How a frozen meringue led Australian investigators to the source of a potent Salmonella outbreak

Jess Davis of ABC News reports a frozen meringue was key to identifying and outbreak of Salmonella enteritidis (SE), a bacteria that until last year was not found in Australia, that sickened almost 200 people.

People first started getting sick in May 2018 and by July a cluster of cases had appeared in New South Wales. That was when health authorities started investigating.

“Health, through their investigations, were able to look at a number of isolates of Salmonella enteritidis that came from humans, who unfortunately had been ill, and use a technology called whole genome sequencing,” said NSW Food Authority CEO Lisa Szabo.

“So it’s a genetic-based technology that helps us join the dots, shall I say. And this was the first time they could see a group of people with the same whole genome sequence.”

Anyone with a confirmed case of SE was interviewed by investigators and asked for a detailed account of what they’d eaten — to try to find what the different cases had in common.

A few weeks after being interviewed, one of those people remembered they had a frozen meringue cake in their freezer, leftover from a birthday party, around the time they got sick.

Officers went to that person’s home, collected the cake and had it tested.

“We were able to isolate the Salmonella enteritidis and it had that same whole genome sequence. At the same time we could see who manufactured that cake,” Ms Szabo said.

“We could go back to the manufacturer, have a look at their environment, look at how they handle food and where they get their ingredients from, and that’s where we saw the connection to the egg farm.”

It wasn’t until September that the frozen meringue led investigators to a farm on the outskirts of Sydney, but by then the bacteria had slowly started spreading across the industry.

“Once we detected salmonella enteritidis on this particular farm, we then commenced another round of investigations … more from the biosecurity and then the farm side of trying to understand … [whether the] farm had other connections to other properties around the state” Ms Szabo said.

But how the bacteria made its way into Australian eggs in the first place is likely to remain a mystery.

One property in Victoria and 13 in NSW have been affected so far and more than half-a-million birds have been culled at a cost of $10 million.

The spread of SE has been blamed largely on the interconnected nature of the egg industry, with all the infected farms connected in some way.

Egg farmers often trade produce with each other, and equipment and workers also regularly move from farm to farm.

Veterinarian Rod Jenner said SE was difficult to contain because it could survive and multiply without a host and could live in the environment for up to two years.

“It can survive in dust and dirt, in vehicles, and can travel in the wind. Rodents, wild birds, that sort of thing, can carry it on their skin or in their bodies as well,” he said.

“So it has actually been demonstrated to travel vast distances and be contaminated, be deposited on other farms that have previously been free.”

A farmer’s worst nightmareBede Burke’s egg farm at Tamworth in NSW was the 11th property to be infected, with a notification it had tested positive to SE during a routine check just over three months ago.

“Your whole world crashes down around you, you know,” Mr Burke said.

“We just didn’t sleep for a week and that first seven or eight days was really traumatic. We had to learn how to both decontaminate and disinfect the premises.”

When the notification came through on the eve of the federal election, Mr Burke had to withhold his eggs from sale and was faced with the prospect of culling entire flocks.

“But then you’ve got heap of eggs on your premises, you can’t not stop packing eggs, we were still going to pack 90,000 eggs a day,” he said.

“It’s just stress beyond all belief and then start planning for the worst.”

But he was lucky the contamination was picked up early and while a swab of dirt and dust had tested positive, it hadn’t yet spread to his egg or birds.

There have been no confirmed cases of SE since June and the industry hopes that will be the end of it.

But the outbreak has raised serious questions about how biosecurity is managed. Despite the disease becoming a national problem, its enforcement and regulation is state-based.

Philip Szepe, who runs an egg farm at Kinglake in Victoria, tests for all strains of salmonella every three months.

But he’s concerned that not all farmers are as diligent and said biosecurity was too reliant on self-regulation.

“Government’s really good at responding to crisis. It’d be great if the Government had a bit more engagement with the industry around monitoring, surveillance and compliance,” he said.

Johnny Cash responds to Nashville refusing to play his music.

I did it years before Johnny Cash (mine is 1980), but just in general (although I did have the Cash pic on my office door — the office I never used except to store stinky hockey equipment for me and Chapman once the lab folks complained).

Doug Powell responds to the support he has received from food safety types (with a few exceptions) since moving to Brisbane in 2011 to support his French professor wife.

 

Piping hot in Australia

I guess people think I don’t exist, but I am here, just not in the corporate-academic-producer group-government meeting mode.

I hang out at supermarkets and talk with people.

I went to my Commons this morning, and saw these ribs and bought a pack, not because I wanted ribs but because of the labelling.

 

Perfect poo and good health connect in teaching tool for children

A central Queensland professor is taking the taboo out of poo to teach children about the link between eating well and making healthy poo.

The ‘Poop it’ kit uses illustrated stories and rewards to educate four to eight-year-olds about what a healthy poo looks like.

It was developed by Professor Kerry Reid-Searl from CQUniversity, who partnered with paediatric nurses, academics, and undergraduate students.

The inspiration behind the project comes from the professor’s desire to take the embarrassment out of talking about what we flush down the toilet.

