Cross-contamination is a huge risk, at home and in food service; 65% of UK chickens contain campylobacter

Food safety is not simple.

And because food safety is hard, it’s important to reduce the number of pathogens entering a home or food service kitchen.

The Food Standards Agency today published the findings of a new survey testing for campylobacter and salmonella in chicken on sale in the U.K.

The survey showed that campylobacter was present in 65% of the samples of chicken tested. Salmonella was in 6% of samples, 0.5% of these samples contained S. enteritidis and S. typhimurium.

Andrew Wadge, Director of Food Safety at the Food Standards Agency, said,

"The continuing low levels of salmonella are encouraging, but it is disappointing that the levels of campylobacter remain high. It is obvious more needs to be done to get these levels down and we need to continue working with poultry producers and retailers to make this happen. Other countries like New Zealand and Denmark have managed to do so, we need to emulate that progress in the UK."

FSA is to be commended for undertaking the retail survey, but should be slapped on the wrist for terrible risk communication, once again asserting that, “cooking chicken properly all the way through will kill the bug, so consumers can avoid the risk of illness.

“Taking simple measures in the home can reduce the risk of food poisoning. If food is prepared, handled, and cooked properly, avoiding cross-contamination with other food, then food bugs will not have a chance to spread and cause harm.”

Food safety is not simple. Piping hot is not an end-point cooking temperature.

The video below accompanying a terrific N.Y. Times feature on E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef demonstrates how easy it is to cross-contaminate, and they don’t even use a thermometer to ensure delicious 160F hamburgers.

Once again: No nutritional difference between organic and regular food

Organic food is not safer than conventional food. Organic food is not more sustainable than regular food. Organic food is not more nutritious than other food.

Organic is more expensive than other food, and verification of organic production practices is specious at best.

Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times figured this out a few weeks ago and wrote a column that began,

"I don’t believe in organics."

This morning he revisited the topic, noted that organics is an article of faith for a lot of people, highlighted some hate mail, and most surprising, revealed that mail supporting Parsons’ column was overwhelmingly positive by a ratio of 5 or 6 to 1.

This afternoon, the U.K. Food Standards Authority released results of a review it commissioned which found,

no important differences in the nutrition content, or any additional health benefits, of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food.

The focus of the review was the nutritional content of foodstuffs.

Gill Fine, FSA Director of Consumer Choice and Dietary Health, said,

“Ensuring people have accurate information is absolutely essential in allowing us all to make informed choices about the food we eat. This study does not mean that people should not eat organic food. What it shows is that there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food.”

The FSA commissioned this research as part of its commitment to giving consumers accurate information about their food, based on the most up-to-date science.

A paper reporting the results of the review of nutritional differences has been peer-reviewed and published today by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Dr Dangour, of the LSHTM’s Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit, and the principal author of the paper, said:

“A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock, but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance. Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.”

The Times’ Parsons got it right in his original column when he said,

farming is a complicated enterprise and there is a huge gray area between certified organic and the stereotypical heavy-duty use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

Furthermore, a lot of the best farming practices of the original organic philosophy — composting, fallowing, crop rotation, the use of nonchemical techniques for controlling most pests — have been adopted by many nonorganic growers, even though they still reserve the right to use chemicals when they think it’s best.

The complete U.K. report is available at

Tragic food safety stories and teaching moments

This is what happens when doing interviews at 6:30 a.m. while feeding Sorenne some mush of peach and pear.

After blogging about how the U.K. Food Standards Agency was embracing food safety culture, I turned the post into an opinion piece and sent it to a newspaper in Wales.

The next morning, while feeding Sorenne, a reporter e-mailed me with some questions, and I replied, “call me.”

So she did.

The article, by Abby Alford, appeared this morning in  Wales under the headline, Tragic E. coli death used to teach US students food hygiene.

The tragic story of E. coli victim Mason Jones is being used by an American professor as a graphic illustration of what unsafe food can do.

Dr Douglas Powell also shows his students at Kansas State University a picture of the five-year-old as he teaches them about food safety.

“We are always trying to come up with new ways of getting the food safety message across. We have to have a compelling story and there’s no more compelling story than Mason Jones,” he said.

