Science of storytelling

Chapman and I have know for decades that when someone says they’re going to educate someone else about food safety stuff, it is doomed to failure.

The key to learning is, and always has been, storytelling.

Embed your data or facts within the story.

The Science of Storytelling (2019) shows you how to craft a compelling story using lessons from psychology and neuroscience. These blinks walk you through the steps of creating a narrative that grips your audience by subtly manipulating their brains. From demonstrating how to create a perfectly flawed character to explaining the power of stimulating details, Will Storr reveals the crucial elements that go into building a great story.

Microbial contamination of grocery shopping trolleys and baskets in west Texas, 2020

The objective of this study was to identify food safety risk factors associated with supermarket trolleys (grills and handles) and handheld baskets. 

Indicator microorganisms evaluated were those detected by aerobic plate count (APC), yeast and molds (YM), Enterobacteriaceae (EB). Environmental listeria (EL), coliforms (CF), and E. coli (EC).  In addition, listeria monocytogenes, staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli O157 and salmonella sp. Were tested for.  Trolley grills (n=36) had 2.7 x 102 CFU/cm2.  Trolley handles (n=36) had 2.7 x 106 of CF and 5.2 CFU/cm2 of YM.  The bottom of handheld baskets (n=25) had 3.5 x 105 CFU/cm2 of CF and 5.07 CFU/cm2 of EC.  S. aureus was found on 96% of the baskets, 50% of the trolley handles (18 out of 36 samples), and 42% of the trolleys’ grills.  E. coli O157 was identified on 17% of baskets, 3% on trolley grills, and 3% on handles.  Salmonella sp. was detected on 16% of baskets and 8% of trolley grills.  L. monocytogenes was detected on 17% of the bottoms of handheld baskets but on none of the other samples. 

These results suggest the need for implementation of sanitation programs to regularly clean trolleys and baskets, as well as for consumer education. 

Microbial contamination of grocery shopping trolleys and baskets in west Texas, 2020

Food Protection Trends vol. 40 no. 1

Alexandra Calle, Breyan Montoya, Andrea English, and Mindy Brashears

https://www.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/trilix/fpt_20200102/index.php#/10

They still suck: After years of bashing agriculture and GMOs, Chipotle reverses course

I started bashing Chipotle about 2006, when driving through Kansas City with a trailer full of stuff as I moved to Manhattan, Kansas, to follow a girl, and cited this billboard.

Any company focused on this stuff usually meant they were somewhat oblivios to basic food safety.

Unfortunately for all the thousands of sick people over the next 14 years, I was right.

I tried to call them out for the food safety amateurs they were.

Even worse, when Amy was pregnant with Sorenne, she would get Chipotle cravings and I would dutifully comply, because she was doing the heavy lifting in pregnancy.

Now I have an entire book chapter I’m working on, devoted to Chipotle.

Kevin Folta of the Genetic Literacy Project writes that after years of attacking conventional agriculture and crop biotechnology, Chipotle now seems to have found a love for the American farmer that is as warm and inviting as the gooey core of a steak burrito. With the launch of its “Cultivate the Future of Farming” campaign, the company seeks to raise awareness about the hardships facing American agriculture and offer some recommendations and seed grants to address the problems. According to the campaign website:

It’s time to take real steps to give the next generation of farmers a bright future. Through our purpose to Cultivate a Better World, we’re putting programs in place that make a real impact, including seed grants, education and scholarships, and 3-year contracts. Our vision is bold, but we’re starting with a mission to cultivate the future of farming by focusing on pork, beef, and dairy.

It is good to see a company raising awareness about these issues. But given Chipotle’s past cozy relationship with organic food marketers, this seems more like a marketing stunt to woo consumers who are growing increasingly concerned about the status of American farms, and less like a genuine example of philanthropy.

Chipotle is absolutely correct about one thing. The crisis in agriculture is real. Farmers are facing low prices for their products, astronomical costs, and strangling regulation.  Farms, from commodity crops to dairies, are going out of business daily. Farmer suicides are a barometer of how severe the problem is.

From Chipotle’s website- The “challenge is real” and “It’s a hard living.”

However, Chipotle’s new ag-vertisment seems too little, too late. The threats to farmers and the public’s negative perception of agriculture didn’t seem to bother the company just a few years ago. For example, it’s 2014 video Farmed and Dangerous was an assault on large-scale animal agriculture, the industry that produces the ingredients that go into Chipotle’s burritos. Farmed and Dangerous was not the restaurant chain’s first effort, either.  The video short The Scarecrow falsely depicted a sad, dystopian world of dairy production in which forlorn cows are locked in stacked metal boxes as milk is extracted by an extensive network of plumbing.

