Bats in salad is yuck factor stuff; actual illnesses end up lost

I don’t know exactly when the barfblog risk factor vs. yuck factor thing was coined, but it’s been a running theme for over a decade. The concept is that stuff that grosses some people out (like this 3-year old’s poop party) garners more attention than the stuff that actually makes people sick.

There’s literature out that that shows that individuals are likely to perceive a situation or product as unsafe if it appears dirty, gross, or yucky, regardless of whether or not there is an actual food safety risk.

Many food safety regulatory systems, at national and local levels, employ a risk-based standard and inspection process grounded in both epidemiological and scientific evidence for monitoring and addressing food safety from farm-to-fork.

Risk and yuck get confusing.

Like bats and scorpions in bagged salad are a bigger deal for the mere mortals like the hockey parents I hang out with than actual outbreaks (like this one). Finding something that’s gross, and isn’t expected, garners a stronger media reaction than seven cases of E. coli O157.

Lots of folks I’ve talked to over the past couple of days want to know why there are suddenly more of these weird animals-in-food events (there aren’t) and how it happens.

We’ve seen stuff like this before:

Frog found in bag of Aussie salad

‘Why have I a soggy fishcake on my plate?’ Tesco customers’ horror as they find dead bird in salad during meal

And rats.

It’s possible that the mechanical harvesting could pick something like this up and it makes it through the quality control steps (see this video of what a salad mix mechanical harvester looks like beginning at 1:17)

The washing, sorting line is a place for quality control to happen (and here’s another video about that process), but it doesn’t surprise me that small animals make it through (and these events seem really rare)

As for risk, animals can carry human pathogens. As with any fresh produce item, there’s not a cook step (usually), so the potential for these extra critters (and their feces or body parts) to carry something like Salmonella is there. But the exposure chance is pretty low. Once discovered, I don’t know if many folks will eat around the animals once discovered.

Folks might benefit from targeted information about yuck versus epidemiologically-driven food safety risks. Not just the home chefs, but the industry and government risk managers that have to explain where their food safety priorities lie – and how stuff – like bats – slip through the cracks.

Yuck factor grabs headlines; two Toronto high schools fingered for sort-of food safety issues

Food safety regulatory folks have been moving towards risk-based inspections for about the past 20 years. But often the risk-based infractions aren’t nearly as sexy as the yuck factor stuff. Parent Central, a section of the Toronto Star‘s website focuses on the not-so-risky stuff. I start to get concerned when I see stuff like poor handwashing, cross-contamination or foods held at incorrect temps. Old potato peelers, not so much.

According to Parent Central,

The DineSafe infractions include improper water temperature in the dishwasher, an old potato peeler that needed to be thrown out, butcher blocks that required refinishing and a dirty oven exhaust hood.

Toronto food safety Superman and barfblog friend, Sylvanus Thompson even makes an appearance,

But high school students shouldn’t be afraid of eating at the cafeterias, said Sylvanus Thompson of Toronto Public Health.

“If there is a health hazard, we would close the establishment,” Thompson said.

The violations at both schools happened under the watch of their culinary arts programs, said Toronto school board spokeswoman Zoya McGroarty. At Central Tech, this food is not served to students and only occasionally sold to staff, she said.

Both schools received a “conditional pass” grade from inspectors and the kitchens remained open. All infractions were either rectified immediately or are in the process of being fixed, McGroarty said, adding the board takes such matters very seriously.