Leftovers are the meal

"The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for 30 years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found."

– Calvin Trillin, journalist and social commentator on things American

I love the leftovers. Stew, soup, Sorenne just had some lamb stock vegetable stew with lots of carrots and lima beans for lunch – ate it all up.

The New Zealand Herald reports tomorrow (today) that coked ham, with leeks and a mustard white sauce makes great pie filling and chopped into cheese muffin recipes makes for hearty transportable picnic fare at the beach or bach.

We love having Christmas in summertime. It’s part of the Kiwi way because summer is such a wonderful storehouse of seasonal fruit.

It is summer there.

US: 26,500 school cafeterias lack required inspections

Ham and cheese on a bun. That was my 1979 high school staple whenever I needed to inject myself with calories. However, I usually brown bagged lunch, because I hated spending my hard-earned money on crap.

Today’s USA Today reports that data kept by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that norovirus caused at least one-third of the 23,000 food-borne illness cases reported in schools from 1998 through 2007. The toll: about 7,500 sick children, USA TODAY found. Those figures represent just a fraction of all cases. Investigators suspected but couldn’t confirm norovirus in nearly 2,000 additional illnesses in schools during that period, and the CDC says many more cases go unreported.

Although such outbreaks often begin in the cafeteria, more than 8,500 schools failed to have their kitchens inspected at all last year, and another 18,000 fell short of a requirement in the Child Nutrition Act that calls for cafeteria inspections at least twice a year, USA TODAY found. The mandate is part of the National School Lunch Program, which provides food for 31 million schoolchildren across the nation. Almost every school in the United States receives food as part of the program.

The purpose of the inspection requirement is to ensure that the facilities and workers comply with safety and sanitary requirements — from checking food temperatures to wearing gloves.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the school lunch program, acknowledges that the rule is almost impossible to enforce. It is supposed to be a requirement to receive food as part of the lunch program, but

"The predominant source of norovirus infections are food handlers," says Michael Doyle, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety. "If it’s a norovirus infection," he says, kitchen workers "are where I’d look first."

US school lunch program needs more food safety accountability

Today’s USA Today has a feature story today about meat served in the U.S. school lunch program and asks why certain batches of meat were excluded from a Salmonella-related recall and outbreak last year. What stands out is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture initially refused to match suppliers with positive test results as part of an analysis of 146,000 tests for bacteria including salmonella and E. coli.

USDA spokesman Bobby Gravitz wrote in an e-mail to USA Today that divulging their identities "would discourage companies from contracting to supply product for the National School Lunch Program and hamper our ability to provide the safe and nutritious foods to America’s school children."

The newspaper appealed the USDA’s decision. On Monday, the department released the names of the companies.

Although one company, Beef Packers Inc., appeared to stand out for the wrong reasons – in 2007 and 2008, its rate of positive tests for salmonella measured almost twice the rate that’s typical for the nation’s best-performing, high-volume ground beef producers, USA TODAY found — the company kept getting government business. Since 2003, Beef Packers has garnered almost $60 million in contracts.

That sounds eerily familiar to what happened in the 2005 E. coli O157 outbreak in Wales that killed five-year-old Mason Jones (left) and sickened another 160 kids eating their school lunches, where buyers were quick to look the other way to save a pound. A public inquiry into the outbreak concluded the procurement process was, “seriously flawed in relation to food safety.”

One way to push food safety through the system is to demand continuous improvement from suppliers in terms of lowering the number of pathogen positive results. Any consumer-oriented company is going to insist on evidence of such steps or they will take their business elsewhere. Those overseeing school lunches for U.S. kids should demand the same.

What also stands out is that despite the focus on food safety of the feature and an additional heart-wrenching story about a child sickened 11 years ago through the school lunch program, a third story about a company trying to provide low-cost, healthier, natural (whatever that means) school lunches makes no mention of – food safety. The story cites a sample lunch that may now contain fresh lettuce and tomatoes in a wrap, rather than the canned or cooked variety of fruits and veggies. Fresh is great, but introduces an array of microbial food safety and supplier management issues that isn’t even mentioned. Sorta ironical.


Summer means melons

In my current neck of the woods summer is approaching. I’ve decided only the oldies station will play in my pimpin’ ride, and I’ve been purchasing strawberries and watermelon on every trip to the grocery store. Nothing says summer like fresh melon(s).

But melons have their risk. Cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon have been linked to outbreaks of Salmonella in the past, and currently the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has issued a health hazard alert for Melon up! brand large seedless watermelons from Mexico.

You can check out a video on how to safely prepare melon, here. Or the FDA guidance for industry document, here.

Food safety in schools sorta sucks

Today’s USA Today has a great feature about food safety and school lunches in the U.S.

Students at Starbuck Middle School stumbled through the halls just after lunch on Oct. 31, 2007, holding their bellies and moaning. When the vomiting began, teachers knew that it wasn’t a Halloween prank.

By midafternoon, almost 70 children waited outside the nurse’s office at the school near Milwaukee. "There were so many kids there, it was like, ‘Holy cow!’ " recalls Michael Hannes, then a seventh-grader who felt "like someone kept punching me in the stomach."

During the Racine outbreak, the scene at Starbuck was so striking that photos of a hallway full of sick kids memorialize the day in the school yearbook. In the foreground sit trash barrels; the school ran out of bags to catch the vomit.

