Fewer people barfing? Pathogen versus illness reduction

I’ve commented many times on the machinations of Washington and other capitals, with their proposals, and lobbyists and general isolation from the reality of foodborne illness and ask a basic question: will whatever some social actor is proposing actually lead to few people barfing?

eintsteinquestioneverything(It’s like the question I asked my hockey club: do coaches run practice or do parents? They couldn’t answer so I stepped aside as head coach. Still coach kids and adults, but wearied of the bureaucracy; that’s for other people more skilled at it than I).

Dr. William James writes for meatingplace.com that it’s time for USDA to move from pathogen reduction to illness reduction.

Will requiring testing of an expanded array of products help us achieve a downward trend of illnesses from E. coli O157:H7? Some meat companies think not, because trim from these products is already tested.  FSIS thinks more testing might help because it claims these cuts are increasingly used for grinding by further processors, retailers, and foodservice customers.

In a puzzling statement, FSIS said it intends to focus on Salmonella Dublin. S. Dublin isn’t on CDC’s list of top 10 serotypes causing illnesses.  And according to FSIS, S. Dublin is reported to cause more severe illness than any other meat-borne Salmonella, but it “rarely infects humans.”

So, what is the plan to reduce Salmonella illnesses from beef? “[W]e think one way to get at that is through a performance standard,”Meatingplace.com reports FSIS as saying.

FSIS did mention they were looking at the presence of Salmonella in lymph nodes as a key to a new approach to controlling illnesses.  That’s encouraging.

The FSIS announcement for pathogen controls doesn’t have many new ideas, and is not likely to be effective.  We need a fresh approach.

The goal for FSIS needs to evolve from pathogen reduction to illness reduction.

Asking questions at the farmers’ market

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 8.46.11 AMA couple weeks ago I took my kids to the farmers’ market. Sam, who is 3, is all about food shopping: picking out what the family will be eating while trying to convince me to buy him treats and snacking on the free samples. While Jack and Dani were looking at plants for our gardens, Sam and I toured the food stalls. We came upon a vendor selling cider (right, exactly as shown).

Worrying more about my kids safety than looking like a nerd, I asked, “Is it pasteurized?”

The dude at the stall answered, “It sure is, flash pasteurized to keep it safe.”


My friend Judy Harrison writes in this month’s Food Safety Magazine that farmers’ markets continue to increase as a place for folks to connect with their food.

Visiting with your neighbors, listening to live music while shopping, meeting the farmer who grew the produce, sampling the fresh food in the market, the festival-like atmosphere…that is the downhome feel that has Americans flocking to farmers markets.

Who are the customers shopping at these markets? It takes only a trip on an early Saturday morning to see that many of the customers are senior adults, people who may have health problems and mothers with young children all shopping for foods they perceive to be healthier and safer than those you buy in the grocery store. What is often casually observed is an attitude, not just among consumers but among farmers and market managers as well, that “It’s locally grown…I know that farmer…It’s organic…so it is healthier and safer than what I could get at the store.”

If you took a tour of your local farmers market, what would you see? Many local markets are held in open fields in city parks or even in parking lots. Conditions may be less than sanitary. You are likely to observe fruits and vegetables displayed on the ground rather than being held at least six inches above this surface, as would be required in food storage areas of restaurants or grocery stores. You are also likely to encounter customers or even vendors bringing their dogs into the market area and having access to displays. You may or may not see handwashing facilities or at least hand sanitizer being provided in the market. Some of the produce may already be packaged in open bags for customers to pick up, or customers may be allowed to handle and select their own produce. You may even see stations where customers can bring produce they have just purchased to be juiced or blended into healthy shakes—with no evidence of facilities for washing produce, hands or equipment. You may see displays where customers can sample cut produce that is not being kept on ice or refrigerated. You may also see entrepreneurs who are making and selling food products that you hope are at least following cottage food regulations. As a food safety professional, you see opportunities for increased risk of foodborne illness.

Judy’s comments are bang-on, lots of people shop at the farmers market, have various perceptions and may not see the world through the eyes of a food microbiologist. The conversation I had with the cider vendor led me to revisit a project idea we’ve had steeping for a while: what questions do I ask at the farmers’ market – and what do I think the answers should be? Stuff like what does the producer do to evaluate the safety of the water they use, do they use composted manure, how do they handle ill staff who show up to pick?

