Farming science, without the conscience

Following an account by Michael Moss in the N.Y. Times last week, a Times editorial says the little-known U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, financed by American taxpayers, which employs the sophisticated tools and scientific expertise of modern animal management — apparently without a conscience.

govtcrueltyThe details Mr. Moss’s article exposes are sickening. In engineering animals to maximize industry’s bottom line, the center, at a sprawling, secluded site in Nebraska, has created pigs that bear freakishly large litters of frail piglets, which are often crushed by their mothers. Cows give birth to triplets, many of them deformed. Lambs are born in open fields, where they starve, are eaten by predators and are overcome by the elements. These so-called easy-care sheep are bred to eliminate the need for shelters and human help at birthing time.

(Reuters has reported that the secretary of agriculture, in the wake of Mr. Moss’s article, has directed the agency to create a new animal welfare plan, which will involve employee training and a review of research practices.)

The humans who work at the center are not necessarily oblivious to its failings. Some veterinarians and researchers told The Times they were appalled by the suffering and abuse. They should not have their consciences degraded by what is supposed to be beneficial work. Congress founded the center 50 years ago. It should oversee it and reform it — or shut it down.

U.S. research lab lets livestock suffer in quest for profit

Michael Moss of the NY Times writes that at a remote research center on the Nebraska plains, scientists are using surgery and breeding techniques to re-engineer the farm animal to fit the needs of the 21st-century meat industry. The potential benefits are huge: animals that produce more offspring, yield more meat and cost less to raise.

clay.centerThere are, however, some complications.

Pigs are having many more piglets — up to 14, instead of the usual eight — but hundreds of those newborns, too frail or crowded to move, are being crushed each year when their mothers roll over. Cows, which normally bear one calf at a time, have been retooled to have twins and triplets, which often emerge weakened or deformed, dying in such numbers that even meat producers have been repulsed.

Then there are the lambs. In an effort to develop “easy care” sheep that can survive without costly shelters or shepherds, ewes are giving birth, unaided, in open fields where newborns are killed by predators, harsh weather and starvation.

Last Mother’s Day, at the height of the birthing season, two veterinarians struggled to sort through the weekend’s toll: 25 rag-doll bodies. Five, abandoned by overtaxed mothers, had empty stomachs. Six had signs of pneumonia. Five had been savaged by coyotes.

“It’s horrible,” one veterinarian said, tossing the remains into a barrel to be dumped in a vast excavation called the dead pit.

These experiments are not the work of a meat processor or rogue operation. They are conducted by a taxpayer-financed federal institution called the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, a complex of laboratories and pastures that sprawls over 55 square miles in Clay Center, Neb. Little known outside the world of big agriculture, the center has one overarching mission: helping producers of beef, pork and lamb turn a higher profit as diets shift toward poultry, fish and produce.

Since Congress founded it 50 years ago to consolidate the United States Department of Agriculture’s research on farm animals, the center has worked to make lamb chops bigger, pork loins less fatty, steaks easier to chew. It has fought the spread of disease, fostered food safety and helped American ranchers compete in a global marketplace.

But an investigation by The New York Times shows that these endeavors have come at a steep cost to the center’s animals, which have been subjected to illness, pain and premature death, over many years. The research to increase pig litters began in 1986; the twin calves have been dying at high rates since 1984, and the easy care lambs for 10 years.

The center’s parent agency, the Agriculture Department, strictly polices the treatment of animals at slaughterhouses and private laboratories. But it does not closely monitor the center’s use of animals, or even enforce its own rules requiring careful scrutiny of experiments.

As a result, the center — built on the site of a World War II-era ammunition depot a two-hour drive southwest of Omaha, and locked behind a security fence — has become a destination for the kind of high-risk, potentially controversial research that other institutions will not do or are no longer allowed to do.

“They pay tons of attention to increasing animal production, and just a pebble-sized concern to animal welfare,” said James Keen, a scientist and veterinarian who worked at the center for 24 years. “And it probably looks fine to them because they’re not thinking about it, and they’re not being held accountable. But most Americans and even livestock producers would be hard pressed to support some of the things that the center has done.”

