Learning from strawberries, spinach and melons: promote safe food practice before the next outbreak

In 1996, California strawberry growers were wrongly fingered as the source of a cyclospora outbreak that sickened over 1,000 people across North America; the culprit was Guatemalan raspberries.

After losing $15-20 million in reduced strawberry sales, the California strawberry growers decided the best way to minimize the effects of an outbreak – real or alleged – was to make sure all their growers knew some food safety basics and there was some verification mechanism. The next time someone said, “I got sick and it was your strawberries,” the growers could at least say, “We don’t think it was us, and here’s everything we do to produce the safest product we can.”

In Sept. 2006, an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 killed four and sickened at least 200 across the U.S. This was documented outbreak 29 linked to leafy greens, but apparently the tipping point for growers to finally get religion about commodity-wide food safety, following the way of their farmer friends in California, 10 years later.

In 2011, Jensen Farms, an eastern Colorado cantaloupe grower produced melons that killed 32 and sickened at least 146 with listeria in 28 states. One grower trashed the reputation of the revered Rocky Ford Melon: plantings this year are expected to be down 75 per cent.

Now the Rocky Ford Growers Association has turned to government-delivered food safety audits rather than third-party audits, and committed to emboss a QR code on every melon it slates for retail sale. This QR code will tell consumers where the melon was grown, harvested, and prepared.

Location doesn’t mean safety. Include the production details.

In Aug. 2011, Oregon health officials confirmed that deer droppings caused an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak traced to strawberries, many sold at roadsides, that sickened 14 people and killed one.

So when NPR asks, Are local salad greens safer than packaged salad greens, it’s the wrong question.

It’s not whether large is safer than local, conventional safer than organic: it’s about the poop, and what any grower is doing to manage the poop. Or risks.

Any farm, processor, retailer or restaurant can be held accountable for food production – and increasingly so with smartphones, facebook and new toys down the road. Whether it’s a real or imaginary outbreak of foodborne illness, consumers will rightly react based on the information available.

Rather than adopt a defensive tone, any food provider should proudly proclaim – brag – about everything they do to enhance food safety. Explanations after the discovery of some mystery ingredient, some nasty sanitation, sorta suck.

Microbial food safety should be marketed at retail so consumers actually have a choice and hold producers and processors – conventional, organic or otherwise – to a standard of honesty. Be honest with consumers and disclose what’s in any food; if restaurant inspection results can be displayed on a placard via a QR code read by smartphones when someone goes out for a meal, why not at the grocery store? Or the school lunch? For any food, link to web sites detailing how the food was produced, processed and safely handled. Manage the poop, manage the risk, brag about the brand.

Lemon juice is icky too; be honest with consumers and disclose what’s in any food

“There’s an ick factor to almost all food."

That was my short-take on the pink slime smearfest, which has now dragged retailers, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, into the murky morass where public opinion intersects with scientific evidence.

This is nothing new.

Me, I find E. coli and salmonella in raw sprouts icky.

Other people find ammonium hydroxide, or pink slime, icky. People may soon discover they find citric acid icky because that’s what Cargill uses to yield finely textured beef and reduce the pathogen load.

It’s pink, it’s meat, it’s lean finely textured beef – LFTB yo – versus pink slime in public opinion, and processors, retailers and government spokesthingies are acting like they’ve never encountered a food-related, or any risk-related issue where public opinion is different from scientific advice.

It’s theatre, like a Mike Daisey production.

Mike Hughlett of the Minneapolis Star Tribune writes today that Supervalu Inc., one of the nation’s largest grocery chains, will no longer sell hamburger containing an ammonia-treated beef filler dubbed "pink slime" by some food critics and a growing chorus of consumers.

The Eden Prairie-based company, which owns local supermarket leader Cub Foods, on Wednesday joined several fast-food chains and other major grocery operators in removing the controversial beef filler from hamburger sold in its outlets.

"This decision was due to ongoing customer concerns about these products," said Mike Siemienas, a Supervalu spokesman.