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 9.07.26 AM

I have linked a draft of a document that captures those questions and more and I’m asking the online food safety nerds to share additional thoughts and questions to make the document more robust. Feel free to add a comment here on the blog, tweet @benjaminchapman, post a comment on our Facebook page or use old fashioned e-mail.



Cookiegate: health chief fired for eating cookie instead of answering questions

Today’s lesson in risk communication: don’t brush off reporters with crazy gestures involving a cookie, and don’t whine, “I’m still eating my cookie.”

You’ll get fired.

Professor Stephen Duckett, , 60, who had been headhunted from Australia in 2009 to take charge of the newly created Alberta Health Services, was fired after preferring to munch on a cookie rather than answer media questions as he left a meeting of senior healthcare advisers in Canada.

Following a recent meeting in Edmonton, Dr Duckett refused to talk to waiting media about the health crisis in the Canadian province of Alberta.

The Age reports that at one stage, as he tried to outpace the media, he prodded the cookie towards the face of a female reporter and said the only thing he was interested in was eating his cookie.

He was quickly dubbed the "Cookie Monster" after a video of the incident went viral showing him nibbling on the biscuit and repeatedly telling the pursuing media "I’m eating my cookie."

The former La Trobe University academic issued an apology the day after the incident on November 19, saying he deeply regretted his behavior and said he respected journalists’ right to ask timely questions in the public interest.

Board chairman Ken Hughes told reporters that Dr Duckett was sacked because his ability to be effective in the role was compromised and the cookie video was "one of the elements" that led to the decision.

If food safety is so simple why do the so-called experts disagree? And who’s an expert?

It’s food safety month in September, so expect to hear lots of sanctimonious statements about how simple food safety is if only the people would do things the right way.

But what’s the right way?

Food safety is not simple.

Anyone who says so is full of it.

And any food safety nerd knows there are major disagreements about all levels of food safety minutia.

Eating Well magazine asked 10 questions of some food safety types earlier this year and a bunch of stories are now on-line.. The differences in the answers reveal how un-simple food safety is, and how different people talk with journalists.

The Eating Well piece poses some questions, but doesn’t address the hard ones: Who is an expert (a word I hate)? Who is competent to offer advice about anything? Who am I to answer anything, to offer an opinion?

At bites.ksu.edu and barfblog.com, we actually have a policy on how to answer questions, how we provide advice, and it’s being updated.

The magazine has its 10 commandments of food safety, but like fallen angels, commandments are open to interpretation. Judge for yourselves.

Your contestants are:

Ming Tsai, owner, Blue Ginger, his award-wining East-meets-West restaurant in Wellesley Massachusetts.

Bill Marler, managing partner and personal injury lawyer at Marler Clark.

Linda Kender, an associate professor in the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.

Richard Vergili, a professor in hospitality management at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA)

Catherine Donnelly, a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont.

Donna Rosenbaum, co-founder and executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.).

Marion Nestle, professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.

Scott Donnelly, a product safety authority with more than two decades of food industry experience.

Douglas Powell, Ph.D, associate professor, food safety, Kansas State University.

Try to distinguish the wordy from the brief, the fact-based and the faith-based approaches to food safety. Match up the bios with the responses and spot the hypocricy.

Eating Well asked, do you always:

1. Use a “refrigerator thermometer” to keep your food stored at a safe temperature (below 40°F).

Tsai: At Blue Ginger, yes, and [a thermometer] is built in the Sub-Zero fridges we use at home.
Marler: Yes.
Kender: I check the temperature of my refrigerator once a week, especially during the summer months.
Vergili: Yes, unless I plan to use the food within a couple of hours.
Donnelly: Yes. I consider my refrigerator to be my most important food-safety device. Knowing the temperature of the refrigerator you use to store food is critical to keep food safe. Many refrigerators in the U.S. operate at unsafe temperatures, and the warmer foods are stored, the more quickly bacteria, including pathogens, can grow.
Rosenbaum: Yes. Appliance thermometers are easy to find in hardware stores. I recommend using one in the freezer as well. It is especially important to check the internal temperatures of secondary refrigerators/freezers kept in basements, garages or other places of more extreme room temperature.
Nestle: No. I live in a tiny apartment in New York and have a small refrigerator. Nothing stays in it that long.
Donnelly: No.
Powell: Fridges fluctuate and thermometers are the only way to acquire accurate data.

