Cheech and Chong may be the cooks: why people shouldn’t purchase brownies from streets vendors

I can’t wait until Sorenne goes to pre-school, only to be greeted by a teacher giggling, muttering to herself, “Dave’s not here.”

That’s what happened in April, 2009, when the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) notified officials from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (DPH) in California about a group of preschool teachers with nausea, dizziness, headache, and numbness and tingling of fingertips after consumption of brownies purchased 3 days before from a sidewalk vendor.

As reported in today’s U.S. Centers for Disease Control weekly update, “the findings also underscore the need to consider marijuana as a potential contaminant during foodborne illness investigations and the importance of identifying drug metabolites by testing of clinical specimens soon after symptom onset.

On the morning of April 7, 2009, a preschool teacher put brownies, which she had purchased on April 5, on a table in a break room to share with staff. The day before, she also had given two brownies to her adult son at home. Five preschool teachers (not including the teacher who had purchased the brownies) and the teacher’s adult son were the only persons who ate the brownies. Each person ate only one brownie. At approximately 1:30 p.m., the preschool director and the administrator noticed that one of the teachers suddenly looked drowsy and was complaining of drowsiness, ataxia, dizziness, shortness of breath, and numbness and tingling of the face, forehead, arms, and hands. When the director and administrator learned that the teacher who had shared the brownies had purchased them from a sidewalk vendor for a church fundraiser, they suspected the affected teacher’s drowsiness was associated with her ingestion of the brownie 30 minutes before onset of symptoms. The teacher did not seek medical care.

The brownies were sold as single, unlabeled units, individually wrapped in plastic wrap, costing $1.50 each. The preschool director contacted the head pastor of the church, who reported that the church had not held a fundraiser, and the pastor subsequently notified LAPD to investigate. After interviewing persons at the church and the preschool, LAPD suspected foodborne illness and contacted DPH on April 8.

Only A grades on Shortland Street

While living in Doug and Amy’s basement I watched a lot of bad TV – we all did. Since moving to New Zealand little has changed. Instead of the Real Housewives of New York or DOOL, I now watch Shortland Street every night at 7pm.

Last night while two of the characters were scandalously dining I recognized a restaurant grading card in the background, an A grade. The program is filmed and set in Auckland, New Zealand.

The picture is a little shotty, but so is the acting.

Street meat (and other roadside dishes) on the rise

Last week, the Wall Street Journal profiled street food vendors throughout the U.S. highlighting the popularity of mobile/temporary/cart foods. It appears that the segment of foodservice is increasing in popularity as consumers want more than just hot dogs and sausages.  Many of the operators profiled by WSJ have online ordering, text message support and tweet (on twitter) to better connect with customers and provide speed and convenience.

With more complex foods (other than just reheating cooked meats) comes more complicated (and potentially risky) preparation and handling steps. Multiple raw ingredients need to be kept at the right temperature, operators have to avoid cross-contamination and, keep bacteria and viruses off of their hands. All within the confines of a cart or trailer.

Operators must know (and care) about the risks associated with the products they sell. Health inspectors are part of the solution, but a good street vendor manages the risks before the inspector points them out.

The WSJ also reported back in April that the strictly street meat industry is booming as well– hot dog cart sales for some manufactures have doubled.

Sales of carts, which start at about $2,000 new, have heated up in the past year. "Every model is…taking off," says Joel Goetz, owner of American Dream Hot Dog Carts Inc. in St. Petersburg, Fla. Since January, he has sold about 25 carts a week, 15 more than usual.

"Business is really off the charts," says Dan Jackson, a division manager at Nation’s Leasing Services in Newbury Park, Calif. Leases for hot-dog carts account for about three-quarters of sales, and revenue is triple what it was this time a year ago, he says.

Some of the problems that can arise with mobile vendors were exemplified by the good folks at Seattle & King Co. Health. The Seattle Times reports that the health authorities closed a bistro-style mobile restaurant (which was profiled in the WSJ piece), operated out of an Airstream trailer by Skillet Street Food, after finding several health code violations.

The department found several issues — including no water in the hand-washing area, no cold storage for food and no arrangements for restrooms — and shut it down.

The trailer also reportedly didn’t have a license to operate (while a sister trailer, which remained open, did). 

In a follow-up article, chef-owner Josh Henderson tried to explain the situation:

"We have one trailer not fully approved," explained Henderson as he readied for tonight’s game. "The original trailer people see every day was having some mechanical issues, so we were forced to bring out the one that’s not approved."


"We signed a contract with the Mariners for the season, saying we’ll be out in that lot." It was a choice between not operating and potentially having a breach of contract, he said, or not having a permit for the night and hoping they could get away with it. "We made a bad choice."

Henderson went on to say: 

"We’re a young business. We’ve invested money. We’re struggling to pay bills. We don’t have deep pockets and large investors. When it comes down to paying payroll and operating a business, sometimes these risks are outweighed by other stuff. That’s the reality."

Yeah, not so sure that potentially making a bunch of people sick so you can honor the terms of your contract the best risk to take. If something goes wrong you’re probably out of business (and not fulfilling that contract with the Mariners).

Stop tweeting, get some water and wash your hands.

Creator of the Kebab (or donair, the after-bar street meat) dies

Following up on my last post on the passing of the dude who helped create the microwave (and indirectly, caused lots of illnesses in Minnesota) there’s news out of Germany that the creator of the kebab (or donair as it’s known in Halifax or Calgary) has passed away.

 Mahmut Aygün, snack visionary and dab hand with a meat carver, has died of cancer at the age of 87, almost 40 years after permanently changing the drunken dining habits of millions.

The chef was born in Turkey but later moved to Germany in the hope of one day opening his own restaurant. He was serving customers at a snack stall when it dawned on him that kebab meat – a mix of roasted lamb and spices traditionally eaten with rice – could be served differently.

‘I thought how much easier it would be if they could take their food with them,’ he once said.

 (in celebration of the Conchords returning to HBO — the line "I’ll buy you a kebab" is at 2:11)

Donairs have been linked to at least three outbreaks of E.coli O157 in Alberta since 2004. Outbreak investigators found that the cooking practices traditionally used in kebabs and donairs, rotating a cone of meat around a heat source, were problematic.  Often, especially in the post-bar-closing rush, the heat sources are turned up so the outside of the cone gets scorched, but meat just below the surface doesn’t reach safe temperatures (because it’s being cut off quickly to meet the customer demands).  The cooking practice, along with the tendency for the meat cones to be made with ground meat and stored frozen can cause a perfect outbreak scenario.

And then cause the squirts. Or worse.

In response to the outbreaks a national committee was created in Canada to look at the risks associated with the food.  The group recommended that donairs/kebabs/shawarmas/street-meat-on-a-stick should be grilled after cutting off the cone to ensure pathogen-killing temps.  Good call.

I’m all for donairs and street meat. Or late-night chinese food.  Basically anything heavy and greasy tastes good after a few beers, but the places serving them have to know the risks associated with what they are serving, and where things might go wrong. Public health officials and food safety folks need to help businesses with this. If you don’t know what could go wrong, you shouldn’t be serving it.

Here’s a food safety infosheet on donairs from a couple of years ago.