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 (
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.

Food safety is not simple, so stop saying it

It’s not simple.

Food safety is not simple.

food-safety-1But wanker organizations and bureaucrats around the world insist it is.


Food safety is not simple.

Food Standards Scotland (FSS) has launched its festive food safety campaign, urging Christmas cooks to follow simple food safety tips when preparing meals.

The campaign uses tongue-in-cheek humour to get the food safety message across, featuring Santa Claus stricken by a bout of food poisoning. 

Geoff Ogle said there are number of simple things that people could do to help reduce food poisoning infections. He added: “These should include allowing adequate time to defrost your turkey in the bottom of your fridge or somewhere cold: large turkeys can take a couple of days. If it’s not completely de-frosted it can mean inconsistent cooking through the bird and won’t get rid of bugs like campylobacter which can cause food poisoning.

“Also make sure it’s cooked through until the juices run clear, store leftovers in the fridge and eat them within two days unless they’ve been frozen, and re-heat them just once. And keep your fridge temperature at 0-5°C.”

Use a thermometer. Juices running clear is terrible advice.

But food safety is simple.

And if you get sick, it’s your fault.

34 sickened: Australian Xmas party not so simple

More than 30 people came down with food poisoning after a Christmas party in Victoria.

Disco-Scene-airplaneOne man was taken to hospital from the gathering in Portsea, while another 33 others suffered nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Paramedics say only a few of the 44 party guests, which included six children, were unaffected.

In yet another reminder that it really is 1978 in Australia, paramedic team leader Brendan Keane said Friday, “With lots of barbecues and parties over the holidays it’s important for people to take some simple food handling precautions and reduce the chances of food poisoning.”

If it’s so simple why do so many people get sick?

Be the bug: germs spread easily in kitchens but easy to prevent?

A new study released by Safefood Ireland has found the vast majority of Irish people do not thoroughly wash their hands after handling raw chicken and fail to properly wash down their kitchen surfaces after food preparation.

The findings were released to coincide with a new campaign by Safefood, which aims to show how easily food poisoning germs can spread in the kitchen.

The study involved 120 people preparing two meals – a beef burger and a warm chicken salad. They had to follow specific instructions, with 60 of the people working in a test kitchen, while the other 60 worked in their own kitchens.

Throughout both kitchens, webcams were used to observe the task and swabs were taken from the food, kitchen surfaces and the participants’ hands to assess the presence of potentially dangerous bacteria.

When it came to the participants’ hands, at least eight in 10 had not washed theirs properly after handling raw chicken, while the hands of one in three were contaminated with raw meat bacteria after the exercise.

Almost all of the kitchen surfaces had not been washed properly after food preparation and almost half of the kitchens were contaminated with raw meat bacteria.

Half of the chopping boards used were also not properly washed and were contaminated with raw meat bacteria and the use of utensils was no better.

In fact, almost three in four people failed to properly wash the knife they had been using on raw chicken before reusing it on salad vegetables. Furthermore, at least one in three side salads that were server with a beef burger were contaminated with raw meat bacteria.

Meanwhile, results from a second study also showed that raw meat bacteria can live for at least 24 hours on kitchen surfaces.

According to Safefood chief executive, Martin Higgins, ‘by highlighting the trail of these germs around the kitchen and revealing their journey, the campaign emphasises the dangers to consumers of not following simple food hygiene practices and the risks this can pose to themselves and others’.

Another interpretation would be, bugs that make people sick are not simple to control; they’re everywhere and easily move about, which is why loads have to be reduced before foods enter a grocery store, or restaurant or home kitchen. Food safety is not simple.

Food safety is not simple; and please, stop yelling

When people write using exclamation marks, especially in an e-mail or web-based postings, they seem to be yelling,

At the reader.

At me.

The U.K. Institute of Food Science & Technology issued an update yesterday on avoiding cross-contamination in the home. Why did the group specifically target the home and not include food service and retail? No idea.

I won’t bicker with the advice — although in some cases it seems excessive and culled from brochures rather than actual observation. For example, under handwashing, the report says,

"Wash hands, including finger-tips, thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and dry them thoroughly before you start preparing food. Do this repeatedly during food preparation – after every interruption and always if you have had to change the baby’s nappy or have been to the toilet; or after combing or touching your hair, nose, mouth or ears; or after eating, smoking, coughing or blowing nose; or after handling waste food or refuse; or after handling dirty cloths, crockery etc; or after shaking hands; or after touching shoes, the floor or other dirty surfaces. After preparing raw foods such as fish, meat, or poultry, wash your hands again before you start handling other foods. Rings can harbour germs – remove them before preparing food!