2. Defrost food in the refrigerator, the microwave or in cold water, never on the counter.

Tsai  Yes.
Marler: Yes.
Kender: Mostly I defrost in the refrigerator, but there have been occasions that I had to resort to the cold running water method.
Vergili: No, I will occasionally let something begin to defrost on the counter when I am home. For example, today I had some frozen wrapped spare ribs sitting out for a little over [an] hour that [were] still partially frozen. [I] then seasoned and refrigerated [the ribs] for dinner tonight.
Donnelly: Yes. When defrosting any potentially hazardous food, particularly meats or poultry, it is important to make sure juices are contained by using sealed bags or containers. Juices can contain harmful pathogens which can contaminate surfaces and people coming into contact with these juices. Again, the warmer potentially hazardous foods are stored, the more potential growth for dangerous bacterial pathogens to levels which can cause disease.
Rosenbaum: Yes. This is especially important with meat, poultry & seafood. When defrosting meat, poultry or seafood in the refrigerator, however, it is important to make sure that it is on a platter or tray and cannot drip raw juices as it defrosts onto or into foods stored below.
Nestle: Not exactly. I don’t have much counter space so I’m most likely to leave it out in a bowl.
Donnelly: I rarely defrost. When I do, I leave the food out on the counter for less than 4 hours.
Powell: I defrost on the counter. I just don’t leave it there very long.

3. Always use separate cutting boards for raw meat/poultry/fish and produce/cooked foods.

Tsai: Definitely—especially because of food allergies, too, on cross contamination.
Marler: Yes.
Kender: No. I always wash, rinse, and sanitize my cutting board when switching proteins or going to a no cook product.
Vergili: No, I will thoroughly clean the same cutting board and use the same board for both raw and cooked products.
Donnelly: Yes, and I make sure to regularly clean and sanitize these boards after use.
Rosenbaum: I do, but this isn’t always practical. It’s more important to clean and sanitize cutting boards thoroughly between uses, even if you only use it for one type of item. Also, inspect your cutting boards from time to time. When they develop deep knife grooves it may be harder for cleaning solutions to reach and kill any bacteria present and then it’s time to replace the board.
Nestle: No. I wash the one I have in between [uses].
Donnelly: Yes. Or I clean and sanitize the same board.
Powell: No, but I clean cutting boards thoroughly.

4. Always cook meat to proper temperatures, using a calibrated instant-read thermometer to make sure.

Tsai: No, I love my burgers rare and my lamb and steak medium rare. I will be struck by lightning or chomped by a great white before undercooked meats get me!
Marler: Yes.
Kender: No. In my house we like our steaks medium rare and our burgers pink in the middle. No one in the high-risk category lives in my home.
Vergili: I have a preference for many grilled foods to be undercooked such as tuna and pasture-raised porterhouse pork chops.
Donnelly: Most of the time. When grilling, I purchase low-risk products (intact muscle meats as opposed to ground beef) and insure that the outsides of these products (where contamination resides) are well cooked. For poultry and roasts, I always use a meat thermometer.
Rosenbaum: Yes, I always use a thermometer. In regards to beef, it is impossible to tell when it is safe to eat without using a thermometer. The color of the cooked meat is a very inaccurate indicator for safety. Different types of beef require different cooking temperatures and the type of thermometer used may also vary. Very thin beef patties, for instance, are best checked with a thermocouple (a type of temperature sensor) while roasts and steaks can use a larger-gauge thermometer.
Nestle: I cook it hot enough but don’t use a thermometer.
Donnelly: No. I use visual cues based on experience.
Powell: Yes. Color is a lousy indicator. I feel naked without a thermometer.

