Really? Rapid test for E. coli improves food safety

Scientists are always talking about new rapid tests for pathogens, but I don’t see them in grocery stores – that’s a place where people buy food.

scienceBut, here goes the PR from Western (in Canada).

Dr. Michael Rieder and his team have created a new rapid-test system to detect E. coli O157 – a foodborne bacteria most commonly found in ground meat. The test would allow manufacturers to identify contaminated food quickly before it leaves the processing plant and enters the grocery store. The system was developed as a result of collaborations between Dr. Rieder, associate scientist at Robarts, and London entrepreneurs, Michael Brock and Craig Coombe.

Current conventional testing can take from three to 21 days for definitive results and relies on bacterial culture. By the time the bacteria are identified, the food has been shipped to grocery stores and may have already caused illness. With this current system, two weeks of food may need to be recalled to ensure against cross-contamination.

 Dr. Rieder’s rapid-test system would allow food to be sampled at the end of one day, and the results would be available before the food is shipped the next morning. “This means that one day’s production is lost, not five day’s production,” he said. “This has the potential to save companies considerable money, and more importantly could save a lot of people from being exposed to food-borne disease.”

  The rapid-test relies on targeting proteins identified by Dr. Rieder’s lab that are only present in the organisms that cause people to become ill. By collaborating with Toronto-based company International Point of Care, the team was able to use flow-through technology to mark the protein with colloidal gold so that it is visible to the naked eye. The process is similar to that used in pregnancy tests – one line for negative, two lines for positive.

 Much of the work has been funded through a grant from Mitacs, a provincial program that encourages academic and industrial collaboration. Dr. Rieder credits the success of the project to these collaborations with industry, as well as colleagues at Robarts and Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. Sadly, Michael Brock, a key member of the project, died suddenly just as it was entering its final stages.

 The rapid-test system has completed testing at Robarts and the Health Canada-certified Agriculture and Food Laboratory at the University of Guelph. The final application has been submitted to Health Canada for approval.

Dietary pseudoscience: ‘How I fooled millions into thinking chocolate helps weight loss’

When I first met the father of my ex-wife, I asked him if he liked hockey.

scienceHe said, nah, that’s all acting.

I watch wrestling.

Who knows what’s genuine anymore.

Science has become an adventure in chasing money rather than chasing evidence.

The following is from where author John Bohannon explains how he tricked the scientific process.

And it was too easy.

“Slim by Chocolate!” the headlines blared. A team of German researchers had found that people on a low-carb diet lost weight 10 percent faster if they ate a chocolate bar every day. It made the front page of Bild, Europe’s largest daily newspaper, just beneath their update about the Germanwings crash. From there, it ricocheted around the internet and beyond, making news in more than 20 countries and half a dozen languages. It was discussed on television news shows. It appeared in glossy print, most recently in the June issue of Shape magazine (“Why You Must Eat Chocolate Daily”, page 128).

Not only does chocolate accelerate weight loss, the study found, but it leads to healthier cholesterol levels and overall increased well-being. The Bild story quotes the study’s lead author, Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D., research director of the Institute of Diet and Health: “The best part is you can buy chocolate everywhere.”

I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website.

Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic. My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data. It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.

The story is long but thorough.

The complaints are unfounded.


Science! MIT experiencing gastroenteritis outbreak

The boffins at MIT Medical need a refresher course in handwashing following an outbreak of acute gastroenteritis on campus.

scienceAccording to associate medical director Howard Heller, MIT Medical saw two patients with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea at the beginning of the week and 16 during the day on Wednesday. MIT-EMS responded to a few more cases overnight, and as of noon on Thursday, a small number of additional patients with similar symptoms had come into Urgent Care. Heller notes that cases do not appear to be linked to any specific dorm or dining hall.

“This may or may not be norovirus,” Heller says. Norovirus, which causes a severe and acute form of gastroenteritis, can spread quickly, especially in dense, semi-closed communities. “But whether it’s norovirus or not,” Heller continues, “our response should be the same — paying extra attention to practicing good hygiene. Frequent and consistent hand-washing is the best way to prevent the spread of this type of virus.” 

Go evidence or go home: some online journals will publish fake science, for a fee

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – Canada – we ran the national food safety info line.

