Mary Poppins isn’t cooking my burger

Steaming hot right through is the new piping hot.

Maybe it’s more scientific, in some alternative universe.

Andrew Wadge, Mr. Science at the U.K. Food Standards Agency, gets it sorta right in his latest missive when he writes that it doesn’t matter where the beef comes from, hamburger caries a risk of E. coli, Salmonella and other bugs.

“Our advice for burgers made from any type of meat therefore continues to be the same as for cuts of pork; they should always be cooked until steaming hot right through.”

Science Man also says it’s “safe to eat rare beef or lamb steak because searing the outside surface of a piece of steak, such as when cooked rare, will kill any bugs that might have contaminated the outside.”

But that doesn’t account for the potential risk from blade-tenderized cuts.

And hamburger can be pink and safe. Color is a lousy indicator. Use a thermometer and stick it in. It’s science-based.


Piping hot is not a cooking recommendation; temperature is

 I like gray food. Sometimes.

Pot roast, gravy, mushy peas, mashed potatoes – it’s comfort food for the Brisbane winter (high 70F, low 48F).

It’s gray. And piping hot.

But I also like hamburgers that aren’t hockey pucks, pork that isn’t leather, poultry that melts rather than substitute as a rubber ball.

To cook many foods safely without overcooking requires a tip-sensitive digital meat thermometer.

But, the Brits are the Brits, and once again, the best government communications types can come up with is, cook food until it’s piping hot.

This time it’s the Health Protection Agency, which issued one of those completely ineffectual food safety reminders as part of the taxpayer-funded Food Safety Week – another way to blame consumers if they get sick.

Among the helpful tips:

“Ensure that you cook/BBQ meat until it is piping hot – particularly poultry, as this will kill off any bacteria.

Dr Bob Adak, an expert in gastrointestinal disease at the HPA, said: “Bacteria can survive in all kinds of environments and can grow and spread rapidly given the opportunity. But you can combat this by cooking meat correctly to kill any bacteria that may be present and using hot soap and water when washing up and wiping surfaces thoroughly to eliminate harmful bacteria and reduce the risk of infection.”

Where can I buy some of this hot soap?

Nosestretcher alert: food safety week in UK

It’s food safety week in the U.K.

So expect some communication nosestretchers.

The Food Standards Agency said more than half of those surveyed in Scotland believed they could tell if food was safe to eat by its smell or appearance.

But the agency says potentially dangerous food bugs such as E. coli and salmonella do not always make food smell "off" and do not affect the way it looks.

Yet the Food Standards Agency advice on cooking meat is until the juices run clear or it’s piping hot.

It’s a terrible risk communication strategy to tell people they are food safety dumb when the government advice – cook until piping hot or the juices run clear – is also dumb.

UK FSA publishes updated science strategy

Is cooking food until it’s ‘piping hot’ a science-based recommendation?

The Food Standards Agency has published its updated Strategy to 2015, Safer food for the nation with five core principles:

• putting the consumer first;
• openness and transparency;
• science and evidence-based;
• acting independently; and,
• enforcing food law fairly.

And six core outcomes:

• foods produced or sold in the UK are safe to eat;
• imported food is safe to eat;
• food producers and caterers give priority to consumer interests in relation to food;
• consumers have the information and understanding they need to make informed choices about where and what they eat;
• regulation is effective, risk-based and proportionate, is clear about the responsibilities of food business operators, and protects consumers and their interests from fraud and other risks; and,
• enforcement is effective, consistent, risk-based and proportionate and is focused on improving public health.

Sounds great. But what are the details?

Of the estimated £135m annual budget, £20m is allocated to ensuring consumers have information necessary to make informed food choices, with priorities for improving public awareness about good food hygiene at home; increasing visible information on hygiene standards when consumers eat out or shop; and improving public awareness of healthy eating.

For that amount of money, the science-based FSA could do much better than telling citizens their meat is safe when it’s “piping hot” and “the juices run clear.”

Piping hot is not science or evidence-based; color is a lousy indicator of safety; using a tip-sensitive digital thermometer is the only safe way to determine if food has reached a safe temperature.

FSA also states “The strategy is written in a way that consumers can understand and explains the range of work we do across the UK.“

It’s not clear whether anyone asked consumers if they could understand, but FSA did state one of its main priorities was to “improve public awareness and use of messages about good food hygiene practice at home.”

Use of messages improves nothing; using practices recommended in messages may translate into fewer sick people, but those messages need to be evidence-based.

