English. That’s why our food safety infosheets are now available weekly in French, Spanish and Portuguese.

Debbie Pacheco of blogTO writes today that the garbage disposal calendar Toronto distributes has sections in various languages, so why, then, is something as important as Toronto’s DineSafe guidelines only available in English?

One restaurateur told Pacheco he’s interpreted food preparation instructions for his staff before. "If you want that traditional food, it’s usually the older people who don’t necessarily speak English that cook it." He manages his kitchen and is certified in food handling. The city requires that someone with a food handling certificate supervise the kitchen at all times while it’s operating.

Mebrak, who’s been with Cleopatra restaurant for nine years, put it best. "It’s important people really understand how to handle food. It’s about safety for everyone."