A book that will make you terrified of your own house

That’s the headline in the N.Y. Times, but as I try to tell my 10-year-old (seen here with one of her older sisters as a 4-years-old after the skating coach told her she had to wear figure skates and not hockey skates, and I said, I’m Canadian, your wrong, and when was the last time Russian women successfully competed in ice hockey) there are microbes all around us, we just have to try and understand them.

I’m still convinced we are all hosts on a viral planet.

And I figure Schaffner should review this book, but he’s a busy dude, so I’ll do it.

From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live by Rob Dunn is a collection of the myriad microbial life-forms that take up residence in a typical American showerhead, I’m starting to think maybe that young man was onto something.

With an army of collaborators, Dunn, a professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University, took samples of the gunk inside hundreds of showerheads, and found a profusion of microbial fauna. Tap water itself, he writes in the chatty, informative “Never Home Alone,” teems with amoebas, bacteria, nematodes and crustaceans. As the water passes through the showerhead, these microbes lay down a kind of scaffolding known as biofilm to protect themselves from getting washed away with every ablution. They make the biofilm “out of their own excretions,” Dunn writes bluntly. “In essence, by working together, the bacteria poop a little indestructible condominium in your pipes.”

It gets worse. Filtered through that poop-biofilm, the water that washes over you, as you supposedly scrub yourself clean, might contain not only all those harmless amoebas and nematodes but a few bacteria that can be dangerous — in particular some species of Mycobacterium, cousins of the Mycobacterium that causes tuberculosis. And the pathogens are there because we provided the perfect breeding ground for them, when we tried to purify our tap water in the first place. Municipal water treatment plants use chlorine and other chemicals that kill off the bacterium’s natural predators, allowing Mycobacterium to thrive. Tap water that comes from a well, in contrast, has never gone through a treatment plant and has a rich microbial life. It might look more dangerous, but it’s actually safer, Dunn explains. All those organisms in well water are themselves harmless, and they tend to fight off the potentially dangerous ones like Mycobacterium — that’s how biodiversity works.

News from the showerhead biome is just one part of this fact-filled, occasionally disgusting, slightly alarming book. Dunn has been involved in an obsessive quest to document the tiny inhabitants of indoor environments, a project that involves teams of professional and amateur bug-watchers to take samples not only from showerheads but from door frames, refrigerators, hot water heaters, cellars, toilets, pillowcases, all sorts of surfaces from the places we call home. These workers swab and seal, swab and seal, and send their thousands of samples to Dunn’s lab in Raleigh, or to his other lab at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, for an ongoing microbial census.

Food laboratory accuracy remains a concern

Food microbiology laboratories continue to submit false negative results and false positive results on a routine basis. A retrospective study of nearly 40,000 proficiency test results over the past 14 years, presented today at the 113th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, examined the food.lab.testingability of food laboratories to detect or rule out the presence of Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and Campylobacter.

“There is concern when laboratories report that pathogens are not found in a food sample, when in fact they are there,” explained Christopher Snabes, lead author on the study. “This is known as a ‘false negative’. Similar concerns arise when a laboratory reports a ‘false positive’ suggesting that pathogens are in the food sample, when indeed they are not.” The study found that, on average, food laboratories report false negatives of 9.1% for Campylobacter, a bacterial foodborne illness that may cause bloody diarrhea, cramping and fever, and 4.9% for Salmonella, a bacteria that may cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps sometimes leading to hospitalization or death. The false positive rate, on average, is 3.9% for Salmonella, and 2.5% for both E. coli and L. monocytogenes.

This study was conducted by the American Proficiency Institute (API) located in Traverse City, Michigan. API is a private institute that supplies proficiency testing programs for food laboratories and clinical laboratories. API offers proficiency testing (PT) as an objective method for measuring the accuracy of a laboratory. Participants use API PT up to three times a year to examine the accuracy of their laboratory personnel and their testing methods. The purpose r-MEAT-DNA-TESTING-large570of PT is to determine if the laboratory professional can properly respond to API with correct answers as to what API places in a food sample. PT may test for presence or absence of a substance in a qualitative test, and sometimes PT may require an enumeration response, or quantitative test.

Currently, food laboratories are not required to assess the accuracy or quality of their tests. Laboratories that utilize API PT are doing so voluntarily. Some laboratories use API services to obtain and maintain accreditation. API food microbiology PT programs are used by over 700 food laboratories in 43 countries. Proficiency testing is an objective means for measuring laboratory accuracy. “Improved accuracy in our nation’s food laboratories will lead to a safer food supply,” noted Snabes. The Food Safety Modernization Act, passed in 2011, included sweeping changes to the country’s food safety requirements. Model laboratory standards and laboratory accreditation are addressed as important components of the law. Once rules are promulgated, it is anticipated that all food laboratories will need to ensure that their personnel, and the test methods they use, are in compliance with the law. Yet, food laboratories may start using proficiency testing now to help ensure a safer food product.