225 now sick from salmonella in sprouts

A U.K. outbreak of Salmonella Bareilly infection associated with contaminated bean sprouts is ongoing, although fewer new cases of illness are now being recorded.

The Health Protection Agency’s Centre for Infections (CFI) in Colindale has identified 204 cases of S. Bareilly in England, Wales (5 of the cases) and Northern Ireland (3 of the cases) since the beginning of August – nearly six times the number that the CFI would normally expect to see in that timescale. Health Protection Scotland identified 21 cases in the same period.

That’s 225 confirmed sick people, up from 169 a month ago.

Dr Joe Kearney, a Director with the HPA’s Health Protection Services Division who is chairing an outbreak control team said,

“We made a possible association with bean sprouts comparatively early in the investigation so our colleagues in the Food Standards Agency were able to issue timely advice to the catering industry. This advice was repeated and strengthened as the evidence linking contaminated bean sprouts to the outbreak became stronger. At the same time, we have been active in getting information to the public through the news media. We are now seeing fewer cases of illness, which would tend to suggest that our advice is being heeded.”

Maybe. Maybe not. It does suggest an on-going problem with salmonella in sprouts.

The Food Standards Agency advice is:

* “Bean sprouts should be cooked until they are piping hot unless they are clearly labeled as ready-to-eat.

* “As a precautionary measure it is advised that even bean sprouts labeled as ready-to-eat should be thoroughly cooked if they are to be served to young children, elderly people, people with impaired immune systems and pregnant women.

* “People who prepare meals in catering establishments and in the home should keep raw bean sprouts separate and apart from other salad produce, including bean sprouts that are labeled as ready-to-eat, to avoid the risk of cross-contamination.

•”If this advice is followed bean sprouts will be safe to eat.”

UK Food Standards Agency survives; new focus should help get the science right; piping hot is not a standard

‘You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more.’

That’s what eventual U.S. President Richard Nixon said to the press after losing the election for Governor of California in 1962 (he became President in 1968).

“I leave you gentleman now and you will write it. You will interpret it. That’s your right. But as I leave you I want you to know — just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference and it will be one in which I have welcomed the opportunity to test wits with you.”

And just like Nixon, the U.K. Food Standards Agency has come back from the political backwaters with, what the government calls, “a renewed focus on food safety.”

The Government recognizes the important role of the Food Standards Agency in England, which will continue to be responsible for food safety. The Food Standards Agency will remain a non-ministerial department reporting to Parliament through Health ministers.

In England, nutrition policy will become a responsibility of the Secretary of State for Health. Food labelling and food composition policy, where not related to food safety, will become a responsibility of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

This is tremendous news for food safety types as it was clear the Agency was being distracted by trying to be everything to everybody. Issues surrounding salt, fat, genetic engineering, labeling and others are largely lifestyle choices – they are not food safety issues, the things that make people barf.

Although the U.K. Department of Health needs new communications types when they begin a press release with,

“Public confidence in food safety issues will be protected, as the Government confirmed its intention to retain the Food Standards Agency (FSA) with a renewed focus on food safety.”

Public confidence is earned, not protected by a bureaucratic shuffling of the chairs.

Now that FSA is clearly focused on food safety, can they get rid of their nonsensical cooking temperature advice – piping hot – and focus on some evidence that will lead to fewer people barfing.

Otherwise, like Nixon, you’ll be back, only to get kicked around.

Warning: Cooking instructions from UK Food Standards Agency may lead to excessive barfing and explosive diarrhea

Many countries have a Food Safety Week or Month, which seem primarily designed to circulate bad information and blame consumers for getting sick.

The U.K. celebrates Food Safety Week 2010 from June 7-13 (I can hear the monster truck radio promo dude doing the voice-over for the commercials – ‘experience the thunder, Food Safety Week 2010 will rock your world’).

This year, the focus is on Campylobacter, which, at 55,000 reported cases annually, causes the greatest number of foodborne illnesses in the UK. The key messages for this year’s campaign are to cook thoroughly and avoid cross-contamination.

The communication types at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) have come up with a draft press release that local councils could use to promote the good deeds of Food Safety Week (or in bureau-speak, FSW!) entitled, Take simple steps to avoid food poisoning.

If avoiding food poisoning was so simple, why do so many people get sick?

“People should not worry unduly about food poisoning; there are some simple common sense steps people can take to avoid getting ill. Just storing, handling and cooking food properly will minimise the risk.”

Can I duly worry about barfing from the food I eat?

