Going public: prudence, alarm or something else as produce recalled because of salmonella next door

When should the consuming public be informed a food may make them barf? Under what conditions should a food be recalled or pulled from commerce? What guidelines exist that can be publicly scrutinized and improved?

Another confusing chapter to the when to go public saga was added when Arizona-grown lettuce was pulled from some supermarkets in late Dec. after lettuce from a nearby field tested positive for salmonella.

Mike Hornick of The Packer writes that Growers Express’ decision to pull iceberg lettuce from the market after a nearby field tested positive for salmonella appears to be an unprecedented food safety step, but many peers agreed with the company’s “abundance of caution.”

Chief executive officer Jamie Strachan said on Jan. 5, “Our response is in line with what any other responsible company would do. We have a responsibility to protect public health, and it is always better to err on the side of caution.”

The Kroger retail chain publicized the withdrawal, which led to no known illnesses, New Year’s weekend, and it was picked up in many consumer media outlets.

Joe Pezzini, chief operating officer of Castroville, Calif.-based Ocean Mist Farms and a California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement board member, said he doesn’t remember a similar case, but details set instances apart.

“What it does speak to is the really heightened precaution companies are taking regarding any possible risk of contamination. Every business in that situation is going to have to assess that for themselves. You’d really have to know the details and come to a conclusion on what the prudent reaction is.”

Hank Giclas, senior vice president for science and technology at Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., agreed.

“It’s a hard decision to make, and to make it means they’re acting in the public interesd. There must have been compelling information to withdraw the product. If you believe there may be potential for your product to be contaminated, it’s the responsible thing to withdraw or hold it.”

“We are not immediately aware of any other farms taking this precaution, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened,” said Sebastian Cianci, spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration.

Canadian food safety: there are no rules on informing the public

Toronto’s Globe and Mail reports in tomorrow’s edition that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency often finds problems with bottled water, but doesn’t tell the public about them.

CFIA food safety and recall specialist Garfield Balsom said there are no hard-and-fast rules on what requires public notification.

“There is nothing indicating what is to be made public or what’s not.”

The way the story is written, it’s difficult to tell whether this rather explosive quote refers to just bottled water or all food safety issues. The story does explain that an Access to Information Act request was required to determine CFIA issued 29 recall notices for bottled water products between 2000 and early 2008, but issued a public warning in only seven cases, two of which came after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made public its recall orders.

Balsom said that other countries follow the same approach and don’t automatically issue notices because consumers would soon be overwhelmed by publicity over recalls, most of which would pose low risks.

“There are downsides to publicizing everything.”

True. But based on past case studies, people hate it when government-types are inconsistent or bureaucratic or less than forthcoming.

The agency has an internal hazard ranking system, known as class one, class two and class three, for products that respectively pose high, moderate and low risk. … But the access records show that there was no consistency in the agency’s approach. There were cases of the same bacteria and same hazard ratings being treated differently, with some having public recalls and others not.

This is a persistent problem – when to go public. Suspicions remain that CFIA and Maple Leaf Foods were slow in responding to last year’s listeria shitstorm that killed at least 21 – and a public offering of who knew what when is still missing.

Same with the Salmonella in tomatoes and jalapenos last summer in the U.S. Many were frustrated by conflicting messages and finger-pointing. Same with cyclosproa in the U.S. in Canada in 1996, in which California strawberries were erroneously fingered when it was the Guatemalan raspberries.

Epidemiology, like humans, is flawed. But it’s better than astrology. The more that public health folks can articulate when to go public and why, the more confidence in the system. Past risk communication research has demonstrated that if people have confidence in the decision-making process they will have more confidence in the decision. People may not agree about when to go public, but if the assumptions are laid on the table, and value judgments are acknowledged, then maybe the focus can be on fewer sick people.

Dude, wash your hands

Proper handwashing with the proper tools — soap, water and paper towel — can significantly reduce the number of foodborne and other illnesses.

So says the International Food Safety Network.

People should be washing their hands before handling food and, for example:
• after using the toilet;
• when entering the kitchen to prepare food;
• before handling ready-to-eat food;
• after handling any raw food;
• after changing diapers;
• after playing with or cleaning up after pets; and,
• after handling garbage.

The steps in proper handwashing, as concluded from the preponderance of available evidence, are:

• wet hands with water;
• use enough soap to build a good lather;
• scrub hands vigorously, creating friction and reaching all areas of the fingers and hands for at least 10 seconds to loosen pathogens on the fingers and hands;
• rinse hands with thorough amounts of water while continuing to rub hands; and,
• dry hands with paper towel.

Water temperature is not a critical factor — water hot enough to kill dangerous bacteria and viruses would scald hands — so use whatever is comfortable.

The friction from rubbing hands with paper towels helps remove additional bacteria and viruses.

Next time you visit a bathroom that is missing soap, water or paper towels, let someone in charge know. And next time you see someone skip out on the suds in the bathroom, look at them and say, “Dude, wash your hands!”

And Don’t Eat Poop.