Food safety nonsense from leading Toronto hospital

In 2008, Listeria in Maple Leaf cold-cuts killed 23 Canadians and sickened another 55.

listeria(4)(2)An outbreak of listeria in cheese in Quebec in fall 2008 led to 38 hospitalizations, of which 13 were pregnant and gave birth prematurely. Two adults died and there were 13 perinatal deaths.

A Sept. 2008 report showed that of the 78 residents of the Canadian province of British Columbia who contracted listeriosis in the past six years, 10 per cent were pregnant women whose infections put them at high risk of miscarriage or stillbirth.

The majority — nearly 60 per cent — of pregnant women diagnosed with listeriosis either miscarry or have stillbirths.

In the April 2010 edition of the journal, Canadian Family Physician, the Motherisk team at the previously reputable Toronto Hospital for Sick Children published a piece that said, without any references, that pregnant women need not avoid soft-ripened cheeses or deli meats, so long as they are consumed in moderation and obtained from reputable stores.”


Five years later, the hospital has finally decided to take action.

sick-kids.jpg.size.xxlarge.letterboxBut not because of bogus advice.

The Hospital for Sick Children has permanently discontinued hair drug and alcohol tests at its embattled Motherisk Drug Testing Laboratory after an internal review “further explored and validated” previous, and as yet undisclosed, “questions and concerns.”

The decision, announced on Friday, comes amid a Star investigation and mounting pressure from critics to shutter the lab, whose hair drug and alcohol tests have been used in criminal and child protection cases across the country, typically as evidence of parental substance abuse.

In March, Sick Kids temporarily suspended all non-research operations at Motherisk, after Lang’s review and the hospital’s review revealed new information, pending the results of Lang’s review, which are expected by June 30.

The hospital has declined to elaborate on the nature of that information. A hospital spokeswoman said on Friday that Sick Kids is not taking media inquiries.

Health Minister Eric Hoskins refused to answer questions on why there is so much secrecy surrounding the problems uncovered at Motherisk and instead issued a statement by email about Lang’s review.

“The independent review is ongoing and we have confidence in the work that is being carried out by the Honourable Susan Lang,” he said.

Sick Kids recently temporarily reassigned medical oversight of Motherisk, which also counsels pregnant women on which medications are safe to take, amid questions from the Star about the ties between Motherisk director and founder Gideon Koren and the drug company Duchesnay.

The questions related to the lack of disclosure of the funding Motherisk receives from Duchesnay in a booklet for pregnant women co-written by Koren and featured on the Motherisk website, which heavily promotes the use of Duchesnay’s drug Diclectin to treat morning sickness.

It’s all about trade: CFIA sucks at communication

In 1997, I co-wrote a book called Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk, which included a chapter about how the newly formed Canadian Food Inspection Agency sucked at communication and enforcement regarding bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

mad.cows.mother's.milkA few years later, when Canada had its first case of mad cow disease, the chief vet was proactive, and consumption of beef actually rose.

But when the Maple Leaf listeriosis outbreak killed 23 in 2008, CFIA was left castrated.

It was probably a political thing.

Kelsey Johnson, a reporter with iPolitics, writes in Canada’s Western Producer that there is nothing more frustrating for a journalist than the inability to get basic information for a story from official channels, particularly at the federal level.

The relationship between the federal government and the Parliamentary Press Gallery is especially strained, one that is unlikely to improve much in the coming months thanks to the rapidly approaching federal election.

Which is why the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s communication response to the single case of H5N2 avian flu in Ontario has been a pleasant surprise.

The CFIA’s last communications effort, which had been prompted by a leak that revealed a case of BSE had been found on an Alberta farm in February, received heavy criticism from some reporters, including yours truly.

In that particular case, obtaining basic information such as the location of the index farm and the birth farm, was like pulling teeth. The agency’s initial plan was to not make the case public until its monthly reporting period in March, a policy that CFIA and the cattle industry insist is simply standard practice.

RS64This time around CFIA appears to have amended its communication strategy.

Reporters were first informed of the single case of avian flu April 7 through a CFIA news release that was sent to the entire Parliamentary Press Gallery. That in itself is an improvement over the BSE case, when the agency put out a response but didn’t send it to the gallery’s main email, which frustrated several reporters who were unaware of the CFIA’s response.

Kelsey, it’s all about trade.

And while is only 20-years-old, the Rolling Stones released their first album, 51 years ago today (thank you, Buddy Holly).


Me being a good Australian citizen: Queensland Health should make investigations into food poisoning outbreaks public

In The (Brisbane) Courier-Mail this morning:

In 2013, at least 50 people, mainly children, became ill with E coli O157 at the Ekka.

claudia.e.coli.petting.zoo.may.14Follow-up in the form of a publicly released formal report following an investigation? Nothing.

Queensland Health has been warned repeatedly about Q fever outbreaks at the Ekka related to the birthing of goats. Again, follow-up? Nothing.