Bob Martin, a food safety expert at the FSA, said,

“Proper cooking will kill food bugs. It’s especially important to make sure poultry, pork, burgers and sausages are cooked all the way through. If there’s any pink meat or the juices have any pink or red in them, germs could be lurking! Check your food is steaming hot all the way through before serving.”

These are not recommendations for proper cooking; these are recommendations for food safety failures. Is steaming hot an improvement on piping hot? How do I check if food is steaming hot, won’t I burn something? Do hamburgers and chicken legs steam when they are cooked? Is color really the best way to tell if food is cooked? Why do bureaucrats have to excessively use exclamation marks?

As part of the interactive learning section, the British feds ask,

Q4. How can you tell that chicken is properly cooked? (Tick all that apply.)

1. It’s hot on the outside
2. It’s not pink
3. The juices run clear
4. After the time stated on the instructions
5. It’s golden brown
6. It’s steaming hot all the way through

A. It’s not pink, the juices run clear and it’s steaming hot all the way through, 2,3, and 6.

To ensure chicken is properly cooked, you should check the thickest bit of meat, either large pieces in something like a curry, or with a roast bird at the thickest part between the breast and leg. The meat should be steaming hot, with no pinkness and any juices should run clear.

Check it with your eyes? Your finger? Your tongue? How about, check it with a tip-sensitive digital thermometer because color is a lousy indicator for food safety.

“During 2010, the Agency will be developing a new campylobacter risk management programme. Although this new programme is expected to involve extensive work with industry to reduce the prevalence of campylobacter in UK-produced retail chicken, the promotion of messages about good food hygiene to consumers through initiatives such as Food Safety Week will remain an important factor in reducing human campylobacter infections.”

There is no evidence such information programs do anything but lower the credibility of a supposedly science- or evidence-based agency.

On this Memorial Day, which can be traced back to Decoration Day at the end of the American civil war, stick with some of the cooking advice from the Americans and Canadians – use a tip-sensitive thermometer and stick it in.

UK Food Standards Agency sucks at food safety advice

The holidays bring bad food safety advice, and in what’s turning into an annual tradition, it’s time to bash the Brits.

The Food Standards Agency is hoping to reduce the number of food safety clangers that are served up this Christmas, with its Christmas food safety advertising campaign.”

WTF is a clanger?

Oh, Dick van Dyke, is there nothing you can make sound Cockney?

“The Agency’s TV and radio adverts are jovial but have serious underlying messages about the preparation and cooking of turkey:

don’t wash it (you don’t need to)
defrost it thoroughly
cook it properly

That’s terrible grammar; a bulleted list should contain bullets, with semi-colons and an end period. I thought the Brits were serious about this stuff.

“The Agency’s research has shown that many people wash their turkeys before cooking, with older women the most frequent turkey-washing offenders. But washing meat or poultry can cause harmful food poisoning bacteria to splash on to worktops, chopping boards, dishes and utensils, where they can linger for days.

“Partially defrosted turkeys are another common festive food safety blunder.”

This is good stuff: don’t wash the bird, and defrost the thing – notice they don’t say whether it’s OK to do it on the counter or not.

But then, once, again, with all the food safety communication thingies in the government employ, the best they can come up with is,

“To ensure that the turkey is cooked properly, make sure it is piping hot all the way through. Cut into the thickest part (between the breast and thigh) to check that none of the meat is pink, and the juices run clear.”

No. Use a tip-sensitive digital thermometer. Color is a lousy indicator.

UK chief science thingy, Andrew Wadge, I’ll be in the U.K. Jan. 2 – 10, and I’d be glad to meet with you and your crack food safety risk communication team to talk about turkey prep recommendations.

Shurley some mistake: FSA wins clear communicator award

From the there’s-an-award-for everything category, the U.K. Food Standards Agency has apparently copped a statue for clear communication about listeria.

“The Agency has been given an award by the Plain English Campaign for a leaflet advising the over 60s about food safety and the food poisoning bug listeria. Food safety and healthy eating messages are often based on complicated science, but the Agency strives to make these messages as accessible to as many people as possible. We are therefore pleased that these efforts have been recognised by our partners and by the Plain English Campaign.”

The U.K. government agency that has millions of dollars to engage consumers and the best they can come up with is to serve turkey ‘piping hot’ rather than use a thermometer is now blowing itself for its, ‘Look out for listeria’ campaign. The award-winning leaflet is attached, and it essentially blames old folks for getting listeria.

The science is not complicated and neither are the communications. The level of state-sponsored arrogance is somewhat alarming.

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.