You can imagine rotary phones, but it was a tad more sophisticated.

The question we grappled with was, who’s evidence is right?

We came up with specific guidelines for how to answer questions based on the preponderance of scientific evidence, and were completely transparent about the the.sting.publishinglimitations, using a sound risk analysis framework.

When answers in the scientific literature seemed, uh, weird or missing, we’d go do our own original research and fill in the gaps.

We questioned everything and still do. It’s good for science, but can be hard on relationships.

Any time some hack said, here’s the science to prove something, we would question it.

Apparently with good reason.

As reported by NPR, an elaborate sting carried out by Science found that many online journals are ready to publish bad research in exchange for a credit card number.

The business model of these “predatory publishers” is a scientific version of those phishes from Nigerians who want help transferring a few million dollars into your bank account.

To find out just how common predatory publishing is, Science contributor John Bohannon sent a deliberately faked research article 305 times to online journals. More than half the journals that supposedly reviewed the fake paper accepted it.
“This sting operation,” Bohannan , reveals “the contours of an emerging Wild West in academic publishing.”

Online scientific journals are springing up at a great rate. There are thousands out there. Many, such as PLOS, are totally respectable. This “open access” model is making good science more accessible than ever before, without making users pay the hefty subscription fees of traditional print journals.

(It should be noted that Science is among these legacy print journals, charging subscription fees and putting much of its online content behind a pay wall.)

But the Internet has also opened the door to clever imitators who collect fees from scientists eager to get published. “It’s the equivalent of paying someone to publish the.sting.noseyour work on their blog,” Bohannan tells Shots.

Bohannan says his experiment shows many of these online journals didn’t notice fatal flaws in a paper that should be spotted by “anyone with more than high-school knowledge of chemistry.” And in some cases, even when one of their reviewers pointed out mistakes, the journal accepted the paper anyway — and then asked for hundreds or thousands of dollars in publication fees from the author.

A journalist with an Oxford University PhD in molecular biology, Bohannan fabricated a paper purporting to discover a chemical extracted from lichen that kills cancer cells. Its authors were fake too — nonexistent researchers with African-sounding names based at the fictitious Wassee Institute of Medicine in Asmara, a city in Eritrea.

With help from collaborators at Harvard, Bohannan made the paper look as science-y as possible – but larded it with fundamental errors in method, data and conclusions.

The highest density of acceptances was from journals based in India, where academics are under intense pressure to publish in order to get promotions and bonuses.

“Peer review is in a worse state than anyone guessed,” he says.

The Internet and open access are great tools, but like any technology, hucksters will be there to exploit the tool for personal (PhD) gain.

Maybe the peer-review system needs to open up, and the Internet can help with that.

Charles Birdseye, science, freezing, and the joys of frozen food

Frozen fruits, veggies and meat are a fabulous invention.

Clarence Birdseye is the man credited with inventing frozen food.

NPR reports that Mark Kurlansky, known for his histories on eclectic topics such as Salt and Cod, has written a new biography about Clarence Birdseye. He joins Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin to talk about the book, called Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man.

On Clarence Birdseye’s outsized curiosity:
"He was somebody who just wanted to know about everything. He wanted to know why people did things the way they did, and couldn’t they be done better. He was very interested in processes. He was very curious about nature. He had a nickname for a while — other kids called him ‘Bugs.’ He was interested in all these slimy little things."

On his time living in Newfoundland (that’s in Canada), the setting for his great inspiration:
"This was just really the wilds. There wasn’t fresh food, and so he became concerned about his wife and baby. He noticed that the Inuits would catch fish and they would freeze as soon as they were out of the water. And what he had discovered was that if you freeze very quickly, you don’t destroy the texture of food. It’s something salt makers knew for centuries — that in crystallization, the faster the crystals are formed, the smaller they are. And the problem with frozen food is that they were frozen barely at the freezing point, and they took days to freeze, and they get huge crystals and they just became mush."

On Birdseye’s entrepreneurial mindset:
"He set up a company in Gloucester, Mass., but he wasn’t so much interested in having a seafood company; he understood perfectly well that there wasn’t much of a market for it. What this company was to do was to develop machinery and ideas and patent them, and sell the patents to people with big money. … The decade before he was born, Bell invented the telephone and Edison the phonograph and the light bulb was invented, and [Birdseye] very much had that idea in his head, that that’s what you did — you came up with an idea and you started a company based on it."