Dr. Keen approached The Times a year ago with his concerns about animal mistreatment. The newspaper interviewed two dozen current and former center employees, and reviewed thousands of pages of internal records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

That reporting shows that the center’s drive to make livestock bigger, leaner, more prolific and more profitable can be punishing, creating harmful complications that require more intensive experiments to solve. The leaner pigs that the center helped develop, for example, are so low in fat that one in five females cannot reproduce; center scientists have been operating on pigs’ ovaries and brains in an attempt to make the sows more fertile.

And lots more at

Canadian Olympic gold hockey post-doctoral fellowship opportunity at UBC

Kevin Allen (right, exactly as shown) is the kind of hockey player who would take a slap shot from 20 feet, bounce it off the goalie’s head and then skate by and go, “uh, sorry.”

I was often the goalie.

He would then laugh on the bench with the other goons.

This was odd because Kevin also played goal. I once used his equipment and figured out why he was laughing after hitting me in the head: his goalie gear was way better than mine; couldn’t feel anything, and the stuff was huge. There was no net left to shoot at. How did a graduate student have far better equipment than me?

I admired Kevin’s hockey skills, and how he could play so much hockey, have a couple of kids and take so long to finish his PhD; I admired his expensive goalie equipment even more.

Kevin finally finished his PhD at Guelph, won some award at the International Association for Food Protection in 2005, he may have won more, I don’t know, went to work with Bioniche — the E. coli O157:H7 vaccine people in Canada — and now has landed himself a professoring job.

It’s at the University of British Columbia, that’s in Vancouver, where the winter Olympics – what The Daily Show called a series of drunken dares on ice or snow – have just wrapped up, with a parade featuring a giant inflatable beaver.

Kevin’s building his research empire and, while I don’t run help wanted or conference announcements anymore, I will if they are solely in my self-interest or at least afford me the opportunity to taunt former students. Look at the first sentence of the job description – what was he going to write, a mind-numbing post-doctoral fellowship is available? It probably helps if the candidate plays hockey. Gender doesn’t matter.

Post-doctoral fellowship opportunity
The University of British Columbia
Discipline: Molecular Food Microbiology
Faculty: Land and Food Systems
Department: Food, Nutrition and Health
Location: University of British Columbia Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
An exciting post-doctoral fellowship is available for an ambitious and highly motivated individual who has recently completed their doctoral degree. This individual will lead a research program focused on utilizing traditional and molecular approaches to examine stress response physiology, comparative genomics, and antimicrobial resistance in foodborne pathogens such as Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes, and Vibrio spp. Demonstrated experience with genomics, microarray analysis, and recombinant techniques is highly desirable.
The position is a 1-year term, renewable for up to 3 years. Renewal will be based on progress, which includes scientific presentation/publication and continuation of funding. Salary is commensurate with qualifications and experience according to UBC guidelines. Candidates graduated from Food Microbiology or Microbiology possessing a strong publication record and excellent academic credentials are encouraged to apply. Applicants should send their curriculum vitae, names and full contact information for three references, and a cover letter. The cover letter should detail previous efforts relating to their molecular biology expertise and experience with foodborne pathogens.
Please submit applications electronically to Dr. Kevin Allen. Note, UBC hires on the basis of merit and is committed to employment equity. Employment requires previous completion of a doctoral degree.
Application submission address: Competition closing date:
Until filled Webaddress:

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Can citrus-scented Windex make the world a better place?

From the reading-too-much–into-the-results-of-a-study category, researchers have found that people are unconsciously fairer and more generous when they are in clean-smelling environments.

The research found a dramatic improvement in ethical behavior with just a few spritzes of citrus-scented Windex.

Katie Liljenquist, assistant professor of organizational leadership at BYU’s Marriott School of Management, is the lead author on the piece in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science.

The researchers see implications for workplaces, retail stores and other organizations that have relied on traditional surveillance and security measures to enforce rules.
"Companies often employ heavy-handed interventions to regulate conduct, but they can be costly or oppressive," said Liljenquist, whose office smells quite average. "This is a very simple, unobtrusive way to promote ethical behavior."

The study titled "The Smell of Virtue" was unusually simple and conclusive.

Participants engaged in several tasks, the only difference being that some worked in unscented rooms, while others worked in rooms freshly spritzed with Windex.