I talked about food safety culture, what FSA was proposing, and questioned how they were going to measure effectiveness.

The FSA has announced a culture change is needed in all parts of the food supply chain if the UK is to avoid another E.coli outbreak.

Dr Powell also suggested UK firms could follow the example of a factory in North Dakota, USA, which uses webcams to stream its activities live on the Internet.

Apparently I dreamed that part. There is a turkey processing plant in South Dakota that uses video cameras to constantly monitor operations and the videos can be accessed by auditors or USDA inspectors at any time – but not on the Internet. And not in North Dakota.

‘Change culture to avoid E. coli’

Amy’s father and stepmom came for a visit and yesterday we went to a local eatery for a late lunch.

When Amy’s dad ordered a burger, the server asked how he would like the burger cooked.

He said medium-well.

The server said he could get the burger as rare as he wanted.

Amy said really, and started asking, just what was a medium-rare burger.

The server said it all had to do with color, and after some back and forth with the cooks, said the beef they get has nothing bad in it anyway.

Color is a lousy indicator.

During the same meal, a reporter called to ask, why do companies – big companies, huge chains and brand names — knowingly follow or ignore bad safety practices? (that story should appear Sunday).

It comes down to culture – the food safety culture of a restaurant, a supermarket, a butcher shop, a government agency.

Culture encompasses the shared values, mores, customary practices, inherited traditions, and prevailing habits of communities. The culture of today’s food system (including its farms, food processing facilities, domestic and international distribution channels, retail outlets, restaurants, and domestic kitchens) is saturated with information but short on behavioral-change insights. Creating a culture of food safety requires application of the best science with the best management and communication systems, including compelling, rapid, relevant, reliable and repeated, multi-linguistic and culturally-sensitive messages.

Sixteen years after E. coli O157:H7 killed four and sickened hundreds who ate hamburgers at the Jack-in-the-Box chain, the challenge remains: how to get people to take food safety seriously? ??????Lots of companies do take food safety seriously and the bulk of American meals are microbiologically safe. But recent food safety failures have been so extravagant, so insidious and so continual that consumers must feel betrayed.??????

Frank Yiannas, the vice-president of food safety at Wal-Mart writes in his book, Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-based Food Safety Management System, that an organization’s food safety systems need to be an integral part of its culture.

The other guru of food safety culture, Chris Griffith of the University of Wales, features prominently in the report by Professor Hugh Pennington into the 2005 E.coli outbreak in Wales that killed 5-year-old Mason Jones and sickened another 160 school kids.

Yesterday, the board of the U.K. Food Standards Agency (FSA), in response to Pennington’s report, approved a five-year plan that will push food businesses to adopt a food safety culture and comply with hygiene laws, and urge stricter punishments for those that do not. The FSA will also ensure health inspectors are better trained.

A report put before FSA board members in London stated “culture change in all of the relevant parts of the food supply chain” is necessary.

Mason Jones’ mum Sharon Mills said she is pleased with the action being taken by the FSA.

“This sounds promising and shows they are moving in the right direction. … Things are slowly changing and hopefully we will all see the benefits sooner rather than later.”

Maybe. I’m still not convinced FSA understands what culture is all about. And how will these changes be evaluated. Is there any evidence that social marketing is effective in creating food safety behavior change? Those issues get to the essence of food safety culture, yet are glossed over with a training session – more of the same.

And why wait for government. The best food producers, processors, retailers and restaurants should go above and beyond minimal government and auditor standards and sell food safety solutions directly to the public. The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food safety culture; and use technology to be transparent — whether it’s live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the website — to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.

Can food safety culture be taught? UK Food Standards Agency responds to E. coli O157 report

Two days ago, the parents of 5-year-old E. coli victim Mason Jones called the Welsh government response to an inquiry into the 2005 outbreak, “a bit disappointing.”

Today, the U.K. Food Standards Agency published its own response and, it’s a bit disappointing.

After a cursory reading, the FSA folks seem to acknowledge some of the major points raised by Prof. Pennington, but in the end promised more of the same (but gosh-darnnit, a bit tougher on enforcement).