5. Avoid unpasteurized (“raw”) milk and cheeses made from unpasteurized milk that are aged less than 60 days.

Tsai: No, I love the flavor of unpasteurized. See above for lightning and shark.
Marler: Yes!
Kender: Yes, absolutely. I also avoid unpasteurized cider and fruit juices as well.
Vergili: As a rule yes, but I have gone out of my way to buy “certified” raw milk on rare occasions and tasted cheese from a known cheese maker as well. Frankly, there are some questions surrounding cheese made from raw milk and listeriosis despite 60 days of aging.
Donnelly: I do not consume raw milk as I know this is a high-risk product, and most producers are exempt from requirements specified in the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance which greatly enhance milk safety. For raw milk cheeses aged for less than 60 days, if they are AOC or PDO cheeses which I am purchasing and consuming in Europe, I have great confidence in the regulations and production procedures/processes which include stringent microbiological criteria, thus I know these cheeses pose a low food-safety risk. Cheeses made by unlicensed manufacturers and distributed illegally pose a great public health risk and I would not consume such products.
Rosenbaum: Yes. I believe the risk inherent in any raw dairy product far outweighs any potential benefit. This is especially important for pregnant women to avoid as they are at risk for contracting Listeriosis from raw dairy products, which carries a high rate of premature labor and spontaneous abortion.
Nestle: Not always. If I know the supplier, I’ll take the small risk.
Donnelly: Raw milk cheese is safe; raw milk is not.
Powell: Yup. Not worth the risk, especially for pregnant women, and my wife had a baby six months ago.

6. Never eat “runny” eggs or foods, such as cookie dough, that contain raw eggs.

Tsai: No, again, shark and lightning. But at BG, we do use pasteurized eggs and egg whites for desserts (like sabayon and in the hollandaise we make once a year for the Greater Boston Food Bank’s Super Hunger Brunch).
Marler: Correct.
Kender: I never eat runny eggs or anything that contains raw eggs. I even prepare my own Caesar salad dressing using pasteurized egg yolks.
Vergili: No, I will eat classic scrambled eggs which are a bit runny, as well as a poached egg cooked less than the 145ºF [that] the codes call for.
Donnelly: Yes. I avoid consumption of raw eggs. There are excellent pasteurized egg products available to consumers which substantially reduce risks posed by pathogens such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria.
Rosenbaum: This is difficult to answer with the word “never” in it. My answer would depend on whether or not pasteurized eggs were used. When dining out, I always ask whether raw eggs were used in dishes such as sauces, mousses, tiramisù and dressings. If so, then I would avoid these foods unless I knew the facility was using pasteurized eggs. At home, pasteurized-in-shell eggs have become available in my area and I use these whenever I want to enjoy foods that would be risky if using regular eggs and not cooking thoroughly. Interested consumers can request that their grocers carry in-shell pasteurized eggs.
Nestle: Don’t be silly. I’m human.
Donnelly: Eggs should be cooked.
Powell: Nope.

7. Always wash your hands in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds before handling food and after touching raw meat, poultry or eggs.

Tsai: Yes, definitely!
Marler: Yes.
Kender: I must admit that at my home I may not get through “Happy Birthday” twice before working with some food items, but absolutely always after working with raw meats and poultry!
Vergili: Yes, this is one of the easiest ways to prevent the spread of both pathogenic bacteria and viruses without compromising the culinary preference for a food.
Donnelly: Yes, and I prefer to use antibacterial soaps after handling these products.
Rosenbaum: Yes, or use hand sanitizer. It’s important to thoroughly clean the faucet handle if you’ve touched it after handling raw foods, too. Also, take along hand sanitizers when going to picnics and barbecues away from home where soap and warm running water would be hard to find.
Nestle: Wash hands, yes, but I don’t count seconds.
Donnelly: Yes.
Powell: Nope. 20 seconds is too long and water temperature doesn’t matter; but I do wash my hands routinely.

8. Always heat leftover foods to 165ºF.

Tsai: Yes.
Marler: Yes.
Kender: Never have leftovers at my home.
Vergili: No, as stated, this is one of the most misunderstood regulations. The recommendation basically pertains to leftover items in large volumes like chili or thick soups that need to be reheated slowly to ensure quality. A piece of beef previously cooked, such as a serving of prime rib, need not be reheated to 165ºF (it becomes more like pot roast).
Donnelly: Yes.
Rosenbaum: I do not generally use a thermometer for leftovers. I do re-cook soups and liquids until they boil, and heat other leftovers until they are steaming. It’s important to stop midway and stir food reheated in the microwave due to cold spots and uneven heating.
Nestle: I get them steaming hot, but don’t measure.
Donnelly: No. I use common sense.
Powell: Nope. 140ºF is sufficient if it has already been cooked.

