UK Food Standards Agency sucks at food safety advice

The holidays bring bad food safety advice, and in what’s turning into an annual tradition, it’s time to bash the Brits.

The Food Standards Agency is hoping to reduce the number of food safety clangers that are served up this Christmas, with its Christmas food safety advertising campaign.”

WTF is a clanger?

Oh, Dick van Dyke, is there nothing you can make sound Cockney?

“The Agency’s TV and radio adverts are jovial but have serious underlying messages about the preparation and cooking of turkey:

don’t wash it (you don’t need to)
defrost it thoroughly
cook it properly

That’s terrible grammar; a bulleted list should contain bullets, with semi-colons and an end period. I thought the Brits were serious about this stuff.

“The Agency’s research has shown that many people wash their turkeys before cooking, with older women the most frequent turkey-washing offenders. But washing meat or poultry can cause harmful food poisoning bacteria to splash on to worktops, chopping boards, dishes and utensils, where they can linger for days.

“Partially defrosted turkeys are another common festive food safety blunder.”

This is good stuff: don’t wash the bird, and defrost the thing – notice they don’t say whether it’s OK to do it on the counter or not.

But then, once, again, with all the food safety communication thingies in the government employ, the best they can come up with is,

“To ensure that the turkey is cooked properly, make sure it is piping hot all the way through. Cut into the thickest part (between the breast and thigh) to check that none of the meat is pink, and the juices run clear.”

No. Use a tip-sensitive digital thermometer. Color is a lousy indicator.

UK chief science thingy, Andrew Wadge, I’ll be in the U.K. Jan. 2 – 10, and I’d be glad to meet with you and your crack food safety risk communication team to talk about turkey prep recommendations.

Pets and Service Dogs in grocery stores; the line must be drawn

I am constantly annoyed with pet owners that take their little dogs to the store, especially the grocery store. Oregon is too.  The state Department of Agriculture started a public awareness campaign last month reminding Oregonians that it’s illegal for dogs to enter grocery stores – unless it’s a service dog. Stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond and Home Depot aren’t good places to be bringing your pet, but there can be legal consequences in stores and restaurants that serve food.

There have been some arguments made for and against patrons bringing pets to stores. Some say their personal pets are like “children” to them, as if they are another family member, but bringing pets into stores is not a good idea for public safety in a microbiological sense and also a physical sense. I hate tripping over toddlers at Walmart, and I don’t want to add tripping on leashes or small dogs to this problem.

By law, grocery stores must allow service dogs into grocery stores.  According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, business owners may ask if an animal is for service, yet they cannot require a customer to show certification or other proof that an animal is certified. In fact, legitimate service animals aren’t always certified. (For more information on the law, call 1-800-514-0301.) A quick search on Google brought up Service Animal IDs for $30, no verification paperwork needed. This ID doesn’t classify the animal as a service animal, but most people aren’t able to tell the difference between the real thing and phonies. IDs such as this one could allow anyone to bring a pet into a store selling food, and most likely store managers wouldn’t do a thing about it.

Separating the true service dogs from the personal pets makes it hard for those that rely on their service animals for help with a disability.  The ADA defines a service animal as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability. If they meet this definition, animals are considered service animals under the ADA regardless of whether they have been licensed or certified by a state or local government.

Most people think of service dogs as performing functions such as leading the blind and opening doors, but they are also psychiatric service dogs that help people with psychological problems. Unfortunately there is where the lines become very grey. Assistance Dogs International has three categories: guide dogs for the blind and visually impaired, hearing dogs for the deaf and hard of hearing and service dogs for people with disabilities other than those related to vision or hearing. Service dogs may be needed by people with disabilities that are not visible and perform activities such as alerting of oncoming seizures or a variety of psychiatric disabilities. While grocery store owners are allowed to ask if an animal is a service animal or pet, they are not allowed to ask what their disability is (if not visible).

This issue spins round and round. Untrained animals shouldn’t be brought into areas of food. But disabled people need service animals present to help with disabilities. But pets may not be able to be distinguished from service animals, and patrons may abuse the fact that the store owner can’t ask what their disability is. But the store owner has a right to exclude pets from areas with food for sale.

The long and the short of it is, there isn’t a federal regulatory agency that dictates how these animals are certified as service dogs. Even if we did have the regulatory agency, would that ensure resolution of all the service animal disputes? Of course not, just as the existence of the FDA and USDA doesn’t ensure the 100% safety of our food supply.


