He said, she said: USA Today on E. coli in ground beef

Today’s USA Today offered up its point-counter-point editorial space this morning to the persistent problem of dangerous E. coli in ground beef.

From the newspaper:

Too many Americans get sick and too many die from eating that most all-American of foods, the hamburger. …

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has seemed confused as to whether its job is to protect consumers or producers, urges testing by hamburger makers and could require it. But it has not done so, apparently because of industry resistance. It should.

A second problem is that it’s physically impossible and economically unrealistic to test every bit of meat. … Though numerous studies have shown that irradiation is safe and effective, public suspicion has helped prevent its spread. USDA, which has approved irradiation, needs to counter the myths and campaign for its wider use.

Because producers and the USDA admit that they can’t guarantee germ-free meat, they urge consumers to handle ground beef carefully and cook it to 160 degrees, which kills most bacteria. That should be a last line of defense, not a primary one. You shouldn’t be taking your life in your hands if the bun holds an undercooked burger.

From the government, U.S. secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack:

The following are just a few key steps USDA has taken recently:

— Launched an initiative to cut down E. coli contamination, including stepped up meat facility inspections to involve greater use of sampling to monitor the productsgoing into ground beef.

— Appointed a chief medical officer within USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service to coordinate human health issues within USDA and build bridges with the public health community and senior leaders throughout the federal, state and local sectors to establish a consistent approach and heighten food safety awareness.

— Issued consolidated, more effective field instructions on how to inspect for E. coli O157:H7 contamination.

— Started testing additional components of ground beef, including bench trim, and issued new instructions to our employees asking that they verify that plants follow sanitary practices in processing beef carcasses.

Protecting public health is the sole mission of USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, and we will not rest until we have eliminated food-borne illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths.

If only foodborne illness was as cute as a Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Perkins movie.

Martha Stewart tries to kill Matt Lauer?

On the 7/14/09 edition of the Today Show, Martha Stewart cooked “Zesty Chicken Burgers” for Meredith Viera and a somewhat reluctant Matt Lauer. While Martha was going on about how special chicken burgers are, Matt quietly asked a food safety question.

Matt: “Obviously people are going to say you have to be careful how to cook a chicken burger. You have to get it to a certain temperature. Is that about right?”

Martha: “Um. Yeah. Well, you’ll see. It’s… It’ll won’t be pink inside. It’ll get …

Meredith: “It will have to be white inside.”

Martha: “Yeah, all the way.”

And then on to how beautiful they are. Martha went on from touching raw chicken to touching the bun she served Matt’s finished burger on. He turned away from the camera both times he “took a bite” and claimed they were very good. Who knows if he really ate the potentially killer chicken burger. I wouldn’t have.

If you cook chicken burger, use a tip-sensitive digital thermometer to make sure they reach an internal temperature of 165F. Wash your hands between touching raw meat and anything that is going to be served, especially if the person you are feeding is famous.

Many thanks to the barfblog fan who signaled Katie about yesterday’s Today Show.

Handwashing: Making it stick

Your Health columnist Kim Painter wants to know in USA Today tomorrow if the spike in handwashing compliance after SARS hit Toronto in 2003 will be replicated with swine flu in 2009 – and will it last?

In summer 2003, researchers descended on airport bathrooms in the USA and Canada and discovered a dirty truth: More than 20% of restroom visitors left without washing their hands.

But there was one big exception: In Toronto, which had just endured a deadly outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), fewer than 5% of people left dirty-handed. During that outbreak, public health officials had repeatedly urged people to protect themselves by washing their hands.

Doug Powell, a food scientist at Kansas State University, said if changing handwashing behavior was simple, "we wouldn’t have so many people getting sick each year."

The story summarizes handwashing compliance advice for businesses, schools and hospitals as:

•The voice of authority. Just as federal health officials enlisted Obama to endorse handwashing, Dan Dunlop, president of Jennings, a North Carolina marketing company that has designed handwashing promotions for hospitals, has enlisted hospital CEOs and medical chiefs to inspire handwashing in their troops. School principals, PTA presidents and restaurant managers could do likewise, he says.

•The audience. "With younger people, what seems to work is being blunt and gross," Powell says. Powell, who writes at barfblog.foodsafety.ksu.edu, tells his students that when they eat without washing their hands first, they may be eating feces. (But he uses another word.)

•Social pressure. In one unpublished study, Craig found that petting-zoo visitors who left a barn through a crowded exit washed their hands more often than those who left by a less-crowded door.

•Keeping supplies up. Powell says he hears often about bathrooms in schools, college dormitories and other germ hotspots that lack soap (or paper towel – dp).

Rebuilding trust in all things peanut: advertizing, actions or both?

The National Peanut Board is joining Jif and Peter Pan in attempting to save American newspapers by investing in advertizing to woo back skeptical consumers.

In a press release and full-page letter in USA Today on Wednesday (thanks, Margaret – dp) peanut producer pooh-bahs announced they will set up shop in Vanderbilt Hall in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal March 4 and 5 to meet consumers, answer questions and give away samples of peanuts, peanut butter and other peanut items. The event kicks off the farmers’ efforts nationally to rebuild consumer confidence in products made with the crops they grow.