Here are a few highlights:

This understanding of ‘food safety issues’ culture and ‘what works’ are core to the Food Hygiene Delivery Programme. This will be a particular challenge as local authorities’ regulatory services are facing declining resources, and increasing demands for their services. We must push more effectively in all appropriate national forums for food safety to be given more prominence by local political bodies and their officials. Our own project-based approach to delivering responses to this Inquiry, coupled with the restructuring of the Agency’s Food Safety Group, is designed to concentrate on a coordinated set of actions to achieve the desired outcomes in a holistic rather than piecemeal way.

Culture and holistic are nice words but the FSA says:

In May 2009 the FSA announced a new training course on social marketing and behavioural change for food enforcement officers. It aims to develop skills to acquire an insight into the behaviours of food business operators and consumers in order to successfully disseminate food safety messages.

What does disseminate mean in this context? What if the messages suck? How will this be evaluated. Is there any evidence that social marketing is effective in creating food safety behavior change? Those issues get to the essence of food safety culture, yet are glossed over with a training session – more of the same.

New Zealand court slams poultry processor

An Auckland woman whose company slaughtered thousands of poultry in what a judge described as stomach-turning conditions has been fined more than $23,000 in a case brought by the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA).

Ling Zhang and her company Ling Ling Poultry pleaded guilty in Papakura District Court last week to four charges under the Animal Products Act.

Judge Eddie Paul fined Zhang $20,000 for selling animal product that has not been processed in line with the Act and $3000 for not having a registered risk management programme, plus court costs.

He told Zhang that to call the operation ‘bad’ was an understatement: “Anyone viewing that barn in the manner in which those chickens were slaughtered, their stomach would turn.”

New Zealand Food Safety Authority nails restaurant — no one wins when people barf

A New Zealand restaurateur whose poor food safety practices caused more than 50 Christmas Day diners to fall ill has had his appeal thrown out.

Robin Pierson, the owner-operator of Bushmere Arms, was ordered to pay $400 in fines, along with $850 in reparation to victims and $10,414 in costs to the Crown in a case brought by the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA).

The court heard that on 25 December 2006, Pierson’s restaurant provided a Christmas Day buffet luncheon for about 110 diners, with a selection of ham, beef and turkey. The next day some of the diners called him complaining of illness after the luncheon. Fifty-seven reported varying degrees of stomach pain, abdominal cramps and diarrhoea.

A Health Protection Officer found the symptoms of illness described by the complainant diners were consistent with food poisoning caused by Clostridium perfringens. C. perfringens was also found in samples of the leftover turkey, and the enterotoxin form of the bacteria in faecal samples from two of the ill diners.
While C. perfringens can be found in the stools of normal people, the enterotoxin is only found in people with C. perfringens food poisoning.

NZFSA’s Assistant Director of Compliance and Investigation Justin Rowlands, said the luncheon had all the hallmarks of an outbreak in waiting.

“The turkey was inadequately thawed, cooked, and reheated. The person serving meats at the buffet also used the same knife to carve the turkey, meat and ham, raising the chance of cross contamination. Also, the restaurant did not have formal steps in place for operating safely during stressful periods.”

Culture, camp, pregnancy and … synchronized diving?

Why is synchronized diving an Olympic sport?

I don’t know either, but it caught the attention of my dining companions, each with their own food safety story to share.

Philippa Ross-James, Program Manager Communications, with the New Zealand Food Safety Authority, gave a great talk Monday morning at Kansas State University, sharing the agency’s experience promoting food safety practices in culturally acceptable ways with New Zealand’s indigenous people — Maori, and New Zealand’s Pacific peoples.

The take home messages: build trust, get out of the office, and be in it for the long term. That’s Philippa (right), with Curtis Kastner, director of Kansas State’s Food Science Institute, me, Philippa, and Lisa Freeman, associate dean for research at K-State’s vet college, and a v.p. at K-State’s new Olathe innovation campus.

My youngest daughter, Courtlynn, is back from camp and spending some time in Manhattan (Kansas). She told me on the last day of camp, the chicken that was served was still cold in the middle. A camp counselor came around and told the kids, don’t eat the chicken, it’s not cooked.

If you’re making food for 300 or so kids, have some standard operating procedures, and use a damn thermomter.