On the source of Birdseye’s passion:
"One thing that was very clear about him was that, in his way, he was a real foodie. … He would go out to farms and talk to farmers about how they could make their processes and their product better suited for industry. Just the reverse of what food lovers think about today … [in] the locavore movement. He was trying to correct the locavore movement."

On Birdseye’s personality:
"He was a very garrulous, likable person and an absolutely brilliant salesman. When he was trying to get investors, he would send entire dinners of frozen food to their Manhattan apartments. He really had a confidence in this product that if people just tried it, they would love it."

UK FSA publishes updated science strategy

Is cooking food until it’s ‘piping hot’ a science-based recommendation?

The Food Standards Agency has published its updated Strategy to 2015, Safer food for the nation with five core principles:

• putting the consumer first;
• openness and transparency;
• science and evidence-based;
• acting independently; and,
• enforcing food law fairly.

And six core outcomes:

• foods produced or sold in the UK are safe to eat;
• imported food is safe to eat;
• food producers and caterers give priority to consumer interests in relation to food;
• consumers have the information and understanding they need to make informed choices about where and what they eat;
• regulation is effective, risk-based and proportionate, is clear about the responsibilities of food business operators, and protects consumers and their interests from fraud and other risks; and,
• enforcement is effective, consistent, risk-based and proportionate and is focused on improving public health.

Sounds great. But what are the details?

Of the estimated £135m annual budget, £20m is allocated to ensuring consumers have information necessary to make informed food choices, with priorities for improving public awareness about good food hygiene at home; increasing visible information on hygiene standards when consumers eat out or shop; and improving public awareness of healthy eating.

For that amount of money, the science-based FSA could do much better than telling citizens their meat is safe when it’s “piping hot” and “the juices run clear.”

Piping hot is not science or evidence-based; color is a lousy indicator of safety; using a tip-sensitive digital thermometer is the only safe way to determine if food has reached a safe temperature.

FSA also states “The strategy is written in a way that consumers can understand and explains the range of work we do across the UK.“

It’s not clear whether anyone asked consumers if they could understand, but FSA did state one of its main priorities was to “improve public awareness and use of messages about good food hygiene practice at home.”

Use of messages improves nothing; using practices recommended in messages may translate into fewer sick people, but those messages need to be evidence-based.

Modernist Cuisine and food safety

Modernist Cuisine is a six-volume, 2,438-page set that is destined to reinvent cooking. And it may. The reviews have been glowing.

Sam Sifton of the New York Times writes today that Modernist Cuisine “is the first modern cookbook to range into the territory of the Larousse Gastronomique, a heretofore unparalleled culinary reference book first published in 1938, and of Escoffier’s expansive Guide Culinaire, from 1903. It is larger and more far lavishly illustrated than either, with photographs that make both deep-frying and the extrusion of gel noodles appear to be miracles on the order of Caravaggio.”

One of the authors got the Colbert bump last night (see video below).

I’m all for science and cooking, although I wonder what the authors would have to say about science used to bolster the quality and supply of ingredients – genetically engineered foods, growth promotants, pesticides and others.

I don’t know because I haven’t read the book, but I have read a piece the three authors — Nathan Myhrvold, a former chief technology officer at Microsoft and CEO of Intellectual Ventures, Chris Young, who opened the experimental kitchen at The Fat Duck, and Maxime Bilet, who was head chef at Jack’s Luxury Oyster Bar and then on the development team with Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck – penned for Scientific American chastising U.S. regulators for babying consumers and recommending cooking temperatures and times far beyond those supported by science.

The Scientific American blog post is best characterized by selective referencing and incomplete claims – the playbook for rhetorical argumentation.

The authors say that “during a recent outbreak of Escherichia coli linked to contaminated fresh spinach in the United States (is 2006 recent?), public health authorities initially told consumers, retailers, and restaurants to throw out all spinach, often directly stating in public announcements that it could not be made safe by cooking it.