#FS2012 Canadian supermarket mogul says farmers’ markets could kill people

It’s not that a grocery mogul told a supposed food safety conference that “one day, (farmers’ markets) are going to kill somebody;” it’s that no one in the farmer’s market community responded with any kind of microbiological food safety comment, resorting instead to, trust us and we’re inspected.

The Toronto Star reports mega-billionaire Galen-hey-now-Weston (right, exactly as shown), head of Canadian mega-grocer Loblaws, with over 1,000 stores, told the Canadian Food Summit yesterday, "Farmers’ markets are great … One day they’re going to kill some people, though. I’m just saying that to be dramatic, though.”

Robert Chorney, the executive director of Farmers’ Markets Ontario, responded, "We strenuously object" to Weston’s remark. That was awful."

Ontario’s 175 farmers’ markets do more than $700 million in sales every year. Chorney promoted a few food safety myths of his own, saying that markets are regularly inspected and food is easily traceable because consumers know who they’re buying from.

Inspections don’t mean much. And just because someone drives to the Food Terminal in Toronto to load up on produce at 3 a.m. and then sell it at a premium at the local market adds nothing to traceability.

“The association said that four surveys since 1998 have shown that 83 per cent of respondents feel market food is as safe or safer than supermarket food.”

Surveys suck; people’s perceptions often have no basis in reality.

"A question for Galen Weston Jr: Have you ever been to a farmers’ market?" tweeted Gail Gordon Oliver, publisher and editor of Edible Toronto. "Have you ever REALLY spoken to a farmer?"

I have. And I ask questions. Like quality of irrigation water, what kind of shit soil amendments are used, and employee handwashing programs. I ask about microbial test strategies and results as verification that the farmer, whether she bought it from the Food Terminal or grew it herself, has a clue about dangerous microorganisms. Most answer with variations of, trust me.

There’s already enough faith-based food safety out there.

“Some delegates whispered among themselves on coffee breaks that supermarkets sell most of the food that’s recalled by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).”

That’s because supermarkets sell most of the food that is consumed in Canada.

“Farmers’ Markets Ontario works with Ontario’s 36 public health units, each of which has a champion responsible for markets. It has a food safety manual on its website.”

A manual? Awesome, my faith is restored.

I don’t care if it’s a farmer’s market or the Loblaws megalomart: provide evidence that the food you’re flogging is microbiologically safe. The best producers and retailers will market food safety at retail. People want it, that’s one reason they go to markets and buy all sorts of weird categories of food, but it’s not safer; it’s hucksterism.

And being a big company like Maple Leaf of 2008 listeria-in-cold-cuts fame that killed 23 Canadians is no guarantee or even hint that microbiological food safety matters. Regardless of size, or production method, or retail experience, providers either know about microbial food safety risks and take serious steps to control those risks – or they don’t.

In the 1990s as outbreaks were increasingly associated with unpasteurized apple cider, I would ask my cider provider at the Guelph local market (that’s in Canada) what he was doing to ensure the microbiological safety of his product. He could recite a variety of measures taken on the farm, and even set up a modest micro lab on the farm for testing. I bought his cider.

Beware the double-dipper on Super Bowl Sunday? Or is it just like kissing

In a 1993 episode of the television series, Seinfeld, George Costanza was confronted at a funeral reception by Timmy, his girlfriend’s brother, after dipping the same chip into the dip after taking a bite.

“Did, did you just double dip that chip?” Timmy asks incredulously, later objecting, “That’s like putting your whole mouth right in the dip!” Finally George retorts, “You dip the way you want to dip, I’ll dip the way I want to dip,” and aims another used chip at the bowl. Timmy tries to take it away, and the scene ends as they wrestle for it.

In 2008, food microbiologist Paul L. Dawson at Clemson University oversaw an experiment in which undergraduates found on average, that three-to-six double dips transferred about 10,000 bacteria from the eater’s mouth to the remaining dip.

Each cracker picked up between one and two grams of dip. That means that sporadic double dipping in a cup of dip would transfer at least 50 to 100 bacteria from one mouth to another with every bite.

In anticipation of much dipping during Sunday’s Super Bowl, the Is It True video series af the Wall Street Journal’s Health Blog presents this animation, and concludes it’s not like putting your whole mouth in the dip but could be compared to sharing a kiss with your fellow dippers.

Grown in greenhouse or garden, produce must be safe to serve

Ariz.-based Eurofresh Farms has, according to The Packer, developed a new food safety system, EnviroLock, that requires workers, and anyone entering produce-producing greenhouses, to pass through a sanitation facility before entering, wash and disinfect their hands and forearms, and don color-coded hospital-style scrubs, shoes, hairnets and gloves through the duration of their shift of stay.

That’s because anything that comes into contact with fresh produce has the potential to contaminate, is difficult to wash off, and outbreaks of foodborne illness are disastrous.