Much about the following days typifies what happens after such outbreaks. Worried that a virus might be to blame, officials closed the school and custodians disinfected every surface; meanwhile, health and school officials tried to learn all they could about what the children ate.

Days would pass before local health officials determined that the tortillas served at Starbuck and four other schools in Racine were to blame for 101 illnesses. An Internet search showed them the stunning particulars: The company that supplied the tortillas had a long history of making children sick.

The feature has lots more details. And is why I always helped pack the kids a lunch.

Could credit card receipts save children’s lives?

The Norwegian Institute of Public Health has confirmed a genetic match for an infection of E. coli O157 among three children who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) this year.

The Institute reported this week,

“The first child became ill in January, the second in February and the third in March. In addition, a sibling of one of the children has also developed HUS, but it has not yet been confirmed whether this is the same bacterial strain.”

One of the four children—all of which are under the age of ten—has died.

The source of the outbreak has yet to be determined. County food safety officials are currently questioning the families of victims on the children’s meals and testing leftover food, while federal officials are seeking information on any further possible cases (i.e. persons, and particularly children, with bloody diarrhea who test positive for enterohemorrhagic E. coli).

I wonder if they’ve looked into the families’ grocery store receipts?

A peer-reviewed article in the April 15 issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases reports that the source of a 2007 outbreak of E. coli in Denmark was found using credit card information.

Investigators had struggled to determine the source of a strain of E. coli O26 that infected 20 Danish children between February and May of 2007.

Flesh and Stone reports that when interviews failed to yield any likely suspect foods, investigators turned to shopping lists.

“Parents in seven families provided their credit card information and a list of supermarkets where they had shopped. The two supermarket chains that the parents had used most often agreed to help with the investigation. The stores searched their central computers for the precise amount paid and the date and the location of the shop.

“From there, investigators determined that five families had purchased the same brand of fermented, organic beef sausage. A sixth family was linked to the same sausage brand through shopping records provided by the kindergarten attended by two children who became infected with the same E. coli strain, STEC O26. An unopened sample of the sausage also tested positive for the strain.”

Authors of the CID article acknowledged that relying on memory to identify similarities among the diets of outbreak victims diets is often unsuccessful and found credit card information to be “a strong tool in the [current] investigation.”

Investigation of a similar outbreak of E. coli O157 in Iceland successfully used the same method some months later. It could be worth a try for Norway.

Summer sausage is tasty, maggots and all

I grew up in a deer hunting family, and although my own deer hunting career started and ended when I was 13, I was so used to eating venison that beef tasted weird. I still remember one deer my family butchered at home, and my brother chased me around the house with an eyeball. We packaged and marked the cuts, but they stayed in our family freezer. Perhaps we had some guests over for dinner or gave some to a friend at church, but if anyone got sick, it was us.

In Omaha, apparently, things are run differently. Deer processor and poacher extraordinaire Jack McClanahan was finally put out of the summer sausage business.

According to the Omaha World-Herald McClanahan processed and sold tons of tainted summer sausage, much of it from poached deer. McClanahan told federal undercover agents that he sometimes shot deer at night with a rifle from the bathroom window of his home in Omaha’s Ponca Hills and then would retrieve the carcasses in the morning. He baited the deer with corn, used a spotlight to blind them, and then shot.

McClanahan is a retired butcher who sold summer sausage in 5-pound casings at $3.50 a pound. He also made salami, jerky and snack sticks, and authorities estimated annual production at about 10,000 pounds.

Mark Webb, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent, said mouse droppings, maggots, deer carcasses, dried blood, deer hair and other contaminants littered the commercial-grade meat processing equipment that filled McClanahan’s three-car garage. There was no running water for cleaning. When wildlife agents seized the equipment and cleaned it with hot water and soap at a carwash, they discovered two lead bullets the size of a man’s thumb lodged in the grinder. The blade had been shaving lead into the meat.

The butcher-poacher was fined $10,000 and sentenced to three years of probation Wednesday in U.S. District Court.

My family and most deer hunters I have known have a strong conservationist ethic. I was raised to respect wildlife and have a deep appreciation for nature. McClanahan, and other poachers, are appalling, but making humans sick and putting their lives at risk with filthy processing conditions is even more disgusting.

Cocktail sausages sicken kids, need to be reheated

Christchurch butchers handing out free cocktail sausages to children — a New Zealand tradition — have been linked to at least six cases of yersiniosis in kids under five-years-old.

Canterbury’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr Ramon Pink, says cocktail sausages (also known as cheerios or saveloys) should be heated before they are eaten and should not be offered cold to children at butcher’s shops or delicatessens.

The cocktail sausages were given to most of the children over the counter – a common practice which has been associated with outbreaks of salmonella and campylobacter in Christchurch in the past.

While cocktail sausages are cooked during their preparation they are not ready-to-eat foods. Further heating before eating is required to destroy any bacteria that may have contaminated them after they were made.

Spinach and leafy greens: one year later

USA Today writers Elizabeth Weise and Julie Schmit report in a Pulitzer-worthy series of features and stories today about the fall 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak related to bagged spinach.

The stories provide an excellent overview of the problems with fresh produce, the impacts on the industry, and the devastating effects on those sickened.

There’s a variety of solutions offered, but no are really effective. To really create a culture that values microbiologically safe food, start marketing food safety at retail.