“This assertion is scientifically incorrect: E. coli is very easy to kill with heat.
Evidently the officials decided that oversimplifying the public message was better than telling the truth. They may have feared that if people cooked contaminated spinach to make it safe to eat, but either didn’t cook it sufficiently or cross-contaminated other food or kitchen surfaces in the process, more fatalities would result. The authorities must have decided that the benefits of avoiding multiple accidental deaths far outweighed the costs of simply tossing out all spinach. In this case they probably were right to make that decision. The cost of some spinach is small compared to the misery and expense of hospitalization.”

“Oversimplifying for the sake of public safety is a very reasonable thing to do in the midst of an outbreak or other health crisis. It may well have saved lives to lie to the public and announce things that, strictly speaking, are false (for example, that you can’t kill E. coli with heat).”

This is nonsensical. Cross-contamination while preparing the spinach was the primary concern and is by far the biggest risk in home and food service kitchens. We and others have done the research.

The authors ask, “Who pushes back against nonsensical rules? The reality is that the only groups that push back are those that have political clout.”

Blame the man.

Myself and others have been promoting an evidence-based approach to food safety guidelines for decades, and as food safety nerds, we got no political clout.

The authors say that “millions of servings of rare beef steak or completely raw steak tartare or carpaccio are served every day, so if that meat were inherently dangerous, we’d certainly know by now. Scientific investigation has confirmed the practice is reasonably safe—almost invariably, muscle interiors are sterile and pathogen-free. That’s true for any meat, actually, but only beef is singled out by the FDA. The cultural significance of eating raw and rare beef, as much as the science, accounts for the FDA’s leniency in allowing beef steak to be served at any internal temperature.”

There is a huge microbiological difference between a muscle cut that can be seared on the outside, and hamburger or any beef cut that is ground up so external pathogens are internalized. It’s not culture – it’s microbiology.

“Cultural and political factors also explain why cheese made from raw milk is considered safe in France yet viewed with great skepticism in the United States. Traditional cheese-making techniques, used correctly and with proper quality controls, eliminate pathogens without the need for milk pasteurization. Millions of people safely consume raw milk cheese in France, and any call to ban such a fundamental part of French culture would meet with enormous resistance there.”

That’s the stereotype, but when Amy and I were in France in 2007, two of France’s (and thus the world’s) top lait cru Camembert producers, Lactalis and Isigny-Sainte-Mère, announced they were forgoing the status of “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” and switching to cheese made exclusively with heat-treated micro-filtered milk (not quite pasteurized but still an affront to purists).

Lactilis’ spokesperson, Luc Morelon said that although they recognize the importance of Camembert traditions, they’re making the change “[b]ecause consumer safety is paramount, and we cannot guarantee it 100 per cent. We cannot accept the risk of seeing our historic brands disappearing because of an accident in production." In response to his critics Morelon added, “I don’t want to risk sending any more children to hospital. It’s as simple as that." Others believe that Lactilis simply cannot produce the quantities they want and keep using raw milk. According to the Telegraph, Lactilis’ and Isigny’s decision to opt out has now put pressure on the AOC to accept pasteurized milk. It all boils down to business.

Sure, blame the man.

“The United States, however, lacks a broadly recognized culture of making or eating raw milk cheeses. Not coincidentally, health officials have imposed inconsistent regulations on such cheeses. Raw milk cheese aged less than 60 days cannot be imported into the United States and cannot legally cross U.S. state lines. Yet in 24 of the 50 states, it is perfectly legal to make, sell, and consume raw milk cheeses within the state. In most of Canada raw milk cheese is banned, but in the province of Quebec it is legal.”

Do you know how many people got sick and how many miscarriaged due to listeria in raw milk cheese in Quebec in 2008? The 60-day rule is scientifically dumb; that’s why it’s being reviewed.

“Technically, destruction of Salmonella can take place at temperatures as low as 48 degrees C / 120 degrees F given enough time. There is no scientific reason to prefer any one point on the reduction curve, but the experts who formulated the FSIS ready-to-eat standards arbitrarily decided to go no lower than 58 degrees C / 136 degrees F .”

Yes, you’ve got the time-temperature thing down — food safety 101. But us mere mortals don’t necessarily have endless hours to cook chicken. Or pastrami (see below).

As a sidenote, two of the authors worked at The Fat Duck, which sickened 529 diners with norovirus, not just via the raw oysters they served, but by failing to report cases of sick people to public health types, poor record keeping, and allowing sick employees to continue working.