And of course, Chipotle’s penetrating campaign against genetic engineering (GE) sought to capitalize on the momentum of several failed GMO labeling efforts, which were designed to demonize crop biotechnology by suggesting to consumers that GE seeds were dangerous—an allegation known to be false.

Let’s get real. Chipotle’s decisions to criticize agriculture and then embrace it were not born of altruism.  Public-facing corporate positions are spawned from focus groups and surveys. As a multinational, billion-dollar food empire, Chipotle is no different. The company’s ad campaigns aim to reinforce consumers’ perceptions and identity, showing that Big Burrito shares their values. That is what we see in this latest pro-farm campaign. The public is becoming increasingly aware of the fragile state of US agriculture and the crisis that has hit rural North America hard, and Chipotle is responding.

So is “Cultivate the Future of Farming” just an ag-washing ornament to exploit farmer hardship, or is this a genuine change of heart?

If it is indeed the latter, it needs to start with an apology—an honest one. Chipotle needs to publicly reject its anti-science positions and profound misrepresentation of agriculture. In the six years since the fast food chain’s anti-farming efforts hit a feverish pace, public perception has changed. The fear-based misinformation campaigns are failing, and time has not treated such efforts well. Chipotle’s videos are a shameful reminder of the rhetoric that was so prevalent just a short time ago.

Imagine where we’d be today if in 2014 Chipotle and other brands  invested heavily in research, rural mental health, or resources to bring precision agriculture to farmers. I think the perception of Chipotle and the perception of crop and animal production would be very different.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that you shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds in the first place. Targeting farmers who produce the products you sell is bad business—and it threatens a critical industry we all depend on.

‘No biggie’: 11 gastro cases at Australian aged care home

An aged care home criticised for its handling of an influenza outbreak which killed 10 people has suffered a gastro outbreak.

A staff member, who asked to remain anonymous, raised concerns about the way the situation had been handled.

A Department of Health and Human Services spokesman said the first case was identified last Thursday with eight residents and three staff affected, with the department notified on Tuesday (that in early Dec.).

Respect Aged Care chief operating officer Brett Menzie said it wasn’t a major outbreak.

The dates and number of infected people differed to those provided to DHHS, with Mr Menzie stating five residents and three staff members were infected.

Mr McKenzie said a resident first showed signs of gastro on Sunday, with an outbreak – which occurs when three people show symptoms – declared on Monday.

He said the Health Department had been notified and infection control procedures enacted.

“St John’s Retirement Village Nursing Home did not implement a coordinated and timely infection control program that was effective in identifying and containing infection during the influenza and respiratory outbreak of August and September 2017,” a report found.

Health update, and sprouts still suck

Amy and Sorenne came to visit me last night at the Clinical Facility I’ve been staying at for the past two weeks and we went out for dinner (the seafood was fabulous).

That’s me and the kid last night at dinner (right).

I checked myself in because I have been randomly falling when walking — the sidewalk just sorta rises up and I smash my head yet again. The other day I endured two seizures while eating lunch in the cafeteria and the docs present shipped me off to Emergency.

Long-time skeptics are finally agreeing with me that these things are happening because of genetics, booze (which is primarily to provide numbness to the fog upstairs but I’m going without) 50 years of pucks to the head, dozens of concussions, epilepsy and whatever else may be happening in that precious organ known as the brain.

So I haven’t been writing much.

They shipped out to New Caledonia this morning for Amy’s work for a few days, so I made sure I was taken care of so she wouldn’t have to worry.

It is seemingly impossible to get a sandwich or salad in Australia without it being covered in raw sprouts.

This is Amy’s salad from dinner last night (left).

We document at least 55 sprout-associated outbreaks occurring worldwide affecting a total of 15,233 people since 1988. A comprehensive table of sprout-related outbreaks can be found here.

Australia’s food safety system falls well short

Adele Ferguson of The Age writes that food safety is again in the headlines following an investigation into the Grill’d burger chain.

The long list of food safety transgressions at hamburger chain Grill’d outlined in a series of leaked internal food and safety audit reports, internal documents, a council report, and dozens of photos from staff, triggered a social media backlash.

In an attempt to dilute the public’s disgust Grill’d announced it would hire a global food auditor to review its food safety and work practices.

But in the process of exposing the worker exploitation and uncleanliness scandal it became clear there was another scandal that has been festering away: an overall lack of enforcement by the relevant authorities of food hygiene regulations and fines that are so low they fail to act as a deterrent.