The first experiment evaluated fairness. As a test of whether clean scents would enhance reciprocity, participants played a classic "trust game." Subjects received $12 of real money (allegedly sent by an anonymous partner in another room). They had to decide how much of it to either keep or return to their partners who had trusted them to divide it fairly. Subjects in clean-scented rooms were less likely to exploit the trust of their partners, returning a significantly higher share of the money.

Maybe it’s time to improve personal hygiene and stock up on the Irish Moss-scented Mennen Speed Stick.

Shock and shame: How to increase handwashing compliance

A British study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine concluded that people are more likely to wash their hands properly after using the toilet if they are shamed into it or think they are being watched.

As part of a flood of handwashing information for today’s World Handwashing Day, the study, published in the American Journal of Public Health found that with no reminders, 32 percent of men and 64 percent of women used soap.

The observational study reported on the behavior of people using toilets at motorway service stations in Britain over 32 days.

When prompted by an electronic message flashing up on a board asking: "Is the person next to you washing with soap?," around 12 percent more men and 11 percent more women used soap.

Other messages flashed on the electronic boards included:

• Water doesn’t kill germs, soap does; and,
• Don’t be a dirty soap dodger.

The message that produced the strongest positive response was: "Is the person next to you washing with soap?"

The researchers also noted "intriguing differences" in the behavior of men and women: While women responded to simple reminders, men tended to react best to messages that invoked disgust, such as:

• Don’t take the loo with you — wash with soap, and
• Soap it off or eat it later.

I like the last one.

We’ve undertaken both shock and shame attempts at handwashing messages (below). Results pending.

bites, barfblog and food safety need your continued support

There’s no shortage of food safety news; there is a shortage of evidence-based, incisive approaches that challenge food safety norms and may eventually lead to fewer sick people.

The International Food Safety Network evolved into over the past year as a way of consolidating and making food safety news delivery more efficient. In addition to the web repository, the bites-l electronic newsletter is distributed 2-3 times a day to a dedicated subscriber base of some 10,000 in 60 countries; a list that has been focused and refined by offering continuous, daily food safety news since 1994. – averaging well over 10,000 unique hits a day — along with weekly food safety infosheets (available in multiple languages), and videos, are now prominent food safety resources.

Sponsorship opportunities are now available for,, and the bites-l listserv (as well as the infosheets and videos; how about a movie?).

In addition to the public exposure – why not stick your company logo on the bites-l newsletter that directs electronic readers to your home site or whatever you’re flogging that week — and reaching a desired audience, you can receive custom food safety news and analysis. We’ve also resurrected the food safety risk analysis team – assessment, management and communication – and offer 24/7 availability and insanely rapid turnaround times. If your group has a food safety issue — short-term or long-term — work with us, rather than having us write it up in, book chapters and scholarly papers as another case study of what not to do.

The money is used to support the on-going expenses of the news-gathering and distribution activities, and to develop the next generation of high school, undergraduate and graduate students who will integrate science and communication skills to deliver compelling food safety messages using a variety of media. Research, training and outreach are all connected in our food safety world.

If you have a sponsorship idea, let’s explore it. Feeling altruistic? Click on the groovy new donate button in the upper right corner of Want to just send a check? Make it out to:

K-State Olathe Innovation Campus, Inc.
18001 W. 106th St., Ste 130
Olathe, KS 66061
913-541-1488 Fax
and send to the attention of Terri Bogina

Here’s some additional information. is a unique comprehensive resource hosted at Kansas State University for all those with a personal or professional interest in food safety. We find credible, current, evidence-based information on food safety and make it accessible to domestic and international audiences through multiple media. Sources of food safety information include government regulatory agencies, international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), peer-reviewed scientific publications, academia, recognized experts in the field and other sources as appropriate.

All bites activities emphasize engaging people in dialogue about food-related risks, controls and benefits, from farm-to-fork. bites strives to provide reliable, relevant information in culturally and linguistically appropriate formats to assist people in identifying, understanding and mitigating the causes of foodborne illness.