Once again: No nutritional difference between organic and regular food

Organic food is not safer than conventional food. Organic food is not more sustainable than regular food. Organic food is not more nutritious than other food.

Organic is more expensive than other food, and verification of organic production practices is specious at best.

Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times figured this out a few weeks ago and wrote a column that began,

"I don’t believe in organics."

This morning he revisited the topic, noted that organics is an article of faith for a lot of people, highlighted some hate mail, and most surprising, revealed that mail supporting Parsons’ column was overwhelmingly positive by a ratio of 5 or 6 to 1.

This afternoon, the U.K. Food Standards Authority released results of a review it commissioned which found,

no important differences in the nutrition content, or any additional health benefits, of organic food when compared with conventionally produced food.

The focus of the review was the nutritional content of foodstuffs.

Gill Fine, FSA Director of Consumer Choice and Dietary Health, said,

“Ensuring people have accurate information is absolutely essential in allowing us all to make informed choices about the food we eat. This study does not mean that people should not eat organic food. What it shows is that there is little, if any, nutritional difference between organic and conventionally produced food and that there is no evidence of additional health benefits from eating organic food.”

The FSA commissioned this research as part of its commitment to giving consumers accurate information about their food, based on the most up-to-date science.

A paper reporting the results of the review of nutritional differences has been peer-reviewed and published today by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Dr Dangour, of the LSHTM’s Nutrition and Public Health Intervention Research Unit, and the principal author of the paper, said:

“A small number of differences in nutrient content were found to exist between organically and conventionally produced crops and livestock, but these are unlikely to be of any public health relevance. Our review indicates that there is currently no evidence to support the selection of organically over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.”

The Times’ Parsons got it right in his original column when he said,

farming is a complicated enterprise and there is a huge gray area between certified organic and the stereotypical heavy-duty use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

Furthermore, a lot of the best farming practices of the original organic philosophy — composting, fallowing, crop rotation, the use of nonchemical techniques for controlling most pests — have been adopted by many nonorganic growers, even though they still reserve the right to use chemicals when they think it’s best.

The complete U.K. report is available at

How safe are free-range eggs?

Years ago – before we moved here and put a dog inside – the shed out back was a chicken coop. These were the original backyard chickens. A resurgence of small-flock rearing has led many to wonder (and make assumptions) about the safety of free-range eggs.

Joel Keehn wrote on Consumer Reports’ Health blog this weekend that,

"About a year ago I took my 11-year-old daughter to the emergency room with what turned out to be salmonella poisoning. My first thought when I heard the diagnosis: Did she pick up the infection from our flock of chickens? But the public-health outreach worker at the local department of health said that was unlikely.

"While eggs are indeed a leading cause of salmonella poisoning, the bacteria that causes the infection may be more likely to breed in the cramped confines of factory farms than in free-range, backyard chicken runs like ours."

Oh? That’s an interesting assumption. And Keehn doesn’t provide anything to support it.

As far as I can tell, salmonella contamination of eggs from various farming methods has not been well-researched…save for one study rumored in January 2008 to have been conducted by the UK government that "showed that 23.4 per cent of farms with caged [egg-laying] hens tested positive for salmonella compared to 4.4 per cent in organic flocks and 6.5 per cent in free-range flocks."

The closest thing I could find was a report by the UK Food Standards Agency in March 2004 of testing results of 4,753 containers of six eggs each (with 16.9% from free-range production systems) that found "no statistically significant difference…between the prevalence of salmonella contamination in samples from different egg production types."

Keehn’s blog post concluded by saying,

"By the way, the health department official who called me up said the most likely source of my daughter’s salmonella poisoning was our pet turtle. That critter is now gone. But I’m picking up four new hens from my neighbor down the road later this week."

I have no reason to believe their eggs will be any safer than those of caged hens. Keehn’s reason is not good enough.

Can food safety culture be taught? UK Food Standards Agency responds to E. coli O157 report

Two days ago, the parents of 5-year-old E. coli victim Mason Jones called the Welsh government response to an inquiry into the 2005 outbreak, “a bit disappointing.”

Today, the U.K. Food Standards Agency published its own response and, it’s a bit disappointing.

After a cursory reading, the FSA folks seem to acknowledge some of the major points raised by Prof. Pennington, but in the end promised more of the same (but gosh-darnnit, a bit tougher on enforcement).

Here are a few highlights:

This understanding of ‘food safety issues’ culture and ‘what works’ are core to the Food Hygiene Delivery Programme. This will be a particular challenge as local authorities’ regulatory services are facing declining resources, and increasing demands for their services. We must push more effectively in all appropriate national forums for food safety to be given more prominence by local political bodies and their officials. Our own project-based approach to delivering responses to this Inquiry, coupled with the restructuring of the Agency’s Food Safety Group, is designed to concentrate on a coordinated set of actions to achieve the desired outcomes in a holistic rather than piecemeal way.

Culture and holistic are nice words but the FSA says:

In May 2009 the FSA announced a new training course on social marketing and behavioural change for food enforcement officers. It aims to develop skills to acquire an insight into the behaviours of food business operators and consumers in order to successfully disseminate food safety messages.

What does disseminate mean in this context? What if the messages suck? How will this be evaluated. Is there any evidence that social marketing is effective in creating food safety behavior change? Those issues get to the essence of food safety culture, yet are glossed over with a training session – more of the same.

Note to the mother country: Food safety is not simple

The UK Food Standards Agency continues to set new lows for communicating about food safety issues with the public that pays them to communicate with them.

And the Brits seem to have this obsession with how food safety is simple.

There is an outbreak of Salmonella Agona in the UK and Ireland that has sickened about 80 people of all ages, but predominantly young adults.

In the FSA release, the government agency says, “the source of the outbreak is not yet known” and that “when the Agency has further information or useful advice for consumers in relation to this outbreak it will publish it immediately.”

Fair enough. But FSA then feels it necessary, in some weird paternalistic way, to tell Brits that,

“In the meantime, there are simple measures you can take to reduce the risk of food poisoning … Always follow the manufacturers cooking instructions for food intended to be eaten hot and make sure it is piping hot throughout.”

What if the instructions suck, like with pot pies?

“When eating out, always make sure the hot food you have ordered is served piping hot throughout – don’t be afraid to ask for it to be re-heated."

If food safety is so simple, why are there all these sick people and no identified source? Piping hot is too subjective. And since when does anyone have to ask a Brit to be more assertive? Go to a football match.

Seriously, for the millions of dollars spent on risk communication and food safety, this is the best FSA can do?

Fly in frozen baguette among food safety complaints

A report for the U.K.’s Highland Council documented more than 160 food hygiene complaints that were investigated by officials last year, including one claiming a caterpillar was found in vegetables served at a table and another claiming to have found a fly in a frozen baguette.

The report by principal food safety officer Alan Yates also reveals that officials sent 1,168 warning letters to establishments alerting them to contraventions of public health legislation.

The report also shows officers carried out 2,958 visits across the north in connection with food hygiene, and 826 in connection with food standards – the composition and labelling of food.

The report comes as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has proposed a UK-wide system to grade the hygiene of restaurants, cafes, supermarkets and other food outlets.

The results would be displayed on doors or windows, as well as on a website to allow consumers to check ratings, in an effort to improve standards and cut food poisoning.

The agency believes a national scheme is needed to replace the plethora of "scores on doors", with nearly half the 435 local authorities already having or being about to introduce their own systems. In some areas, consumers and the media have had to use freedom of information legislation to find out the verdict of hygiene inspectors.

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.

Will more inspectors make food safer?


An Associated Press story last night continues the fascination with all things political and the on-going, bureaucratic discussion about whether a single food inspection agency will improve food safety.

The story notes that in the two ConAgra contamination cases, it turns out that an FDA inspector hadn’t been to the company’s peanut butter plant in Georgia for two years before the recall, while a USDA inspector visits the Missouri pot pie plant daily.

If that’s the case, then maybe inspectors are the wrong focus here.

Bill Marler got it right yesterday when he wrote about the same AP story that,

Frankly, I am not sure a single agency, or the government for that matter (remember how well it did in Hurricane Katrina), will solve the problem of companies selling poisoned products to customers.  Perhaps when farmers, ranchers, shippers, middlemen of all sorts, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants all recall that customers could be their kid, they would put safety before profits.

I expressed a similar notion this morning in the Baltimore Sun.

"You can’t inspect your way to a safe food supply," said Douglas Powell, scientific director at Kansas State University’s International Food Safety Network. "You can’t have an inspector on every site 24/7 to inspect every piece of food that goes to market. You have to create a culture where everyone from the farm to the processing facility, people at restaurants, consumers at home are more in tune with the culture of food safety. People need to get really religious about this. Food safety is everyone’s responsibility."

How best to develop a food safety culture is where we’re focusing much of our research activity.

It’s certainly more than telling people,

"We have the safest food supply in the world,"

as Mindy Brashears, director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech University, did in the same Baltimore Sun story.