Twenty seconds of handwashing — which is itself excessive — is further excessive after simply scratching (not picking) my nose. I’m sure that will spark some hate mail. We were talking about that yesterday during my presentation at the Alabama Food Safety and Defense Conference in Montgomery, AL, yesterday.

But look at that exclamation mark. Gives it the ring of a fascist line-dancing instructor barking out orders.

The document concludes by stating,

If you suspect cooked, or ready-to-eat food might be contaminated, don’t serve it or eat it!


Food-poisoning is preventable – avoiding cross-contamination is simple and important!

Food safety is not simple. And save the exclamation marks for the truly exclamatory.

Bad advice from the UK Food Standards Agency

London’s Sunday Times ran a little puff piece — and with spring coming in the Northern Hemisphere there will be many more — that said food safety problems are primarily caused by eating food already past its shelf life, cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods (often involving poor hygiene) and eating food that was either not cooked or not stored properly.

Um, fresh fruits are vegetables are the leading vehicles of foodborne illness today.

Simple precautions include avoiding cooking food that’s about to go off and making sure you dry your hands properly after washing them – far more bacteria are spread from damp hands than dry hands.

The story cites the U.K. Food Standards Agency as a source for additional information. FSA tells folks,

"If you are checking a burger, sausage, or a portion of chicken or pork, cut into the middle and check there is no pink meat left. The meat should also be piping hot in the middle. If you’re checking a whole chicken or other bird, pierce the thickest part of the leg (between drumstick and thigh) with a clean knife or skewer until the juices run out. The juices shouldn’t have any pink or red in them."

This is bad advice. Color is a lousy indicator of doneness using a tip-sensitive digital thermometer is the only safe way to determine is food has reached a safe temperature.

And just what is piping hot?

"To test if food has been properly cooked, check that it is ‘piping hot’ all the way through. This means that it is hot enough for steam to come out. Cut open the food with a small knife so that you can check that it is piping hot in the middle. Generally, if food is piping hot in the middle, then it will be piping hot all the way through. … Some foods change colour when they are cooked. Looking at colour is especially useful for checking meat."

I wonder how much money was spent on consultants, and how many salaries sat around a conference table, to conclude that consumers weren’t bright enough to understand more accurate messages that would actually protect their well-being.

Stick it in.

Home test kit for E. coli and Salmonella?

Magna Medical Services (MMS) is pumping out the press releases following high profile outbreaks.  These dudes have been around for a while, and usually after every outbreak they fire out something about testing your food with their high-powered testing.  Today’s says:

With the recent string of food recalls, food and health retailers are scrambling to offer instant food testing kits for E.coli and Salmonella manufactured by Magna Medical Services, Inc. MMS Quick Results Food Testing Kits are home food test kits for E.coli and Salmonella.
“Retailers will be able to sell home kits for E.coli and Salmonella to clients that need to quickly check their food areas and food products for possible bacteria outbreaks,” says Robert Greene, General Manager for Magna Medical Services, Inc “This is a product that should be right next to every home first aid kit.

They also put out releases following the 2006 spinach-linked E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, and another that cites "recent E. coli outbreaks that have affected the Northeastern United States" back in January.  Seem to be capitalizing on public interest in food safety, but I have lots of questions about the product.

Does this product even work (and how would we know)?
Where is the data (because it’s not on their website)?
How sensitive is it? 
What’s the utility of using quick strips on food in your home? 
How do you sample food in your house?
What would happen if a firm,or a temporary food stand, or my mom used these strips, the results showed no contamination, and the food still resulted in an outbreak?

Maybe it’s a good tool, but without some of these questions answered I file MMS into the huckster category, capitalizing on food safety hysteria. Maybe MMS have some good answers, and I welcome any comments on this product here on barfblog.

Some of my food microbiologist friends are struggling with figuring out the best way to use traditional, labour-intensive methods of sampling different foods (especially produce) and there are disagreements on sample preparation. Seems MMS has got it all figured out.  And only for "less than $4 USD"

I think what MMS is trying to sell is a magic bullet — test with our strips and you can be sure about your food.  And without the data, I’m not sure they can say that, I don’t believe that there are magic bullets in food safety, it’s not that simple.