9. Never eat meat, poultry, eggs or sliced fresh fruits and vegetables that have been left out for more than 2 hours (1 hour in temperatures hotter than 90°F).

Tsai: Fruits and veggies, fine. Meat and seafood, no! At BG, we are always very cognizant of the temperature danger zone; everything is refrigerated and/or cooled down properly.
Marler: Yes.
Kender: Never….especially during summer here in New England. I insist that all our outdoor activities, such as cookouts, have ice, and lots of it, that is used to keep the salads and other food items cold.
Vergili: No, if [it’s] at a group gathering, I would consider eating a raw vegetable or fruit that has been served unrefrigerated (assuming it hasn’t become oxidized, [which I find] unappealing).
Donnelly: Yes, Adherence to proper storage temperatures and the 2-hour rule are proven food-safety measures.
Rosenbaum: Yes. The rule in our house is, “If in doubt, throw it out!” I try to have several trays of the same food prepared when I entertain so they can be rotated and refrigerated in between.
Nestle: You don’t say whether these are cooked or uncooked or what the ambient temperature might be. Microbial growth rates depend on those factors.
Donnelly: No. I use common sense. 4 hours is the limit
Powell: did not offer a response (shurley sum mistake – dp)

10. Whenever there’s a food recall, check products stored at home to make sure they are safe.

Tsai: Yes.
Marler: Yes.
Kender: Yes. I receive recall notices at work and take that information home with me and always double check what I’ve purchased
Vergili: Yes, I would do that.
Donnelly: Yes. In fact, I just returned some cookie dough to a retail outlet for a refund.
Rosenbaum: Yes, and since recall information on food products is very difficult for consumers to obtain, my organization constantly looks for recalls and sends them in daily e-alerts to email inboxes. Anyone can sign up to receive them by sending a request to mail@safetables.org or go to our website daily at www.safetables.org to view them. Some stores post food recalls, while others send text messages or mailed notices. It is important for consumers to throw away or return for refund any product subject to a recall, as these products have either already made people sick or have a high likelihood of being contaminated. If you believe someone in your family has already eaten the product and/or gotten ill, you should keep the product and safely wrap and store it for the health authorities to test.
Nestle: I’ve never had a product involved in a recall except the can of recalled pet food given to me as a research gift for my book, Pet Food Politics.
Donnelly: I purchase locally grown, fresh foods.
Powell: Sure.

Top 5 food-safety questions journalists should be asking

The editor of Nieman Watch at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University tracked me down in Florida a couple of weeks ago — it’s not hard, I’m always plugged in, zing — and asked me to pen the following, which he greatly improved with some editing. Below, Powell’s take on the top-5 food-safety questions journalists should be asking.

Food safety is not a trivial issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that up to 30 per cent of individuals in developed countries acquire illnesses from the food and water they consume annually. Active disease surveillance by U.S., Canadian and Australian authorities suggests this estimate is accurate.

WHO has identified five factors of food handling that contribute to these illnesses: improper cooking procedures; temperature abuse during storage; lack of hygiene and sanitation by food handlers; cross-contamination between raw and fresh ready-to-eat foods; and acquiring food from unsafe sources.

There has been some excellent media coverage of microbial food safety issues since the 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to Jack-in-the-Box that killed four and sickened over 600; there has also been some terribly misleading coverage.
Reporters interested in covering this important story should be asking these five questions:

1. Will more government involvement mean fewer sick people?

While the Internet and the mainstream media were all excited about the potential passage of new food safety legislation by the U.S. House in early August — it passed — I was hanging out with some food safety dudes at Publix supermarkets HQ in Lakeland, Florida. And I saw far more in Lakeland that would impact daily food safety than anything the politicians, bureaucrats and hangers-on were talking about.

When it comes to the safety of the food supply, I generally ignore the chatter from Washington, as well as the Internet commentaries and conspiracy theories. If a legislative proposal does emerge, such as the creation of a single food inspection agency, or the bill that passed the House – and just the House –  I ask, Will it actually make food safer? Will fewer people get sick?