Finally, during the synchro swimming display last night, pregnant Amy inquired about the bruschetta with goat cheese. It was a soft cheese and there is a risk of post-processing contamination – the soft cheese can support listeria growth if contaminated with a knife or someone’s dirty hand – so she didn’t order it, but I had to ask, “Is the goat cheese made from raw or pasteurized milk.”

The waiter didn’t have a clue, but did offer to ask, returned from the kitchen, and said it was made from pasteurized milk, and someone had asked the chef the same question last week.

Consumers can ask questions.

Philippa left for the 30-something hour trek back to Wellington this morning.

Courtlynn, Amy and I are heading to Florida for some much needed beach time.

We like Wellington, New Zealand — and not just for Bret and Jemaine

Wellington, New Zealand, may be home to Peter Jackson and the Ring things, may be where Bret and Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords met at school and were “formerly New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo,” but I prefer to think of Wellington as home to the New Zealand Food Safety Authority.

So after a week of work in Wellington, it was time for leisurely lunches, lamb and All Blacks rugby.

Phillippa and her husband (left) graciously picked up Amy and I and took us out of the city to do what I love to do wherever I go – grocery shopping – followed by a fabulous lunch at their home in Porirua.

Saturday evening, NZFSA chief executive Andrew McKenzie (right) and his wife shared their home and their spectacular view of Wellington for dinner and an evening of All Blacks rugby against South Africa.

Sunday, after we checked out of the hotel, we decided to grab a bite at 3C, a restaurant we had visited with the NZFSA gang earlier in the week. The meal was slow in arriving, but we didn’t really care as we summed up our week in Wellington. Doug the manager cared, and said lunch was on him. Doug even knew the difference between a University of Kansas Jayhawk and a Kansas State Wildcat due to years spent in the U.S.

So here’s to all things Wellington, and here’s Flight of the Conchords, celebrating all things French and food, with their hit single that Amy actually uses in her French classes, Foux Da Fa Fa.

Coffee, Conagra and consumers – talking in bed

Amy’s convinced the coffee in our Wellington, NZ, hotel room has no caffeine, so I made an early morning run yesterday to the Starbucks around the corner.

The coffee place was just opening and as I awaited my order, a load of prepared sandwiches arrived. The first thing the staff member did was insert a tip-sensitive digital thermometer into one of the sandwiches to verify that the proper temperature had been maintained. Good on ya. The guy getting my order said it was standard operating procedure, and as we chatted it emerged he was newly arrived in Wellington from Montreal. Another Canadian buddy. Or friend.

Next was a talk with ConAgra’s Food Safety Council in Omaha, Nebraska. That’s ConAgra of pot pie and peanut butter fame.

Quality experts at ConAgra Foods today will hear from a lawyer who has sued the company due to food borne illnesses and from two food safety advocates as the company stresses the need to keep its products safe.

"It’s part of raising the game and listening to every expert on the food safety front," said Teresa Paulsen, ConAgra spokeswoman.

ConAgra decided to bring in Bill Marler, Barb Kowalcyk, director of food safety and co-founder of the Center for FoodBorne Illness Research and Prevention, and myself to hear what we had to say.

Marler told the Omaha World-Herald he was going to talk about fostering a culture that focuses on food safety while remaining profitable in a competitive industry, and credited ConAgra Chief Executive Gary Rodkin and other company executives for inviting him to speak.

"It says a lot for the company.”

Being in Wellington, NZ, and 17 hours ahead, provided several technological hurdles, which we sorta managed to get around. Video didn’t work, so the folks in Nebraska saw my slides and heard my disembodied voice – apparently in surround sound.

I was talking into a telephone (left, exactly as shown), advancing my slides, but had no audience feedback. While awkward, I could get used to this lecturing style.

By the time I spoke with the consumer advisory group for the New Zealand Food Safety Authority later that afternoon, I had the message much more focused: here’s the top-5 factors that contribute to foodborne illness, here’s the research we do to reduce the burden of each, and here’s how we use different mediums and messages to foster a food safety culture, from farm-to-fork.

It’s been good to reflect on why we do the things we do, and it’s been great traveling in Wellington with Amy. Now it’s time for a couple of days of hanging out, catching up on news if I ever get my e-mail working again, and then its off to Melbourne on Sunday.