The listserv is a free web-based mailing list where information about current and emerging food safety issues is provided, gathered from journalistic and scientific sources around the world and condensed into short items or stories that make up the daily postings. The listserv has been issued continuously since 1995 and is distributed daily via e-mail to thousands of individuals worldwide from academia, industry, government, the farm community, journalists and the public at large.
The listserv is designed to:
•    convey timely and current information for direction of research, diagnostic or investigative activities;
•    identify food risk trends and issues for risk management and communication activities; and
•    promote awareness of public concerns in scientific and regulatory circles.
The bites listserv functions as a food safety news aggregator, summarizing available information that can be can be useful for risk managers in proactively anticipating trends and reactively address issues. The bites editor (me – dp) does not say whether a story is right or wrong or somewhere in between, but rather that a specific story is available today for public discussion. is where Drs. Powell, Chapman, Hubbell and assorted food safety friends offer evidence-based opinions on current food safety issues. Opinions must be evidence-based – with references – reliable, rapid and relevant. The barfblog authors edit each other – viciously.

Breaking food safety news items that eventually appear in bites or barfblog are often posted on Twitter (under barfblog or benjaminchapman) for faster public notification.

Food safety infosheets
are designed to influence food handler practices by utilizing four attributes culled from education, behavioral science and communication literature:
•    surprising and compelling messages;
•    putting actions and their consequence in context;
•    generating discussion within the target audiences’ environments; and
•    using verbal narrative, or storytelling, as a message delivery device.
Food safety infosheets are based on stories about outbreaks of foodborne illness sourced from the bites listserv. Four criteria are used to select the story: discussion of a foodborne illness outbreak; discussion of background knowledge of a pathogen (including symptoms, etiology and transmission); food handler control practices; and emerging food safety issues. Food safety infosheets also contain evidence-based prescriptive information to prevent or mitigate foodborne illness related to food handling. They are now available in French, Spanish and Portugese.

bites bistro videos
A nod to the youtube generation, but we don’t really know what we’re doing.

These are the various information products we deliver daily, in addition to research, training and outreach. If you or your group is interested in sponsoring any or all of these food safety activities, please contact me directly.

Dr. Douglas Powell
associate professor, food safety
dept. diagnostic medicine/pathobiology
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS
cell: 785-317-0560
fax: 785-532-4039

I prefer the CAKE version of ‘I Will Survive’ over the E. coli O157 version

Best award for original song remake has to go to Cake’s 1996 version of the Gloria Gaynor disco classic, I Will Survive. Searing guitar solos, an infectious bass line, and the spoken word singing of John McCrea combine to make this an iPod workout favorite. And CAKE was the first concert Amy and I went to in Kansas City and was unexpectedly good.

Dr Karin Heurlier and colleagues at the Universities of Nottingham and Birmingham in conjunction with Biolog Inc of California told the Society for General Microbiology’s meeting at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, today that pathogenic strains of E. coli could survive in different conditions compared to the standard laboratory, non-pathogenic strain.

Contamination by foodborne E. coli occurs in processed foods such as ready prepared salads, fermented sausages (e.g. salami), dairy products and fruit juices as well as more usually in raw and partly cooked meat products, indicating that the bacteria are able to survive modern food processing techniques. The researchers found differences between strains in how they responded to antimicrobial compounds, and in their reactions to oxygen availability, acidity and chemical stresses. They could also use different constituents in foods for their nutrition compared to standard laboratory E. coli strains.

"The laboratory E. coli strain K-12 is one of the best understood organisms on Earth," said Dr Heurlier, "But because it has become so used to being grown in laboratory conditions, it may not react to stresses in the same way as pathogenic strains – such as E. coli O157:H7 can. Our research shows that there are definite growth and nutrition differences between E. coli strains and therefore results obtained with laboratory strains may not be typical of what happens in the ‘real’ world."

Telling students to wash their hands isn’t enough: new research identifies barriers to handwashing compliance in a university residence

Food safety researcher and talk-show host Jon Stewart got it right back in 2002 when he said,

“If you think the 10 commandments being posted in a school is going to change behavior of children, then you think “Employees Must Wash Hands” is keeping the piss out of your happy meals. It’s not.”

Instead, getting college students to wash hands, halt disease, requires giving them proper tools and spreading the word in ways that get attention: the path to poor hand sanitation is paved with good intentions, according to researchers from Kansas State and North Carolina State Universities.