Take for instance, Grill’d in Windsor, Victoria, the local council, Stonnington, issued an inspection notice of “major non-compliance” in October 2018. It said it didn’t have effective cleaning systems in place, which is the basic requirement of any restaurant.

What was even more disturbing was the council admitting that the same non-compliances were happening every year and that “infringement notices may be issued if this continues”.

In other words, the council’s inspection notice and wishy-washy threats were ineffectual.

This was no better demonstrated in early December when a photo was taken and posted on The Age and Sydney Morning Herald websites of a mouse inside a tray of hamburger buns sitting on the floor at Grill’d in Windsor.

The council’s reaction was to keep the public in the dark. It refused to say how many years of non-compliance it had recorded at the Grill’d Windsor restaurant and its only reaction to the buns stored on the floor, which attracted a mouse in the pest infested restaurant, was that it would act if someone lodged a complaint.

On a broader level, it illustrates shortcomings in the food safety system in Australia. It seems the public only get to know what’s going on when it is too late.

The Victorian Health register of convictions of food safety is an eye-opener. In 2019 only a few cases went to court and received a conviction, which attracted a minuscule fine.

The laws may be strict but if they aren’t properly monitored and enforced then things fall apart.

Hockey, Canadian style

Sorta.

It’s 36 C in Brisbane, there is smoke everywhere from the bush fires, and we were all up at 4:30 a.m. — when it gets light here — so Sorenne, who turned 11-years-old today could be on the ice at 5:45 a.m.

Take ice when you can get it.

This isn’t Canada.

But I didn’t have the stamina to go to her practice or birthday party this afternoon at a pool (Amy is doing the heaving lifting these days).

So I’m going to stop writing for barfblog.com for awhile, maybe write a book, maybe hang out more with my kid before she’s on to her next adventure.

It’s been 14 years of blogging and 26 years of news.

I’ve said it before, but I can feel the effects of my brain going away and just can’t do it right now.

Upper right is the card my mother sent Sorenne. Mom spent a few decades at the arena.

I may need a brain break, but I’m not done yet.

Happy birthday, kid.

Predatory journals: A rant by Scott Weese of Worms and Germs Blog

I’m proud of the 70 peer-reviewed journals and book chapters my group published over the years, and none in a predatory journal.

Scott Weese seems to spend his mornings like I dowaking up every day to a variety of invitations to submit to journals.

No good journal does that. They have lots of submissions.

The spam emails highlight the wild west of predatory journals, often with names that try to imitate real journals. Today’s was the “New American Journal of Medicine”, a not-so-subtle variation of the New England Journal of Medicine or the American Journal of Medicine. It looks like that journal has published a total of 8 papers in 2019. I looked at one of them and ‘crap’ is my generous assessment. It’s a paper that recommends a treatment for pregnant women and it’s one page long, does not disclose the funding source, fails to fulfill pretty much every standard reporting requirement for a clinical trial and reports essentially no specific data or analysis. But, it’s ‘published data’ and on someone’s CV.

The state of the scientific literature is pretty messed up. “Show me the study” has been a common refrain, but it’s not as useful these days because anything can get published.

Why?

Too many journals.

Predatory journals.

Profit.

Good journals screen out the weak articles. High impact journals publish a minority (5-25% of submissions…and most often people only send their best papers to those journals). Some journals are still good quality and take lower impact papers that are still good science. Some journals take whatever they can get, trying to screen out the bad science.

Others…they take whatever they can get, as long as the authors can pay. Sadly, there are literally thousands of those.

Some people don’t realize we don’t get paid to write scientific papers. Some journals publish at no cost, but increasingly, there are publication fees that may range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. That, itself, isn’t necessarily the problem. Some journals charge fees so that the papers can be open access (available to anyone, without a need for a subscription). However, some journal charge a couple thousand dollars, make a nice profit and don’t particularly care about the science.

As someone who’s an associate editor, editorial board member and frequent reviewer for many journals, I see the good and bad.

I see papers that should be published accepted.

I see good quality papers rejected by good journals, knowing they’ll still end up in another good journal.

I see bad papers rejected.

However, I also see…

Horrible quality papers rejected that I know will end up published somewhere.

It’s frustrating to be reviewing a paper that’s complete crap, knowing it will find a home in a journal eventually. Yes, it will most likely be in a bottom feeder journal that many of it of us in the scientific community know is dodgy. However, not everyone will realize that and there will still be ‘published data’ to refer back to. Sometimes, that’s just frustrating, because poor quality science shouldn’t be published. However, when it deals with clinical matters (e.g. diagnosis, treatment…) it can be harmful, since poor quality or invalid data shouldn’t form the basis of decisions. Yet, it happens.