As the Government Accountability Office pointed out in a report a year ago, “The burden for food safety in most … countries lies primarily with food producers, rather than with inspectors, although inspectors play an active role in overseeing compliance. This principle applies to both domestic and imported products.”

Publix, with over 1,000 supermarkets, its own processing plants, and thousands of food products moving through its shelves, can’t afford the luxury of chatter. After a  visit to headquarters in Lakeland, Fla., I went to the local Publix in St. Petersburg Beach to verify what I’d heard at HQ. Sure, the bosses know food safety, but do the front-line staff?

I ordered some shaved smoked turkey breast from the deli, and the sealable bag the meat was delivered in bore the following message:

“The Publix Deli is committed to the highest quality fresh cold cuts & cheeses; Therefore we recommend all cold cuts are best if used within three days of purchase; And all cheese items are best if used within four days of purchase.”

This was the first time I’d seen a retailer provide information to consumers on the accurate shelf-life of sliced deli meats. It didn’t require Congressional hearings; it didn’t require some hopelessly-flawed consumer education campaign; it required the company’s food safety officials to say, this is important, let’s do it.

Same thing with fresh fruits and vegetables — the leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. for the past decade.

Late last month, U.S. regulators announced plans to strengthen safety protocols for fresh fruits and vegetables — except those plans are simply extensions of plans published by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998. Plans and guidelines don’t make food safe: people do.

It’s nice that food safety is once again a priority in Washington and that politicians are trying to set a tone. But chatting doesn’t mean fewer sick people — actions do.

Journalists can hold politicians, producers and industry accountable. There are lots of plans and proposals, but will any of them translate into fewer sick people?

2. Is local/natural/sustainable/organic/raw food really any better than other types of food?

A U.S. government extension agent with a PhD and at a prominent university e-mailed the other day to ask if I had any data on foodborne illness from farmers’ markets because she was preparing for a presentation and was, “trying to make the case that there are very few cases of foodborne illness from local foods relative to our globally based food system.”

But the idea that food grown and consumed locally is somehow safer than other food, either because it contacts fewer hands or any outbreaks would be contained, is the product of wishful thinking.

Barry Estabrook of Gourmet magazine recently invoked the local-is-pure fantasy, writing: “There is no doubt that our food-safety system is broken. But with the vast majority of disease outbreaks coming from industrial-scale operations, legislators should have fixed the problems there instead of targeting small, local businesses that were never part of the problem in the first place.”

But whenever you hear someone say there’s “no doubt” in this field, you should be filled with doubt. Foodborne illnesses are vastly underreported. Someone has to get sick enough to go to a doctor, the doctor has to be bright enough to order the right test, the state has to have the known foodborne illnesses listed as reportable diseases, and so on. For every known case of foodborne illness, there are an estimated 10 to 300 other cases, depending on the severity of the bug. Most foodborne illness is never detected. It’s almost never the last meal someone ate, or whatever other mythologies are out there. A stool sample linked with some epidemiology or food testing is required to make associations with specific foods.

Maybe the vast majority of foodborne outbreaks come from industrial-scale operations because the vast majority of food and meals is consumed from industrial-scale operations. To accurately compare local and other food, a database would have to somehow be constructed so that a comparison of illnesses on a per capita meal or even ingredient basis could be made.

Then there are the whoppers that are repeated daily, somewhere, like this one by raw milk advocate Sally Fallon, who said, “Raw milk is like a magic food for children. … Without the green grass, you’re missing a lot of vitamins. Also, it’s much safer. When cows are eating green grass, you don’t find pathogens in their milk.”

With such statements, public advocacy becomes public health risk.

The natural reservoir for E. coli O157:H7 and other verotoxigenic E. coli is the intestines of all ruminants, including cattle — grass or grain-fed — sheep, goats, deer and the like. The final report of the fall 2006 spinach outbreak identifies nearby grass-fed beef cattle as the likely source of the E. coli O157:H7 that sickened 200 and killed four.

A table of raw dairy outbreaks is available at http://www.foodsafety.ksu.edu/articles/384/RawMilkOutbreakTable.pdf. Kids are often the ones that get sick.

And be wary of claims that food is local.