Roger Neitsch, Texas peanut farmer and chairman of the National Peanut Board — the research and promotion board funded by peanut growers, said,

“No one is more deeply disturbed by the recent salmonella crisis than the thousands of USA peanut farmers and their families. We may be peanut farmers, but we also are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters — and consumers. So we understand and share the concerns being experienced these days by families across America.”

But is recruiting celebrity chefs and athletes, while portraying farmers as producers of all things safe, really enough?

Noted science-and-society type, Dorothy Nelkin, noted in 1995 that, efforts to convince the public about the safety and benefits of new or existing technologies — or in this case the safety of the food supply — rather than enhancing public confidence, may actually amplify anxieties and mistrust by denying the legitimacy of fundamental social concerns. The public expresses a much broader notion of risk, one concerned with, among other characteristics, accountability, economics, values and trust.

As I’ve said before, the best food producers, processors, retailers and restaurants should go above and beyond minimal government and auditor standards and sell food safety solutions directly to the public. The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food safety culture; and use technology to be transparent — whether it’s live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the website — to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.

The makers of Jif and Peter Pan have already gone on record saying they will not disclose their own food safety test results.

Nelkin, D. 1995. Forms of intrusion: comparing resistance to information technology and biotechnology in the USA in Resistance to New Technology ed. by M. Bauer. Cambridge University Press, New York. pp. 379-390.

‘RAW’ in 3-inch letters on front of raw, frozen, breaded chicken thingies

That’s what a frustrated Kirk Smith, head of the foodborne disease unit of the Minnesota Department of Health, suggested to USA Today today as he described how people are still getting sick with Salmonella by microwaving raw, frozen, breaded chicken, despite the lack of microwave instructions.

"We wish the labels would be even more emphatic. … Maybe if on the front of the package there were 3-inch letters — RAW — who knows?"

Minnesota health officials met with producers of chicken products and were told that precooking wasn’t an option because it has an effect on the texture and appearance of the chicken.

A table of the relevant outbreaks is available at http://www.foodsafety.ksu.edu/en/article-details.php?a=3&c=32&sc=419&id=1245

and below.

Smith was also lead author on a paper describing previous outbreaks in the October issue of the Journal of Food Protection. It’s below.

Outbreaks of Salmonellosis in Minnesota (1998 through 2006) associated with frozen, microwaveable, breaded, stuffed chicken products
Journal of Food Protection, Vol 71, No 10, pp. 2153-2160(8)
Smith, Kirk E.; Medus, Carlota; Meyer, Stephanie D.; Boxrud, David J.; Leano, Fe; Hedberg, Craig W.; Elfering, Kevin; Braymen, C

From 1998 through 2006, four outbreaks of salmonellosis associated with raw, frozen, microwaveable, breaded, prebrowned, stuffed chicken products were identified in Minnesota. In 1998, 33 Salmonella Typhimurium cases were associated with a single brand of Chicken Kiev. In 2005, four Salmonella Heidelberg cases were associated with a different brand and variety (Chicken Broccoli and Cheese). From 2005 to 2006, 27 Salmonella Enteritidis cases were associated with multiple varieties of product, predominately of the same brand involved in the 1998 outbreak. In 2006, three Salmonella Typhimurium cases were associated with the same brand of product involved in the 2005 Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak. The outbreak serotype and pulsed-field gel electrophoresis subtype of Salmonella were isolated from product in each outbreak. In these outbreaks, most individuals affected thought that the product was precooked due to its breaded and prebrowned nature, most used a microwave oven, most did not follow package cooking instructions, and none took the internal temperature of the cooked product. Similar to previous salmonellosis outbreaks associated with raw, breaded chicken nuggets or strips in Canada and Australia, inadequate labeling, consumer responses to labeling, and microwave cooking were the key factors in the occurrence of these outbreaks. Modification of labels, verification of cooking instructions by the manufacturer, and notifications to alert the public that these products contain raw poultry, implemented because of the first two outbreaks, did not prevent the other outbreaks. Microwave cooking is not recommended as a preparation method for these types of products, unless they are precooked or irradiated prior to sale.

Management problems cited in botulism case

Julie Schmit reports in USA Today today that,

Last July, Food and Drug Administration officials issued a rare warning to U.S. consumers: Botulism toxin was suspected in hot dog chili sauce made by Castleberry’s Food.

The botulism outbreak, which would eventually sicken eight and lead to a recall of tens of millions of cans of food, was the first in a U.S.-made canned food in 33 years.

The day before the warning, FDA investigators had begun an inspection at a Castleberry’s plant that set off alarms within the agency.

A previously undisclosed report from FDA that USA TODAY obtained from a congressional committee concluded:

• two 10-foot-tall cookers may not have heated cans enough to kill all bacteria, including those leading to botulism toxin;

• the cookers had broken alarms, a leaky valve and an inaccurate temperature device;

• the FDA criticized Castleberry’s for failing to correct problems, but those problems went undetected by FDA inspectors at the plant five months before the outbreak and by Department of Agriculture inspectors who were in the plant weekly; and,

• the cookers in the Augusta, Ga., plant showed "poor maintenance," and management failed to "correct ongoing deficiencies" in the plant. "Failure in management was ultimately the reason for the … botulinum toxin in the cans," according to the report.

Donald Zink, a senior FDA food scientist, says in the story,

"When you have a firm that fails so badly that they produce cans with Clostridium botulinum … there are invariably multiple process failures, multiple violations … and failed management systems.”

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.