Pay attention, be the goalie: Texas A&M Center for Food Safety

I have a drill I do weekly with the goalies at hockey practice.

I’ll have three of them, each in front of a net, and I tell them, pay attention, you never know where I’m going to shoot the puck (neither do I, but I’m a goalie).

powell_soli_AUG2Their job is to know where the puck is and predict where it’s going to be so they can better position themselves. I can look one way but shoot another. The goalie is the last line of defense when others mess up.

Much of food safety is, pay attention – especially to the checks that are supposed to reduce risk.

In 2009, the operator of a yakiniku barbecue restaurant chain linked to four deaths and 70 illnesses from E. coli O111 in raw beef in Japan admitted it had not tested raw meat served at its outlets for bacteria, as required by the health ministry.

“We’d never had a positive result [from a bacteria test], not once. So we assumed our meat would always be bacteria-free.”

That’s like telling goalies, unless the shooter is staring at you, the puck will stay out of the net.

Those who study engineering failures –the BP oil well in the Gulf, the space shuttle Challenger, Bhopal – say the same thing: human behavior can mess things up.

In most cases, an attitude prevails that is, “things didn’t go bad yesterday, so the chances are, things won’t go bad today.”

Jacques-PlanteAnd those in charge begin to ignore the safety systems.

Beginning August 2, 1998, over 80 Americans fell ill, 15 were killed, and at least six women miscarried due to listerosis. On Dec. 19, 1998, the outbreak strain was found in an open package of hot dogs partially consumed by a victim. The manufacturer of the hot dogs, Sara Lee subsidiary Bil Mar Foods, Inc., quickly issued a recall of what would become 35 million pounds of hot dogs and other packaged meats produced at the company’s only plant in Michigan. By Christmas, testing of unopened packages of hot dogs from Bil Mar detected the same genetically unique L. monocytegenes bacteria, and production at the plant was halted.

A decade later, the deaths of two Toronto nursing home residents in the summer of 2008 were attributed to listeriosis infections. These illnesses eventually prompted an August 17, 2008 advisory to consumers by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Maple Leaf Foods, Inc. to avoid serving or consuming certain brands of deli meat as the products could be contaminated with L. monocytogenes. When genetic testing determined a match between contaminated meat products and listeriosis patients, all products manufactured at a Toronto Maple Leaf Foods plant were recalled and the facility closed. An investigation by the company determined that organic material trapped deep inside the plant’s meat slicing equipment harbored L. monocytogenes, despite routine sanitization that met specifications of the equipment manufacturer. In total, 57 cases of listeriosis as well as 22 deaths were definitively connected to the consumption of the plant’s contaminated deli meats.

esposito_tony_8x10In both Listeria cases, the companies had data that showed an increase in Listeria-positive samples.

Pay attention.

One Canadian academic dean-thingy said the 2008 Listeria outbreak was a real eye-opener.

This person should not be in charge of anything to do with microbial food safety.

Food safety culture has been talked about a lot, but it seems so much talk and not so much data.

Food producers should truthfully market their microbial food safety programs, coupled with behavioral-based food safety systems that foster a positive food safety culture from farm-to-fork. The best producers and processors will go far beyond the lowest common denominator of government and should be rewarded in the marketplace.

They should pay attention.

Kellogg’s was taking Salmonella-contaminated peanut paste based on paperwork? Pay attention.

Nestle did.

Australians are so laid back, or so I’m told, they don’t bother to look both ways when driving. Stop signs seem optional.

courtlynn.hockeySo I’m always telling my younger and older kids (when they visit) you have to pay attention, because that car will not stop for you.

I coach hockey in Australia, where 5-year-olds and 10-year-olds are on the ice at the same time, and I say, pay attention. Because that 10-year-old can wipe you out.

Just like some unexpected bug.

Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety who shops, cooks and ferments from his home in Brisbane, Australia.

Visiting College Station for the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety Annual Meeting

Gary Acuff, Director, Texas A&M Center for Food Safety, is one of the coolest dudes to hang out with at meetings. He’s got great insights about food safety, productivity, Apple products and family stuff and is an all around fun guy. I’m heading out to College Station on August 12 to hang out with Gary for a day and give a talk.