“Many people are ashamed or reluctant to talk about poo, yet there is such an important link between good health and poo,” she said.

“As a nurse I have encountered many children with bowel problems, and my understanding from the anecdotal responses from parents of these children is that the psychosocial impact can be significant.

“So this project is very much about giving children an awareness of a topic that probably fascinates them, but more importantly provides them with information that can influence their everyday being.”

What does a healthy poo look like?

It’s already a topic that gets kids giggling. But to make learning about what goes into making good and bad poo fun, the professor and her team created characters that illustrate the meaning behind the shape of the poo we make.

“There are seven different types of poos, from rabbit droppings right through to gravy-type poos, but the best healthy poo is a sausage-shaped poo where it’s like a sausage — smooth and brown.”

Personally, my family has no taboos when talking about poo or farts or burps – expected from someone who’s idea of community service is writing on barfblog.com – at least until Sorenne reaches puberty, which is soon, and then I’ll just be an embarrassment until she needs money, about 10 years later. If the 4 Canadian daughters are anything to go by (right, with my father, Jan. 2019 in Brantford) it’s a set pattern.

And it may be arriving sooner than expected. I just facetimed daughter S in Arizona where she is staying with her maternal grandmother for the night, and she blew me off after a couple of minutes to go chat with a friend in Brisbane.

Technology. Kids. Life.

Norwegian Authority warns pregnant women to avoid ginger supplements

The Norwegian Food Safety Authority warns pregnant women and women planning to become pregnant to avoid ginger supplements and ginger-containing shots.

Will Chu of Nutra reports the warning comes after the Danish Technical University (DTU) and the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration carried out a new risk assessment that found a higher abortion risk in animal studies.

In the report, the DTU said the results did not exclude the possibility that large ginger quantities could also increase this risk in humans.

“The DTU Food Institute concludes that in many cases ginger root ingestion from a single ginger shot will be larger (up to 20-23 grams (g) per day) than the fresh or dried amount typically eaten in the diet. ​

“Experiments in rats indicate that ginger can affect the normal foetal development,”​ says the report​, dated 21 December 2018.

 “The studies conducted so far in humans did not investigate whether ginger can have a harmful effect early in pregnancy. Animal studies suggest that it may be a particularly sensitive period. ​

“There is a small safety margin between the daily dose linked to harmful effects during pregnancy in rats and the amount of ginger that can be consumed with one ginger shot,”​ the report continues.

Along with the Norwegian Food Safety Authority, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health assessed the Danish report, supporting its conclusions and issuing the warning against taking ginger shots and supplements with ginger.

From the duh files: Health facts aren’t enough, should persuasion become a priority?

My lab has been studying this question for over 20 years and we figured out fairly early that facts suck (to the audience, below is a video from about 2002) but I always insisted on good facts combined with good storytelling.

Aaron Carroll of the N.Y. Times writes that in a paper published early this year in Nature Human Behavior, scientists asked 500 Americans what they thought about foods that contained genetically modified organisms.

The vast majority, more than 90 percent, opposed their use. This belief is in conflict with the consensus of scientists. Almost 90 percent of them believe G.M.O.s are safe — and can be of great benefit.

The second finding of the study was more eye-opening. Those who were most opposed to genetically modified foods believed they were the most knowledgeable about this issue, yet scored the lowest on actual tests of scientific knowledge.

In other words, those with the least understanding of science had the most science-opposed views, but thought they knew the most. Lest anyone think this is only an American phenomenon, the study was also conducted in France and Germany, with similar results.

If you don’t like this example — the point made here is unlikely to change people’s minds and will probably enrage some readers — that’s O.K. because there are more where that came from.

A small percentage of the public believes that vaccines are truly dangerous. People who hold this view — which is incorrect — also believe that they know more than experts about this topic.


Many Americans take supplements, but the reasons are varied and are not linked to any hard evidence. Most of them say they are unaffected by claims from experts contradicting the claims of manufacturers. Only a quarter said they would stop using supplements if experts said they were ineffective. They must think they know better.

Part of this cognitive bias is related to the Dunning-Kruger effect, named for the two psychologists who wrote a seminal paper in 1999 entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of It.”

David Dunning and Justin Kruger discussed the many reasons people who are the most incompetent (their word) seem to believe they know much more than they do. A lack of knowledge leaves some without the contextual information necessary to recognize mistakes, they wrote, and their “incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”

This helps explain in part why efforts to educate the public often fail. In 2003, researchers examined how communication strategies on G.M.O.s — intended to help the public see that their beliefs did not align with experts — wound up backfiring. All the efforts, in the end, made consumers less likely to choose G.M.O. foods.

Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth professor and contributor to The Upshot, has been a co-author on a number of papers with similar findings. In a 2013 study in Medical Care, he helped show that attempting to provide corrective information to voters about death panels wound up increasing their belief in them among politically knowledgeable supporters of Sarah Palin.

In a 2014 study in Pediatrics, he helped show that a variety of interventions intended to convince parents that vaccines didn’t cause autism led to even fewer concerned parents saying they’d vaccinate their children. A 2015 study published in Vaccine showed that giving corrective information about the flu vaccine led patients most concerned about side effects to be less likely to get the vaccine.