3. Is that food safety advice really accurate?

Everyone eats, so everyone’s an expert when it comes to food. Food, Inc. may be a popular movie among the foodies, but has some terrible food safety advice. Microorganisms that make people sick exist in whatever kind of food production and distribution system we smart humans come up with. But government, industry and academic advice can often be of limited use — or wrong. Do people really need to wash their hands for 20 seconds — or will 10 seconds suffice? It will.  Does the water have to be warm? No. Are paper towels better than blow driers at removing pathogens? Yes, it’s the friction that counts. Food safety types argue about these things all the time. If someone says, “food safety is simple, just follow this advice,” don’t believe it. Question everything.

4. With all of the attention, resources and talk, why hasn’t there been a reduction in the estimated incidence of foodborne illnesses in the past five years?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported in April 2008 that foodborne illness remains a significant public health issue in the U.S., with Salmonella infections increasingly problematic: “Although significant declines in the incidence of certain foodborne pathogens have occurred since 1996, these declines all occurred before 2004,” the CDC reported.

“Outbreaks caused by contaminated peanut butter, frozen pot pies, and a puffed vegetable snack in 2007 underscore the need to prevent contamination of commercially produced products. The outbreak associated with turtle exposure highlights the importance of animals as a nonfood source of human infections. To reduce the incidence of Salmonella infections, concerted efforts are needed throughout the food supply chain, from farm to processing plant to kitchen.”

The CDC data show existing efforts to reduce foodborne illness have stalled. Signs stating “Employees must wash hands” may not be the most effective way to compel good food safety behavior. New messages using new media should be explored to really create a culture that values microbiologically safe food.

5. Why don’t producers, processors, and retailers market microbial food safety directly to consumers?

There’s lots of marketing of food safety, but it is done indirectly. One of the reasons people buy organic/natural/local/whatever is they perceive such food to be safer — in the absence of any microbiological data. Grocery stores say all food is safe, yet the weekly outbreaks of foodborne illness — the ones that consumers hear about — suggest otherwise. The best farms, processors, retailers and restaurants should brag about their microbial food safety efforts and accomplishments. With so many sick people each year, there’s an attentive audience out there.

Dr. Douglas Powell is an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University. He also runs barfblog.com, a blog about food safety.

Local food is not inherently safer food

The idea that food grown and consumed locally is somehow safer than other food, either because it contacts fewer hands or any outbreaks would be contained, is the product of wishful thinking.

Barry Estabrook of Gourmet magazine is the latest to invoke the local is pure fantasy, writing,

“There is no doubt that our food-safety system is broken. But with the vast majority of disease outbreaks coming from industrial-scale operations, legislators should have fixed the problems there instead of targeting small, local businesses that were never part of the problem in the first place.”

As soon as someone says there’s “no doubt” I am filled with doubt about the quality of the statement that is about to follow.

Foodborne illness is vastly underreported — it’s known as the burden of reporting foodborne illness. Someone has to get sick enough to go to a doctor, go to a doctor that is bright enough to order the right test, live in a state that has the known foodborne illnesses as a reportable disease, and then it gets registered by the feds. For every known case of foodborne illness, there are 10 -300 other cases, depending on the severity of the bug.??????

Most foodborne illness is never detected. It’s almost never the last meal someone ate, or whatever other mythologies are out there. A stool sample linked with some epidemiology or food testing is required to make associations with specific foods. ??????Newsweek has an excellent article this week about the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and its Disease Detective Camp, where teenagers learn how to form a hypothesis about a disease outbreak and conduct an investigation. The key lies only partly in state-of-the-art technology. At least half the challenge is figuring out the right questions to ask. Who has contracted the disease? Where have they been? Why were they exposed to this pathogen?

Maybe the vast majority of foodborne outbreaks come from industrial-scale operations because the vast majority of food and meals is consumed from industrial-scale operations. To accurately compare local and other food, a database would have to somehow be constructed so that a comparison of illnesses on a per capita meal or even ingredient basis could be made. ???


U.S. Congressional questions better than Canadian food safety silence

Elizabeth Payne, of the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial board, writes that when the president of Peanut Corp. of America was hauled in front of a congressional hearing in Washington last week, Canadians should have been paying attention.

And cringing.