There have been a couple ‘stings’, where fake (and clearly garbage) papers have been submitted to journals. The highest profile was one that was published in Science (Bohannon, 2013).  The author submitted a paper to various journals, with the following set-up “Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s short-comings immediately. Its experiments are so hopelessly flawed that the results are meaningless.” More than 50% of open access journals accepted it.

There are many reasons these dodgy journals are used.

“Publish or perish” isn’t quite true but it’s pretty close. Junior faculty need to show productivity to keep their positions or move into the increasingly elusive tenured positions. Scientific papers is a key metric, because it’s easy to count.

Some people get taken advantage of, not realizing the journal is predatory (or that fees are so high, until after the paper is accepted).

Commercial profit. Companies want to say their products are supported by published data. If the data aren’t any good, the amount of money that it takes to get something published is inconsequential for most companies.

Open access isn’t inherently bad. There are excellent open access journals that charge a couple thousand dollars per paper but have high standards. Open access is ideal as it means the science is available to everyone. It just has to be acceptable science, and that’s where things start to fall apart.

Anyway…enough ranting. I always like to say “don’t talk about a problem without talking about a solution” but I don’t have an easy solution. More awareness is the key, which is why sites that track predatory journals, such as Beall’s List, are important. It’s a good update on a sad state of affairs.

A Gentle Death and How We Die

This is not food safety but could be. A colleague never knew this story, so I found it and shared it with him.

And know all of youse who don’t like it, start your own blog.

Oh, and hit delete.

That’s me and grandma, 1963.

Wrote this for the Globe and Mail in 1994

How We Die

Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter

Sherwin B. Nuland

1994

Alfred A. Knopf

278 pages

A Gentle Death

Marilynne Seguin, R.N.

1994

Key Porter Books

249 pages

$19.95

Review by Douglas Powell

My grandmother ended her own life. After five years of painstaking care for her husband, who was slowly deteriorating from the cerebral ravages of Alzheimer’s disease,  she decided that a sixth was not worth facing.

Her death was quick and without warning. One moment we were saying goodbye before a routine trip to the store, the next I was transferring her from car to wheelchair at the hospital emergency ward. Within 30 minutes she was officially deceased, the result of a major pharmaceutical overdose.

Looking back, I’ve often wondered what I would say to her, given the chance. Don’t do it, life is really okay. You are not alone. Things will get better.

But in reality, life is often harsh, she was often alone, and the prospects of yet another winter, trekking to the hospital each day to watch the person she had spent the vast majority of her life with become even more unfamiliar, meant that things certainly were not about to get better; at least not in any foreseeable future.

Western society is finally being forced to grapple with some of the difficult consequences that arise when medical technology conflicts with individual rights and freedoms. In Canada, Nancy B., a 25 year-old quadriplegic, and Sue Rodriquez, who suffered from the degenerative wasting of Lou Gehrig’s disease, have challenged existing laws and brought the question of when to say enough is enough to the arena of public debate. The discussion is welcome and the only antidote to the private anguish of such decisions, as is forcefully brought home in two new books.

Humans have created powerful myths and rituals to accompany death, writes Sherwin Nuland in How We Die, but perhaps none more bizarre than the modern hospital, “where it can be hidden, cleansed of its organic blight, and finally packaged for modern burial. We can now deny the power not only of death but of nature itself. We hide our faces from its face, but still we spread our fingers just a bit, because there is something in us that cannot resist a peek.”

Dr. Nuland, a physician who has authored several books about the medical profession and continues to teach surgery and the history of medicine at Yale University, says this book was written to demythologize the process of dying,  to present it in its biological and clinical realities. The changes at a cellular and organ-level that accompany heart attacks, stroke and cancer are presented in detail that may be intimidating to the uninitiated. Then again, any person who is faced with life-threatening disease can quite rapidly assimilate the medical jargon — they have to. Physicians capable of talking in clear, simple language are rare.

Nuland is blunt. Despite the gripping television constructs, few of the 350,000 Americans who suffer cardiac arrest each year actually survive. Nuland observes that after the vain attempts at resuscitation, the critical response team eventually stops and the mood is transformed from heroic rescue to dejected gloom of failure. But it’s the patient and their families that Nuland, like any good — and increasingly rare — general practitioner focuses on. “The patient dies alone among strangers: well-meaning, empathetic, determinedly committed to sustaining his life — but strangers nonetheless. There is no dignity here.”