A great deal of science communication still relies on the “knowledge deficit model,” an idea that the lack of support for good policies, and good science, merely reflects a lack of scientific information.

But experts have been giving information about things like the overuse of low-value care for years, to little effect. A recent study looked at how doctors behaved when they were also patients. They were just as likely to engage in the use of low-value medical care, and just as unlikely to stick to their chronic disease medication regimens, as the general public.

In 2016, a number of researchers argued in an essay that those in the sciences needed to realize that the public may not process information in the same way they do. Scientists need to be formally trained in communication skills, they said, and they also need to realize that the knowledge deficit model makes for easy policy, but not necessarily good results.

It seems important to engage the public more, and earn their trust through continued, more personal interaction, using many different platforms and technologies. Dropping knowledge from on high — which is still the modus operandi for most scientists — doesn’t work.

137 sick: FDA investigating contaminated pig ear treats connected to Salmonella

I’ve been told that pig ear treats are the equivalent of potato chips for dogs.

One of daughter Sorenne’s chores is to feed our two cats every night, with their special anti-neurotic food.

And every night I say, wash your hands.

Same with Ted the Wonder Dog and treats.

With the recent announcements of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigating contaminated Pig Ear Treats connecting to Salmonella, Pet Supplies Plus is advising consumers it is recalling bulk pig ear product supplied to all locations by several different vendors due to the potential of Salmonella contamination. Salmonella can affect animals eating the products and there is risk to humans from handling contaminated pet products, especially if they have not thoroughly washed their hands after having contact with the products or any surfaces exposed to these products.

There is now 137 sick with Salmonella from handling these things.

Testing by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development revealed that aging bulk pig ear product in one of our stores tested positive for Salmonella. We have pulled bulk pig ear product from the shelves at all of our stores and have stopped shipping bulk pig ears from our Distribution Center. We are working with the FDA as they continue their investigation as to what caused the reported Salmonella related illnesses.

Food safety is not simple

If food safety is simple, why do so many get sick?

Because it’s not simple: it’s complex, constant, requires commitment and information must be compelling.

Government, industry and academics continue to flog the food safety is simple line, despite outbreaks becoming increasingly complex and in the complete absence of any data that the message works.

We’ve shown that food safety stories can work. And I’m not embarrassed to wear the Leafs hoodie, because they are at least watchable now, unlike the last 52 years.

Every summer (sure it’s winter here in Australia, but that’s an equator thing, and I still wear shorts 365 days of the year), tucked away in the back pages of every newspaper, it’s the same thing: bland pronouncements about how food safety is easy if consumers follow some simple steps, while the front page usually has another story about another outbreak of foodborne illness.
What’s so simple about outbreaks in produce, pet food and peanut butter? Once the products were home, there was nothing individuals could have done to prevent the subsequent illnesses and deaths. Are consumers really expected to cook all their fresh tomatoes and leafy greens to 165F to kill salmonella? Fry up peanut butter? Bake the cat food?
 Yet there are a multitude of well-meaning groups who preach to the masses that food safety begins at home.
Whether it’s a U.S. Department of Agriculture official saying in 2005 that, “Foodborne illness is very serious but easily prevented if foods are handled, prepared and cooked properly,” or a Canadian retail association saying in 2006 that “E. coli can be prevented through simple in home food safety practices such as washing thoroughly fresh produce in clean water for several minutes before consuming,” the it’s-simple message is pervasive, condescending and wrong.
 Food safety is complex, constant and requires commitment.
Produce, peanut butter and pet food demonstrate that messages focused solely on consumers are woefully incomplete. The World Health Organization recognized this back in 2001 and included a fifth key to safer food: use safe water and raw materials, or, source food from safe sources (http://www.who.int/foodsafety/consumer/5keys/en/index.html).
Consumers must recognize — and demand — that the first line of defense be the farm. Every mouthful of fresh produce, processed food or pet food is a consumer’s act of faith. Every grower, packer, distributor, retailer and restaurant must stop blaming consumers and work instead on developing their own culture that values and promotes microbiologically safe food.

11 sick: New York state investigating Cyclospora outbreak

Bethany Bump of the Times Union writes that New York state and local health departments are investigating an outbreak of cyclosporiasis in the Capital Region.

The gastrointestinal illness, which can spread through contaminated food and water, has been confirmed in 11 people so far.

Symptoms began around mid-June, and several of the patients reported eating at the Italian American Community Center in Albany, Prime Life Restaurant at the Beltrone Senior Living Community Center in Colonie, and a private buffet held at Union College in Schenectady, state health officials said.

While cyclosporiasis is endemic in some areas of the world, outbreaks in the U.S. are often associated with imported fresh produce that have been contaminated with a fecal parasite known as Cyclospora cayetanensis.

State health officials say there is no indication that the parasite was spread by poor food handling or preparation at local establishments, which are cooperating with the investigation. Instead, contamination often occurs prior to arrival at food distribution centers and restaurants, they said, and is not easily removed by standard rinsing.

Additional dining establishments may be identified as the investigation continues, they added.