Few things have underlined the gap in the way our two countries approach food safety like the sight of company president Stewart Parnell sitting with arms folded while a congressman, in a theatrical flourish, offered him some of his company’s tainted peanut products. Mr. Parnell’s company is at the centre of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened 600 people and may have killed eight in recent months.

On this side of the border, Michael McCain of Maple Leaf Foods was named Business News Maker of the Year — a year in which his company was found to be the source of a listeriosis outbreak linked to 20 deaths and hundreds of illnesses. To be fair, Mr. McCain took responsibility in a way that Peanut Corp. executives did not. He deserved recognition for his compassion and efforts to reassure a rattled public that it was safe to go back to the deli counter.

But that should not be the end of the story. The aggressive effort in the U.S. to quickly get questions answered about the tainted peanut outbreak there is instructive.

Payne goes on to say that already Americans know more about the mechanics and timeline of this salmonella outbreak than Canadians do about the gaps and failures than may have exacerbated the listeriosis outbreak.

Nearly seven months later, Canadians still don’t know exactly who knew what when. There have been no answers to the crucial question of whether a quicker response could have saved lives and how a similar tragedy could be prevented or contained sooner. Until we know that, nothing has been learned from the 20 deaths. Instead of answers, we got a PR campaign, tasteless cold-cut jokes and a toothless and too-late investigation into what happened.

Canadian listeria coverage still sucks

Daughter Braunwynn returned to Ontario last night after a great visit.

Her super-sweet 16 is less than two weeks away, so during lunch on Sunday with Amy and Sorenne and Bob, we asked what she might be studying at university (not a fair question cause I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up).

She mentioned science, psychology, maybe journalism – she liked writing.

Amy and I sorta jumped, saying that if she wanted to write, then write, and that maybe J-school wasn’t the best place to learn writing.

I teach a journalism class on food safety reporting, but there’s not much to teach: writers write, and just like scientists, they need to ask the right questions.

Braunwynn, the 15-year-old, gets it; Canadian journalists covering Michael McCain, Maple Leaf and listeria? Not so much.

There are exceptions, like Rob Cribb at the Star, but a couple of holiday puff pieces stood out. On Jan. 4, 2009, the Canadian Press correctly noted that the Canadian government has not yet named the leader of a promised probe into the listeriosis outbreak that killed 20 people — a lag critics say discredits an already suspect process.

But then they go on to excessively quote the union dude who thinks that inspectors with beer-like listeria googles are the solution. He represents the food inspectors union. Of course he wants more inspectors. As new NC State professorial thingy Ben wrote, more inspectors is not the answer.

Then there’s the researchers. They always want more research. And new technology. Oh, and to blame consumers. Because you know, consumers are the weak link when it comes to ready-to-eat deli meats. And when the researcher making such public proclamations is an advisor to Maple Leaf, that should be disclosed. Journalism 101. I’m sure glad my previously pregnant wife didn’t rely on your expert advice.

Bert Mitchell had it right the other day when he wrote that while Michael McCain has been gathering year–end goodwill for his handling of the Maple Leaf  listeria outbreak, “it is too early for applause. Effective long term solutions have not been put in place.”

For the budding journalists, there are still basic questions to be answered, questions that have nothing to do with more research, more inspectors, a public inquiry or any other narrow special interest, but questions that may help prevent any future unnecessary deaths of 20 people and  unnecessary illness of hundreds if not thousands of people:

• who knew what when;

• why aren’t listeria test results publically available; and,

• if listeria is everywhere, why aren’t there warnings for vulnerable populations?

Would you ask your doctor if she washed her hands?

I’m an advocate for asking questions.

Where was that fresh produce grown? What temperature is medium-rare? Did the cook wash his hands after going to the bathroom?

I also recognize that most people — including me — feel socially awkward asking such questions.

So, would you ask your doctor if he has washed his hands?

That’s what Carmela Fragomeni of The Hamilton Spectator in Canada asked this morning.

Hamilton resident Maria Pimentel says,

"I’m not comfortable to ask him because maybe he’d get upset."

Linda VanRysell believes doctors would always automatically be washing their hands before examining a patient, stating,

"I assume they’re professional."

Dr. David Higgins, chief of staff at St. Joe’s in Hamilton, said if he were to fail to wash his hands, he hopes patients would called him on it, adding,

"I should thank the person for doing it. That’s the ideal culture."