Then there’s the story of Dr. Nuland as young intern and his first crisis when a patient went into massive cardiac. Using all his training, Nuland opened the man’s chest and began to massage his heart, as was the routine practice at the time, but to no avail. The man died. Yet suddenly he “threw back his head once more and, staring upward at the ceiling with the glassy unseeing gaze of open dead eyes, roared out to the distant heavens a dreadful rasping whoop that sounded like the hounds of hell were barking. Only later did I realize that what I heard was McCarty’s version of the death rattle, a sound made by spasm in the muscles of the voice box, caused by the increased acidity in the blood of a newly dead man. It was his way, it seemed, of telling me to desist — my efforts to bring him back to life could only be in vain.” Or, as Nuland constantly reminds the reader, “we rarely go gentle into that good night.”

Marilynne Seguin’s A Gentle Death is an attempt to help ease that journey for patients and their families. Sequin, a registered nurse for over 30 years as well as a founding member and executive director of the Toronto-based Dying With Dignity tells how she, like Nuland, was trained to prolong life at all costs. Experience has taught her to question prevailing attitudes of the medical establishment and she stresses that patients must become informed and responsible for the medical decisions that affects their lives.

In presenting the many examples of people approaching death who Sequin has cared for, a common theme emerges. Rather than a passive silence, many approaching death wish to be at home, surrounded by the noise of children — the noise of life — rather than the sobering silence of loneliness.

Both books try to dispel the hero myth, the one where the nurse or physician is never to allow the patient to lose hope. Yet hope and wishing for miracles get in the way of true discussion; it robs people of their death. Nuland confronts this reality head on when he describes how, when his brother Harvey was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 1989, he made “a series of mistakes. … I became convinced that telling my brother the absolute truth would ‘take away his only hope.’ I did exactly what I have warned others against.” Harvey was enrolled in an experimental therapy that showed initial promise but in the end increased and prolonged his anguish. Eventually, Harvey returned home to die.

These two books, and others, are a continuation of an expanding public interest in death. Certainly part of that interest can be attributed to the demographics of baby boomers. The group that first discovered drugs, free love, parenthood, the mid-life crisis and menopause has now discovered death. And along with those who want to face biological realities there will be those who desire to live beyond their biological means. Nuland writes we are currently in the vitamin era, following previous attempts to prolong life through the pseudoscience of monkey glands, mother’s milk, and, as King David tried, sleeping between two virgins. Coming soon will be expanded attempts to prolong life through the mass availability of human growth hormone, derived by genetic engineering, and gene therapy. Only “accurate knowledge of how a disease kills,” writes Nuland, “serves to free us from unnecessary terrors of what we might be fated to endure when we die. We may thus be better prepared to recognize the stations at which it is appropriate to ask for relief, or perhaps to begin contemplating whether to end the journey altogether.”

Which leads to the hotly debated topic of physician-assisted suicide and the right of rational individuals to decide how and when to end their lives. At this point the two books differ strongly. Nuland approves of Living Wills and other advanced care directives, instructing physicians what treatments to withhold in the face of terminal illness, but he strongly disapproves of physician-assisted suicide. Seguin, however, sees no distinction. Much of her book is devoted to a frank discussion of the practical advantages and limitations of such approaches.

Nuland, however, fails to come clean on the topic, when he mentions in passing that, “Like so many of my colleagues, I have more than once broken the law to ease a patient’s going, because my promise, spoken or implied, could not be kept unless I did so.” Seguin states quite clearly that many physicians have engaged in such activity, so why not create clear, legally-binding rules, as has been done in the Netherlands.

One Dutch physician who supports the new law says society needs a counterweight for the enormous technology of modern medicine. But more importantly he says, it gives the patient a chance to take leave openly of his children, his grandchildren, and others.

That openness seems crucial to further public discussion of death and dying. I still wonder what I would say to someone who is about to leave this earth on their own accord. Both books provide unique and moving insight into such conversations. Perhaps I now know what I might have said to my grandmother.

Douglas Powell is a graduate student at the University of Guelph.

Lettuce continues to be overrated: 7 sick in Maryland from E. coli linked to pre-packaged salad

The Maryland Department of Health says seven confirmed cases of E. coli infections have been linked to pre-packaged Caesar salads.

According to the department of health, the infections were identified in people who’d eaten Ready Pac Bistro Bowl Chicken Caesar Salad purchased at Sam’s Club stores in Maryland.

One person was hospitalized as a result of the E. coli O157 infection.

No deaths have been linked to it.

And there aren’t enough bagpipes and mandolins in rock.