While ammonia-treated hamburger filler has gotten most of the popular attention, Supervalu also said its ban on so-called "finely textured beef" includes meat treated with citric acid, which is made by Minnetonka-based Cargill Inc.

California-based Safeway Inc., another national grocery chain, also Wednesday said it nixed sales of both ammonia-treated and citric acid-treated ground beef fillers. Cargill spokesman Mike Martin acknowledged that some of its grocery industry customers have eliminated finely textured beef.

"There have been customers who have contacted us because they have been contacted by consumers who are interested and concerned," Martin said.

Did Safeway and Supervalu stores get eggs from those nasty DeCoster farms in Iowa that sickened some 2,000 people with salmonella in 2010. Did they rely on crappy food safety audits to make their decision. If they are so concerned about consumer concerns, why won’t they provide information on egg suppliers? Or any other food?

Choice is a good thing. I’m all for restaurant inspection disclosure, providing information on genetically-engineered foods (we did it 12 years ago), knowing where food comes from and how it’s produced.

But I want to choose safe food. Who defines safety or GE or any other snappy dinner-table slogan drop? Removing pink slime hamburgers reduces my choice to buy microbiologically safe food.

USDA and the companies that previously outlawed pink slime acted expediently to manage a public-relations event. But they unwillingly undercut other efforts to provide safe, sustainable food.

What is USDA going to do about school lunch purchases containing genetically-engineered ingredients, hormones, antibiotics, and a whole slew of politically-loaded ingredients or production practices?

If consumers want to become food connoisseurs and safety experts, more power to them. I view my job, and the job of farmers, processors, distributors and retailers, regardless of political leanings, to make evidence-based information available and let people decide.

Market microbial food safety and hold producers and processors – conventional, organic or otherwise – to a standard of honesty. Be honest with consumers and disclose what’s in any food; if restaurant inspection results can be displayed on a placard via a QR code read by smartphones when someone goes out for a meal, why not at the grocery store? Or the school lunch? For any food, link to websites detailing how the food was produced, processed and safely handled, or whatever becomes the next theatrical production – or be held hostage.

There s an app for that: restaurant inspection grades coupled with complete data

Providing information about food – or anything else – needs to be layered to meet the needs of individual consumers.

Most people don’t care. But some want everything.

The mandatory posting of restaurant inspection grades is a way to provide a snapshot of information to diners as they enter an establishment. But with all those newfangled portable gadgets out there like iphones and ipads that baffle me but my 2-year-old can handle with ease, some are trying to provide additional information – for those who care.

Bakersfield.com reports that Kern County Environmental Health officials in California are backing up the letter grades they issue to restaurants with some technological muscle, giving diners the power to access detailed inspection reports of food businesses through their mobile phones and other data devices.

County regulators started printing a small, square "QR" code on all of the letter grade cards they post in the front windows of food establishments.

If your phone or data device can take a picture and surf the Internet, then downloading a QR code reader application will allow you to use your camera to scan that box of data (right, photo by Casey Christie, The Californian).

Public Health Department Director Matt Constantine said the code on the posted grade cards sends the person scanning the information to the county’s inspection report page, where they can input the name of the restaurant and pull up the establishment’s inspection history.

Restaurants are already required to keep a paper copy of their most recent inspection report on hand and give it to anyone who asks for it.

So far only a few restaurants — Tahoe Joe’s in the Marketplace, a Starbucks on Olive Drive, 24th Street Cafe, among others — have the codes on their grade cards.

Michelle Rowley, who stopped by Bonnie’s Best Cafe in downtown Bakersfield Thursday to pick up a phone order, uses the grade cards all the time and loves the idea of having more access to information.

"I won’t eat at anything less than a ‘B.’ Sometimes I wonder how some places get an A," she said.

A quick cell phone search, triggered by the grade card in the window nearby, shows Bonnie’s Best has a stellar 99 point A grade with only a couple "non-critical" problems — a leaking faucet in the food prep area and an improper wastewater disposal practice.

Rowley said she was actually surprised that the county had come up with such a clever way to use technology to serve the public.

"It’s more technologically advanced than I would expect government in California to be.”