Details are below:
Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 6.54.36 PM

Join us for the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety 2014 Annual Meeting on Tuesday, August 12 at 11:00 AM at our Earl Rudder Freeway lab.

The annual meeting will begin with a special seminar presented by Dr. Ben Chapman entitled: “Food safety communication around beef isn’t well done (no pun intended),” followed directly by the Annual Meeting. Lunch will be provided.

Please RSVP to if you plan to attend so we can get a headcount for lunch.

If you would like to invite a guest who might be interested in joining the Center, just let us know and we will add them to the headcount.

Download the flyer here.

Food safety passion and soul

I spent about 30 minutes chatting with a mom I known whose husband knows who the Tragically Hip are, while grocery shopping Monday.

powell_soli_juneWe’ve chatted before.

Somehow, our chat got into me coaching Sorenne in hockey (the ice kind).

I find I’m either becoming nostalgic or reigniting my passion.

But I sure can talk a lot.

And skate.

Food safety crisis communication? Crisis? What Crisis? There is no crisis, it should be day-in-day-out,

But whatever you do, it’s gotta have soul.

Communication, cross-contamination, careful: wise words, but they lack soul.

The songs that move you, the art, the words, it speaks to your soul.

My friend Russ, aged 63, from Manhattan (Kansas) died recently while scuba diving with his wife in the Bahamas. My favorite memory is watching him dance to Sympathy for the Devil during the annual fish fry he hosted every Labor Day weekend in Manhattan, Kansas for about 300 people.

The dude had soul.

Most people talking about food safety lack relevance; they lack soul, and fail to resonate.

Since 1998, American consumers have been told to FightBac, to fight the dangerous bacteria and virus and parasites found in a variety of foods, by cooking, cleaning, chilling and separating their food. Solid advice, but not compelling.

crisis-what-crisisFresh fruits and vegetables are good for us; we should eat more. Yet fresh fruits and vegetables are one of, if not the most significant source of foodborne illness today in North America. Because fresh produce is just that – fresh, and not cooked — anything that comes into contact is a possible source of contamination. Every mouthful of fresh produce is an act of faith — especially faith in the growers — because once that E. coli O157:H7 or Salmonella gets on, or inside, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts or melons, it is exceedingly difficult to remove.

In 2004, Salmonella-contaminated Roma tomatoes used in prepared sandwiches sold at Sheetz convenience stores throughout Pennsylvania sickened over 400 consumers. The FightBac people told the public that, “In all cases, the first line of defense to reduce risk of contracting foodborne illness is to cook, clean, chill and separate.”
 Consumers were being told that when they stop by a convenience store and grab a ready-made sandwich, they should take it apart, grab the tomato slice, wash it, and reassemble the sandwich. Which would have done nothing to remove the Salmonella inside the tomatoes.

Ten years later, and the FightBac message still lacks soul.

I don’t see gender. I got five daughters, and when we stopped at the McDonald’s on the way home from the beach the other weekend, the server said, do you want a boy toy or a girl toy with that happy meal, I said, I don’t care. It shoudn’t matter.

My girls play hockey.

But according to the FightBac folks, the numbers of men who report shopping and cooking are on the rise.

My father’s been doing the shopping and cooking for decades. So have I. So have a number of my brofriends.

These self-reported surveys mean nothing, are so out of touch with what I see in grocery stores, and are soulless.

The American Meat Institute proclaimed it was going to the grass roots to share the facts about meat and poultry.

“The Communicators Advocating Meat and Poultry or CAMP program is designed to harness the energies of a growing number of individuals within the industry and the field of meat science who are committed to sharing the facts about the products that the industry produces and the measures they take to ensure they are safe, wholesome, nutritious and humane.”


When a band says it’s going back to its roots, they’ve lost it.

A university student that helps with food safety news asked if such groups would be mad if I questioned their integrity.