As college campuses prepare for an expected increase in H1N1 flu this fall, the researchers said students’ actions will speak louder than words.

"Many students say they routinely wash their hands," said Douglas Powell, an associate professor of food safety at Kansas State University. "But even in an outbreak situation, many students simply don’t."

In February 2006, Powell and two colleagues — Ben Chapman, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, and research assistant Brae Surgeoner — observed hand sanitation behavior during an outbreak. What was thought to have been norovirus sickened nearly 340 students at the University of Guelph in Canada.

Hand sanitation stations and informational posters were stationed at the entrance to a residence hall cafeteria, where the potential for cross-contamination was high. The researchers observed that even during a high-profile outbreak, students followed recommended hand hygiene procedures just 17 percent of the time. In a self-reported survey after the outbreak had subsided, 83 of 100 students surveyed said they always followed proper hand hygiene but estimated that less than half of their peers did the same.

The results appear in the September issue of the Journal of Environmental Health.

Powell said that in addition to providing the basic tools for hand washing – vigorous running water, soap and paper towels — college students, especially those living in residence halls, need a variety of messages and media continually encouraging them to practice good hand hygiene.

"Telling people to wash their hands or posting signs that say, ‘Wash your hands’ isn’t enough," said Ben Chapman, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University. "Public health officials need to be creative with their communication methods and messages."

Most students surveyed perceived at least one barrier to following recommended hand hygiene procedures. More than 90 percent cited the lack of soap, paper towels or hand sanitizer. Additional perceived barriers were the notion that hand washing causes irritation and dryness, along with just being lazy and forgetful about hand washing. Fewer than 7 percent said a lack of knowledge of the recommended hand hygiene procedures was a barrier.

"Providing more facts is not going to get students to wash their hands," Powell said. "Compelling messages using a variety of media – text messages, Facebook and traditional posters with surprising images — may increase hand washing rates and ultimately lead to fewer sick people."

University students’ hand hygiene practice during a gastrointestinal outbreak in residence: What they say they do and what they actually do
Journal of Environmental Health Sept. issue 72(2): 24-28
Brae V. Surgeoner, MS, Benjamin J. Chapman, PhD, and Douglas A. Powell, PhD
Published research on outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness has focused primarily on the results of epidemiological and clinical data collected postoutbreak; little research has been done on actual preventative practices during an outbreak. In this study, the authors observed student compliance with hand hygiene recommendations at the height of a suspected norovirus outbreak in a university residence in Ontario, Canada. Data on observed practices was compared to post-outbreak self-report surveys administered to students to examine their beliefs and perceptions about hand hygiene. Observed compliance with prescribed hand hygiene recommendations occurred 17.4% of the time. Despite knowledge of hand hygiene protocols and low compliance, 83.0% of students indicated that they practiced correct hand hygiene during the outbreak. To proactively prepare for future outbreaks, a current and thorough crisis communications and management strategy, targeted at a university student audience and supplemented with proper hand washing tools, should be enacted by residence administration.

The Safe Food Caf?

President Jon Wefald likes to remind me that Kansas State University will not be getting a hockey arena any time soon. I even gave him one of our collectors T-shirts (left, exactly as shown) and he said, no way.

Which is too bad cause one of our ideas to help finance the arena was the Safe Food Café, a restaurant and observational food service kitchen where we could videotape the food safety behaviors of employees and customers, and experiment with interventions.

Apparently the Dutch were listening in, and have come up with their own variation.

The Associated Press reported that a new research centre — dubbed the "restaurant of the future" — at the Dutch university of Wageningen will track diners with dozens of unobtrusive cameras and monitoring their eating habits.

Rene Koster, head of the Center for Innovative Consumer Studies, said,

"We want to find out what influences people: colors, taste, personnel. We try to focus on one stimulus, like light," as overhead bulbs switched through green, red, orange and blue. This restaurant is a playground of possibilities. We can ask the staff to be less friendly and visible or the reverse. The changes must be small. If you were making changes every day it would be too disruptive. People wouldn’t like it."

University staff who want to eat at the new restaurant have to sign a consent form agreeing to be watched.

The new research centre — which cost almost 3 million euros ($4.26 million) — was set up in partnership with French catering group Sodexho Alliance and other companies interested in using the restaurant to test their products.