Cross-contamination at checkout

Katie and I were craving hamburgers this weekend and Doug decided to indulge us. At the supermarket on Saturday he picked up some ground beef along with our normal cart full of produce and other proteins. As usual, I tried to separate the items in the cart so that the fresh produce was not touching the beef, pork, or salmon filets, even though all the meat was wrapped.

Checkout on Saturdays is always busy, and with a baby, a shopper’s plus card, a payment method, eco-friendly shopping bags, and chatter with the cashiers and baggers, there are plenty of distractions. On this particular day, the new store manager was bagging our items and complementing Doug on his culinary ability: “I can see you must be a good cook because those items require skill.” I chimed in with full-hearted agreement. Doug’s an awesome cook.

In the meantime, as the hamburger was being passed over the scale and scanner, juice poured out all over the place. I watched the cashier and was about to say something, but she pulled out a sanitary wipe and cleaned her hands. She then proceeded to pass every one of our produce items over the scale and through the hamburger juice. I felt like I should say something but wanted Doug to be the bad ass. And as I stood there stunned, not wanting the store manager to fire the woman, she completed our transaction and was on to the next person.

As soon as we exited the store, I declared we would have to wash every piece of produce in the bags. It didn’t even occur to me until later that the following person’s items were also going to pass over that potentially E.coli-laden scale. And maybe the same thing had already happened five times before we arrived. Maybe we were already at risk before our hamburger leaked all over.

It’s important to wash fresh fruits and vegetables to remove external contamination, because you never know where it’s been. Once your produce is exposed, it can contaminate other items in your bag or at home. Even if you are a careful consumer, it’s difficult to know just where that tomato has been.

(P.S. Doug cooked the burgers to a perfect 160F and they were delicious.)


Fresh-cut salad sector advised to follow Earthbound’s lead

In today’s LA Times, Will Daniels, who oversees food safety at Earthbound Farm laments on the 2006 spinach outbreak that killed three people and sickened 200 others. He shares with reporter Marla Clone the steps the company is taking to make sure pathogens don’t end-up on consumers’ plates.

According to the story, all of Earthbound Farms greens are now checked for pathogens, from seed to sale. Each lot is tested twice — upon arrival from a farm, and again when packaged products roll off processing lines. In the year since the E. coli outbreak, the company has subjected about 120 million pounds of salad greens to new testing methods at a cost of several million dollars.

The story explains that on Oct. 2, just 18 days after the spinach outbreak was discovered, Earthbound Farms launched a "test and hold" system in San Juan Bautista. Since the program began, 58 out of about 76,000 lots entering Earthbound’s plants in San Juan Bautista and Yuma, Ariz., have tested positive for pathogens, a rate of 0.0008%, which amounts to about 93,000 pounds of greens destroyed out of about 122 million pounds that growers sent to Earthbound in the last 10 1/2 months.

Tests for finished products were said to have been added in February, and so far no packaged greens have failed. But Mansour Samadpour, the company’s hired food safety microbiologist predicts that four of Earthbound’s finished lots, nearly 4 tons, will test positive every year, most often in summer.

Despite what sounds like impressive testing procedures, the story goes on to note some skepticism, including questions over the accuracy of testing techniques and lab errors that may give producers a false sense of security. Trevor Suslow, a UC Davis microbial food safety specialist, tells Cone he has mixed feelings about whether extensive testing should occur at every plant. More important, he is cited as saying, is to ensure that growers, processors, truckers and stores all have well-designed programs to minimize pathogens. However, Michael Doyle, the industries most vocal critic was quoted as saying, "I believe that Earthbound is now the industry leader in providing food safety interventions to fresh-cut salads. The rest of the industry would be well-advised to follow Earthbound’s lead."