It’s an indictment of the university system that she even asked that question, so accustomed have they become to Noam-Chomsky-esq self-censorship. Health inspectors e-mail me from around the world on a regular basis, saying they are fearful for their jobs if they speak out about what they see.

Or as Neil Young sang:

I am a lonely visitor.

I came too late to cause a stir,

Though I campaigned all my life

towards that goal.

I hardly slept the night you wept

Our secret’s safe and still well kept

Where even Richard Nixon has got soul.

Even Richard Nixon has got


Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety who shops, cooks and ferments from his home in Brisbane, Australia.

Is there a better trifecta of rock music than Beggar’s Banquet, Let it Bleed, and Sticky Fingers?

Supermarket madness: shopping for food safety


From the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety:

Shopping is a competitive sport.

Especially for groceries.

People who would think nothing of laying out $200 for a fancy-pants dinner and atmosphere, will digitally or electronically clip coupons to save $0.10.

I watch people when I go shopping for food, about every second day, and maybe they watch the creepy guy watching them.

My questions may not be the same as other cooks or parents, but I have a lot.

Should that bagged salad be re-washed? Some bags have labels and instructions, some don’t. What about the salad out in bins that came from pre-washed bags? Should it be re-washed?

Is washing strawberries or cantaloupe going to make them safer?

Where did those frozen berries come from? Am I really supposed to cook them and can’t have them in my yogurt because of a hepatitis A risk?

Are raw sprouts risky?

How long is that deli-meat good for? Is it safer at the counter or pre-packaged?

Should I use a thermometer or is piping hot a sufficient standard for cooking meat and frozen potpies? Can I tell if meat is cooked by using my tender fingertips?

Is that steak or roast beef mechanically tenderized and maybe requires a longer cook time or higher temperature?

Are those frozen chicken thingies made from raw or cooked product? Is it labeled? Is labeling an effective communication mechanism?

These are the questions I have as a food safety type and as a parent who has shopped for five daughters for a long time in multiple countries. It has guided much of our research.

I see lots of things wandering through the grocery store, but I don’t see much information about food safety.

When there is an outbreak, retailers rely on a go-to soundbite: “Food safety is our top priority.”

As a food safety type I sometimes see that, but as a consumer, I don’t.

This sets up a mental incongruity: if food safety is your top priority, shouldn’t you show me?

The other common soundbite is, “We meet all government standards.” This is the Pinto defense – so named for the cars that met government standards but had a tendency to blow up when hit from behind – and is a neon sign to shop elsewhere.

Leaving brand protection to government inspectors or auditors is a bad idea.

For a while I started saying, rather than focus on training, which is never evaluated for effectiveness, change the food safety culture at supermarkets and elsewhere, and here’s how to do that.

But now the phrase, “We have a strong food safety culture,” is routinely rolled out but rarely understood, so I’m going back to my old line: show me what you do to keep people from barfing. safety information needs to be rapid, reliable, relevant and repeated. I don’t see that at grocery stores.

The days of assuming that all food at retail is safe are over. Some farmers, some companies, are better at food safety. And they should be rewarded.

Most of us just want to hang out with our kids and get some decent food – food that won’t make us barf.

Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety who shops, cooks and ferments from his home in Brisbane, Australia.

Texas A & M Center for Food Safety announces new monthly column by Doug Powell of

The Texas A&M Center for Food Safety is proud to announce a new monthly column by Doug Powell of, starting March 19. This new feature will be available on the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety’s website, CFS.TAMU.EDU, along with other original content currently in production.

“Dr. Powell offers a unique and sometimes irreverent view of food safety issues – he always ‘hits the nail on the head’ and will challenge your comfort zone,” said Texas A&M doug.goalie.feb.14Center for Food Safety director, Gary Acuff. “I am thrilled that we convinced him to write a monthly column for us and I know he will be a favorite feature on our website.”

This column kicks off a new initiative of original content designed for academics, industry members and consumers. Look for videos, infographics and additional columns coming very soon.

Join us Wednesday, March 19th as we launch the first piece in our special feature series and keep checking back for more fresh new content from the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety.