Inside America’s secretive biolabs

USA Today published a feature on the safety of American biolabs based on exhaustive freedom-of-information requests.

BiolabPreviewVials of bioterror bacteria have gone missing. Lab mice infected with deadly viruses have escaped, and wild rodents have been found making nests with research waste. Cattle infected in a university’s vaccine experiments were repeatedly sent to slaughter and their meat sold for human consumption. Gear meant to protect lab workers from lethal viruses such as Ebola and bird flu has failed, repeatedly.

A USA TODAY Network investigation reveals that hundreds of lab mistakes, safety violations and near-miss incidents have occurred in biological laboratories coast to coast in recent years, putting scientists, their colleagues and sometimes even the public at risk.

Oversight of biological research labs is fragmented, often secretive and largely self-policing, the investigation found. And even when research facilities commit the most egregious safety or security breaches — as more than 100 labs have — federal regulators keep their names secret.

Of particular concern are mishaps occurring at institutions working with the world’s most dangerous pathogens in biosafety level 3 and 4 labs — the two highest levels of containment that have proliferated since the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. Yet there is no publicly available list of these labs, and the scope of their research and safety records are largely unknown to most state health departments charged with responding to disease outbreaks. Even the federal government doesn’t know where they all are, the Government Accountability Office has warned for years.

A team of reporters who work for the USA TODAY Network of Gannett newspapers and TV stations identified more than 200 of these high-containment lab facilities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia operated by government agencies, universities and private companies. They’re scattered across the country from the heart of New York City to a valley in Montana; from an area near Seattle’s Space Needle to just a few blocks from Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza restaurant and shopping district.

High-profile lab accidents last year with anthrax, Ebola and bird flu at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the discovery of forgotten vials of deadly smallpox virus at the National Institutes of Health raised widespread concerns about lab safety and security nationwide and whether current oversight is adequate to protect workers and the public. Wednesday the Department of Defense disclosed one of its labs in Utah mistakenly sent samples of live anthrax — instead of killed specimens – to labs across the USA plus a military base in South Korea where 22 people are now being treated with antibiotics because of their potential exposure to the bioterror pathogen. As many as 18 labs in nine states received the samples, the CDC said Thursday.

“What the CDC incidents showed us … is that the very best labs are not perfectly safe,” says Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard University professor of epidemiology. “If it can happen there, it certainly can happen anywhere.”

Lots more at

Food safety for summer – and the other seasons

When Liz Szabo of USA Today called me a few weeks ago, my immediate thought was, not another food safety tip story, because most of them are as exciting as watching soccer or listening to Springsteen.

barfblog.Stick It InBut, I changed my mind because anyone can be a critic – gotta come up with some solutions.

I told Liz, let me talk to some of my colleagues and we’ll take a shot at something decent, because food safety encompasses a lot of areas, and the older I get, the less I know.

(Below is an edited version of the story, with a few annotations from me.

Doug Powell doesn’t bring wine when he’s invited to dinner.

He brings a food thermometer.

(I do bring wine, and I sometimes forget the thermometer, like the trip we’re on now up at Rainbow beach and Fraser Island in Queensland). Consistency matters and I try, but sometimes, stuff happens.)

As a food safety scientist and creator of, Powell knows way too much about the dangers of undercooked meat to take chances on the barbecue.

colbert.soccerSo he brings a food thermometer to every summer cookout. “I don’t get invited to dinner much,” he says.

• Always use a meat thermometer, Powell says. With practice, people can learn to stick them in burgers without slicing the patties in half. “Pick the meat up with tongs and insert the thermometer sideways, or through the top,” Powell suggests. Beef hamburgers should reach 160 degrees to kill germs, says Benjamin Chapman, assistant professor of food safety at North Carolina State University and a food safety specialist at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Temperature matters far more than color when it comes to meat, Chapman says; even thoroughly browned burgers can harbor bugs. “I was not a popular person at a family cookout a few years back when I insisted we ‘temp’ the chicken as we grilled in the rain,” says Donald Schaffner, a professor and extension specialist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “But nobody got sick.”

• Slice your own cantaloupes. Although cantaloupes are loaded with vitamins, they’ve also caused some of the biggest outbreaks of food-borne illness in recent years. More than 260 people were sickened in a salmonella outbreak in 2012; nearly 100 were hospitalized and three died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cantaloupes spread disease more easily than watermelon or honeydew because their soft, bumpy skins soak up bacteria like a sponge, Powell says. Washing doesn’t help (much), and cutting amy.thermometer.05through the outer rind allows bacteria to infect the edible portion of the melon. While people don’t have to stop eating cantaloupes, they should keep sliced portions refrigerated, because cold temperatures slow bacterial growth. But stores are asking for trouble when they slice melons in half, wrap them in plastic and leave them at room temperature in the produce aisle, Powell says: “This is microbiological disaster waiting to happen.”

• Use a cooler — for cantaloupe, potato salad or other picnic foods. “Bacteria will grow if left out at warm temperatures long enough,” Powell says.

• But don’t be afraid of mayonnaise. The egg-based spread has gotten a bad rap, and some people have been afraid to take it on summer picnics. But “commercial mayo uses pasteurized eggs and has high levels of vinegar,” whose acid content helps control bacteria, Powell says. Homemade mayo, on the other hand, could be riskier. (See

• Don’t wash poultry and other meat. “It just spreads bugs,” Powell says.

kevin.allen.sproutSo are there any foods these three food experts won’t touch?

• Sprouts. Seeds and beans need warm, humid conditions to sprout and grow. So do bacteria, such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli. Raw or lightly cooked sprouts have caused at least 30 reported outbreaks of food-borne illness since 1996, according to Home-grown sprouts are no safer, because the bacteria can be found in the seeds themselves. So no matter how clean your house, bacteria can grow to dangerous levels. “Some providers test seed and provide sufficient controls, but consumers have no way of knowing which sprouts are good or not,” Powell says.

• Raw shellfish. Even a fancy dish such as raw oysters, served in high-end restaurants, can pose a huge risk, Powell says, because they can be exposed to raw waste while under water. “The bacteria Vibrio found on raw oysters produces a toxin that attacks vulnerable livers,” Powell says. “Raw shellfish is risky.”

• Raw milk  can also contain dangerous bacteria, including salmonella, listeria, campylobacter and brucella, according to the CDC. Younger children, old people and those with weak immune systems are most at risk. “Getting sick from raw milk can mean many days of diarrhea, stomach cramping, and vomiting,” the CDC says. “Less commonly, it can mean kidney failure, paralysis, chronic disorders and even death.”

Blame the consumer: Frozen foods shouldn’t have E. coli on them

My colleagues think I’m unavailable because I’m in Australia. Maybe they’ve never been in love, know that the Internet sorta works, and have utterly failed at supervising graduate students amy.doug.sorenne.xmas.12even though they are on campus.

It’s advanced learning.

Elizabeth Weise from USA Today reports that at least 24 people are sick in 18 states in an outbreak of a rare strain of E. coli that appears to be linked to frozen chicken quesadillas and other mini meals recalled by a New York firm Thursday.

Rich Products of Buffalo, NY has recalled 196,222 pounds of frozen chicken quesadilla and other frozen mini meals and snack items for possible contamination.

The outbreak of E. coli O121 was first detected by health officials last week. Samples of frozen chicken mini quesadillas produced by Rich Products tested positive for the strain of E. coli at the New York State Department of Health Wadsworth Laboratory, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service.

The company posted a notice on its website saying “consumer safety is our number one priority and we are voluntarily recalling these products effective immediately.”

The company also said “each of our product packages contain cooking instructions on the back of the packaging that, if followed, will effectively destroy any E.coli bacteria. These preparation instructions have been validated following the Grocery Manufacturers Association industry protocol to ensure food safety.”

However food safety experts said consumers shouldn’t have to presume the food is contaminated. “These are frozen products that need to be cooked but they should not have E. coli in them, because most of the ingredients should have been processed before hand,” said Douglas Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.

Are food safety audits a Ponzi scheme or tool to make food safer?

Tomorrow’s USA Today runs competing editorials on the value of food safety audits, with the editorial board coming out swinging referring to the listeria-in-cantaloupe mess that killed at least 30 last year: “You’d think that the deadliest food-borne outbreak in nearly 90 years would change the way business is done in the produce industry. No such luck.”

“The first line of defense remains independent auditors hired by food producers to monitor their performance, much as companies hire outside auditors to certify their financial statements. But just six days before the Colorado outbreak, Jensen’s auditor gave the company stellar ratings.

“The system has an inherent conflict of interest: While retailers generally require audits before buying from a supplier, the suppliers often hire and pay the auditors who evaluate them. It’s like authors hiring their own book reviewers. A similarly flawed system contributed to the nation’s 2008 financial meltdown.

“In 2009, another major auditing firm, AIB International, gave the Peanut Corp. of America a ‘superior rating’ at its Texas plant even as it was churning out salmonella-tainted peanut paste. PCA’S products ultimately sickened 600 people and might have killed as many as nine.

“If retailers paid for audits, as a few do, there’d be more incentive for impartial audits. Retailers could also demand that auditors be assigned randomly to jobs from a pool. That, too, would reduce the conflicts.

“Outbreaks of food-borne illness have prompted change in the past, but only when industries have stepped up to take responsibility.”

The contender or defenderer, Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association, writes “food safety has always been the highest priority for the people who grow, ship and sell our nation’s fresh fruits and vegetables. Recognizing there is no one solution, we take a holistic approach to food safety, constantly strengthening best practices, identifying knowledge gaps, creating new guidance on growing, handling and processing, and developing new ‘field to fork’ training programs.”

Point for the editorialists on writing effectiveness.

“It is already standard industry practice to rotate auditors to avoid potential familiarity issues. In some cases, it’s the buyer who actually chooses a grower’s auditing firm.”

Another point.

“The concerns about objectivity also assume that the only goal of the grower paying for the audit is to achieve a passing grade. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

And another.

“Audits, like other current safeguards, are one tool among many used to ensure the safety of our fresh produce. Further, audit results are routinely used to improve food safety performance.”

What are the other tools?

“Everyone has a role in food safety. Rather than debate the merits of a single approach, let’s broaden the dialogue and work in partnership with industry, consumers and the government to set the framework to create more effective food safety solutions not only for today, but also tomorrow.”

Whitaker’s on the ropes resorting to the everyone-has-a-role routine. I have no idea how this applies to cantaloupe. He’s out.

While failing to shed much light, having a discussion in the editorial pages of USA Today may mean more shoppers will have heard of this food safety system called audits, and ask more questions before they plunk down their money.

USDA trying to match safety standards of Wal-Mart – not there yet

People hate Wal-Mart. Especially in college towns, where life would be idyllic if everyone had a salary of at least an associate professor, and where one doesn’t fit in without at least three disparaging Wal-Mart comments per conversation about shopping habits.

The children of these people go to elementary and secondary schools, and some may get fed through the school lunch program.

So it’s encouraging to note the U.S. Department of Agriculture has enacted what they call tough new food safety standards for ground beef purchased by the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) for Federal food and nutrition assistance programs including school lunches.

All it took was a couple of features in USA Today to raise the public’s ire, and awaken dozens of dozing bureaucrats.

As reported in Feb. 2010, the new standards follow a USA Today investigation that revealed that beef bought by the USDA for school lunches is not tested as rigorously for bacteria and pathogens as beef bought by many fast-food chains. The newspaper also reported that some food producers have been allowed to continue supplying the school lunch program despite having poor safety records with their commercial products.

I have such low expectations of government. As I told USA Today back when, ??“Does it have to be government? They’re not very good at this stuff.”??

And as noted by others in those stories, the lesson is that organizations with great buying power — such as fast-food chains or the school lunch program — can set higher standards, and industry ultimately will meet those standards because that’s where the money is. The school lunch program purchases huge volumes of commodities such as beef, poultry and other staples –– $830 million worth in 2008.

So it’s about time. Kids, you’re still just another brick in the wall.

Does the USDA undersecretary for food safety actually do anything? Does fililng that job mean less people will barf?

Do people really expect government to magically make food safe?

Government sets expectations and minimal standards, that’s why tax dollars are spent, but the whining about a lack of a U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Food Safety has taken on histrionic tones.

Given the ridiculous size of the U.S. budget deficit, and I don’t wanna go all Ross Perot here, but the salary savings from not filling the post have to at least be considered.

Elizabeth Weise writes in today’s USA Today that calls from consumer advocates and politicians are growing louder for the Obama administration to name an undersecretary for food safety at the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, a position unfilled for more than a year.

What kind of calls? Writing uninformed blog posts is hardly a call. And who are these consumer advocates? How is that defined?

Weise writes  that some consumer advocates say some fights only an undersecretary-level appointee can undertake include:

•Getting needle-tenderized meat, which can push E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella deep into steaks and chops where cooking doesn’t easily kill it, labeled so consumers know it shouldn’t be eaten rare. A current outbreak linked to this type of meat has sickened 21 people.

•Giving the USDA the right to name not just grocery stores that have sold recalled meat, but also restaurants.

•Using live video to monitor animals in pens, allowing short-staffed inspectors to do more.

Any retail chain concerned about consumers could institute any of those changes today. The best should do so without nagging from the nanny state.

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."

Food safety standards for fast-food far better than for school lunches

Every semester I give a couple of lectures in an introductory food science class at Kansas State University and every semester I ask the same question: what is safe food, and what retailers come to mind when thinking about safe food?

Safe food is food that doesn’t make you barf; food that doesn’t make you barf is based on food safety programs validated with microbiological testing. Whole Foods Markets may be trendy and a nice place to shop, but they suck at food safety. Good food safety programs can be found at places like McDonald’s, Burger King, Costco and WalMart.

Students are generally surprised.

As will be readers of today’s USA Today, which once again slams the U.S. school lunch program as behind the times and proclaims that “McDonald’s, Burger King and Costco, for instance, are far more rigorous in checking for bacteria and dangerous pathogens. They test the ground beef they buy five to 10 times more often than the USDA tests beef made for schools during a typical production day. And the limits Jack in the Box and other big retailers set for certain bacteria in their burgers are up to 10 times more stringent than what the USDA sets for school beef.”

David Theno, who developed the safety program at Jack in the Box before retiring last year, says,

"We look at those (measures) to gauge how a supplier is doing.”  If shipments regularly exceed the company’s limits on indicator bacteria, "we’d stop doing business with them.”

Mansour Samadpour, a Seattle-based food safety consultant and microbiologist says the AMS approach to sampling "is not robust enough to find anything."

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.


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.