Modernist Cuisine may be an awesome science-based cookbook, and I agree that rules need to be continually challenged; it’s also important to get it microbiologically correct. 

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New IFT report reviews the role of food science and technology in providing, uh, food

The world’s food system provides food for nearly seven billion people each day. But according to a new report from the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), more advances are critical for an adequate food supply, which must nearly double during the next several decades, for the future world population.

The first-of-its-kind scientific review, to be published in the September 2010 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, takes a historical look at the food system, the many challenges ahead, and the crucial role of food science and technology in meeting the needs of the growing population.

The report summarizes the historical developments of agriculture and food technology, details various food manufacturing methods, and explains why food is processed. The report also describes and stresses why further advancements in food science and technology are needed — to more equitably meet growing world population food needs with enhanced food security in developing countries and solutions to complex diet-and-health challenges in industrialized countries.
Impact of Modern Food Manufacturing Methods

John Floros, PhD, of the Pennsylvania State University Department of Food Science said,

"Thanks to food science and technology and modern food manufacturing methods, nutritional deficiencies and inconsistent food availability can be addressed, harvests can be protected, and various commodities can be transformed into new products having specific nutrients for better health and wellness. However, this success has distanced consumers from the agricultural origins of today’s food products and understanding of why processing is important. As a result, there are concerns and misconceptions regarding food safety, and the food system’s effect on health and the environment.”

Uh-oh. That sounds condescending.

Norovirus chef Heston Blumenthal says he uses science

A report in the U.K. Times says that celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal was just 19 years old when the way he thought about food was changed for ever. Food writer Harold McGee had just published a book at a time when people thought that science had very little to do with cooking, setting Blumenthal on what was to become his mission in life – using science to create his now famous culinary masterpieces.

A little more science may have informed chef that poop happens to oyster beds, it’s a good thing to check out suppliers, and people who are sick shouldn’t be serving food – that’s how to make over 500 people sick, like your restaurant did in 2009.

If these people are experts, what’s a consumer to do?

I cringe every time I’m called an expert.

I know a little bit about how to coach girl’s hockey, I know how to make graduate students cry, I know a few other things involving chocolate. I’m amazed at what I don’t know about food and food safety.

But we’re all experts cause we all eat.

The Boston Globe asked some alleged experts about their food concerns.

Dr. Anita Barry of Hingham, director of the infectious disease bureau for the Boston Public Health Commission, says she focuses on washing all produce and she only uses plastic-made cutting boards because wooden ones can have germ-trapped cracks.

Washing produce removes little in the way of pathogens – has to be minimized on the farm – and wooden cutting boards are fine.

Zach Conrad of Brighton, a former co-odinator at the nonprofit Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., believes that today’s organic farmers take greater care around sanitation and safety issues.

Sorry Zach, absolutely no evidence for that.

Lilian Schaer has a unique theory on why there is an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with a Harvey’s restaurant in North Bay, Ontario.

“At Harvey’s, frozen beef patties are grilled once you place your order – and there is plenty of room for error in that process, especially if the restaurant is busy, there isn’t enough staff, or staff aren’t trained or supervised properly.”

So why aren’t there other outbreaks at Harvey’s across Canada? Lilian also says farmers are great and bad handling is where things go wrong. Today she called E. coli O157:H7 a virus. Lilian is a communications specialist, apparently trained at Guelph.

Gina Mallet reacted to the Michael Schmidt raw milk conviction today by saying

“Michael Schmidt’s raw milk has never been found to have listeria or e coli, none of his customers have turned up in intensive care.  People who buy raw milk know there’s an outside risk of a pathogen in unpasteurized milk.

"But no one who ate the listeria laced deli meat and now, the  e-coli burgers from a North Bay Wendy’s knew they were dicing with death when they ate processed and fast food. … Fact is, and the government knows it, that the dirty human hand is a greater danger to our food than not pasteurizing milk.”

It’s a Harvey’s in North Bay. And Gina, you don’t know if Schmidt’s milk has made someone sick or not. It’s OK to say, I don’t know. The dirty hand? Sure, but I follow the poop, some of which is on the hand, some elsewhere.