In Chicago, the Public School gardens are full of chubby tomatoes, heavy squash and fragrant basil but none of the produce ever finds its way into CPS lunchrooms. Instead, because of rules set by the district and its meal provider, the food is sold or given away.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the policies are in place despite the high obesity rate among Illinois children and experts’ concerns that young people are eating few fresh vegetables.

And that’s the problem with these stories, playing safety off against local and little kids.

Why not teach kids about food safety; instead of complaining that local is magically immune to microorganisms, embrace and market the food safety advantages of local markets – but only if it can be backed up with data.

Put the rhetoric aside and combine microbiologically safe with local – that means answering the same questions the big, controlled access greenhouses have to answer to sell their produce to Walmart and Costco and others: know and test the source of irrigation water, pay attention to the quality of soil amendments, let kids know the importance of handwashing and how dangerous bugs move around.

Big or small, be the bug, and be safe.

Microbiologically safe produce – local or otherwise

The Obama’s – meaning Michelle – have started a gardening craze. Robert Kenner, the director of Food Inc., told Vanity Fair the solution to so-called industrial food issues was “to go to a farmers’ market whenever possible … it kind of feels like a religious experience.” And on rolls the bandwagon.

Massive rainfalls and 100F days has lead to some ideal growing conditions here in Manhattan (Kansas) but also presents some challenges in the form of floodwater (I’m convinced there’s just no drainage around here).

The microbiological safety of water sources is critical when growing fresh produce that is not going to be cooked. Did that floodwater come downstream from any sort of livestock operation (or human outhouse)? Did the water provide a vehicle for bird or rodent or lizard poop and pathogens to contaminate produce, inside and out? Will those pathogens now flourish in heat?

Those issues and more are discussed in the latest video from the SafeFoodCafe, the bites.ksu.edu digital video subsidiary. The new video guy, Evan, did his best to make me look cool with what he had. He needs better source material.

Bonnie Hunt knows cross-contamination

Ever since reading this infosheet on a study of the bacteria and viruses found on lemon wedges, I’ve ordered my waters without them. I learned today that Bonnie Hunt is also one whose knowledge of microbiology has heightened her awareness of cross-contamination.

An encore presentation of the Bonnie Hunt Show today included a bit about Bonnie’s background with microbiology and how it affects her experiences at restaurants today.

Before her acting career took off, Bonnie worked for several years as a nurse. While training for that, she had to "look through microscopes" and "learn about handwashing"–particularly that friction is more effective than soap at removing bacteria and viruses.

When dining out, Bonnie said she notices when servers touch a refill pitcher to the rim of her glass… and then do the same with other glasses throughout the restaurant. She joked that it’s like making out with everyone there. 

She also related a story about a family eating near her at a local restaurant. The table the family was seated at had two ketchup bottles. A child picked up the first bottle, drank from it, and then set it back down on the table. Another child picked up the second bottle, tried unsuccessfully to pour ketchup out of it, and so used the straw from their drinking glass to get it flowing.

Knowledge is such a powerful thing.

Home test kit for E. coli and Salmonella?

Magna Medical Services (MMS) is pumping out the press releases following high profile outbreaks.  These dudes have been around for a while, and usually after every outbreak they fire out something about testing your food with their high-powered testing.  Today’s says:

With the recent string of food recalls, food and health retailers are scrambling to offer instant food testing kits for E.coli and Salmonella manufactured by Magna Medical Services, Inc. MMS Quick Results Food Testing Kits are home food test kits for E.coli and Salmonella.
“Retailers will be able to sell home kits for E.coli and Salmonella to clients that need to quickly check their food areas and food products for possible bacteria outbreaks,” says Robert Greene, General Manager for Magna Medical Services, Inc “This is a product that should be right next to every home first aid kit.

They also put out releases following the 2006 spinach-linked E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, and another that cites "recent E. coli outbreaks that have affected the Northeastern United States" back in January.  Seem to be capitalizing on public interest in food safety, but I have lots of questions about the product.

Does this product even work (and how would we know)?
Where is the data (because it’s not on their website)?
How sensitive is it? 
What’s the utility of using quick strips on food in your home? 
How do you sample food in your house?
What would happen if a firm,or a temporary food stand, or my mom used these strips, the results showed no contamination, and the food still resulted in an outbreak?

Maybe it’s a good tool, but without some of these questions answered I file MMS into the huckster category, capitalizing on food safety hysteria. Maybe MMS have some good answers, and I welcome any comments on this product here on barfblog.

Some of my food microbiologist friends are struggling with figuring out the best way to use traditional, labour-intensive methods of sampling different foods (especially produce) and there are disagreements on sample preparation. Seems MMS has got it all figured out.  And only for "less than $4 USD"

I think what MMS is trying to sell is a magic bullet — test with our strips and you can be sure about your food.  And without the data, I’m not sure they can say that, I don’t believe that there are magic bullets in food safety, it’s not that simple.