In 2013, at least 130 people, including 55 nursing home patients, were stricken by norovirus in Ipswich and on the Sunshine Coast. Follow-up? Nothing.

In November 2013, at least 220 people were felled by salmonella and one was killed at Melbourne Cup functions, all linked to raw egg-based dishes served by Piccalilli Catering. Follow-up? Nothing. I even wrote to then health minister Lawrence Springborg and received no response. I guess he was busy with Parliament.

In January this year, at least 130 diners were stricken with salmonella after dining at Brisbane’s Chin Chin Chinese Restaurant. Dozens were hospitalised. Follow-up? Nothing.

Last month, 250 teachers contracted salmonella at a conference and an additional 20 people were sickened on the Gold Coast from the same egg supplier. Follow-up? Nothing. Though, to be fair, Councillor Krista Adams, Brisbane City Council Lifestyle Committee chairwoman, was on ABC radio on Monday saying the Queensland Health investigation into the matter was ongoing.

As a food safety professor in Canada and the US who relocated to Brisbane four years ago to support my French professor wife, I look at these outbreaks and wonder: what does Queensland Health do? What does Safe Food Queensland do? I believe in science, however fallible it may be, and my church is the (ice) hockey arena.

I also believe in public disclosure, especially because these investigations are conducted on the Queensland tax dollar. These are hopelessly ineffective agencies, and I’ve seen a lot of agencies, but these are the worst, especially in terms of public disclosure. Not the people, but the structure and confines in which they work for a pay cheque.

Now we’re told that hundreds of Brisbane restaurants, cafes, bakeries and caterers operate below legal safety standards.

Brisbane City Council says it is waging war on shoddy operators in light of a jump in food poisoning outbreaks.

That’s a war of attrition.

sorenne.hockeyaug.14Instead, Brisbane, and Queensland, could make a few changes to hold the food purveyors accountable.

Mandate training; make restaurant inspection disclosures mandatory, rather than voluntary; and create a culture that values microbiologically safe food.

I was coaching an ice hockey game on the Gold Coast on the weekend and the restaurant we went to afterwards was advertising a petting zoo, at the restaurant.

This is a microbiologically horrible idea. Same with zoos at schools and in malls, such as the one at Fairfield.

Queensland is on track to record its worst year on record for salmonellosis, which has infected more than 2500 people, mostly in the southeast, since the start of the year. The state is also recording spikes in other gastrointestinal illness cases, such as campylobacter (1993), cryptosporidiosis (604) and yersiniosis (180).

Data from the council’s Eat Safe star-rating system shows almost 10 per cent of Brisbane’s 6000-plus food operators operate below legal safety standards.

Queensland taxpayers deserve answers to some basic questions about all of the aforementioned outbreaks: How did the outbreak occur? Was this commodity sourced from a food safety-accredited supplier? Did handling by the caterer contribute to this outbreak? What is Queensland Health’s policy on use of raw eggs in dishes to be consumed raw? Is this policy enforced? Is the investigation closed and, if so, why and when was it closed? Will an outbreak investigation report be created and publicised? Why was the previous update erased from the department’s website and on whose authority? What is its policy on making information public?

This isn’t CSI, with its groovy UV lights that make great television but lousy science. Publicly release all surveillance data on raw eggs in Queensland (or Australia), publicly release the menu items at the Brisbane Convention Centre and Grocer & Grind, on the Gold Coast, where two of their own chefs got sick, and tell chefs to stop using raw eggs in dishes they must craft from scratch, such as aioli or mayonnaise. This is nothing new and we have been documenting the problem for years because it is a global food safety embarrassment. The solutions are there. It’s time for leadership.

Dr Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety in Canada and the US who shops, cooks and ferments from his home in Brisbane, Australia

Illegal Chinese meat imports in Holland

Police and food safety inspectors have raided two business premises and two private homes in Zuid-Holland province in an investigation into illegal meat imports from China.

la-fi-mo-china-cofco-20140228-001There has been an EU-wide ban on importing most types of meat from China for human consumption since 2002 because of concerns about drug residues. Officials seized ‘hundreds of boxes’ of meat and meat products during their search, as well as documents and files. The meat is now being tested, the inspectors said in a statement on Wednesday. The investigators are also trying to establish how the meat was brought into the country and what has happened to previous shipments.

Australian taxpayers and growers are led up a garden path

(I and others applied for this, but knew it was an inside job. Here is the take from Australian Food News)

lettuce.skull.e.coli.O145The Fresh Produce Safety Centre (FPSC), which is an organisation established with government and industry support in 2013, has announced the winning tender bid for the conduct of a literature review of fresh produce safety research.

The announcement has produced some skepticism from commentators about the whole bureaucratic process involving the Fresh Produce Safety Centre’s role in improving the current Australian food safety regime for fresh produce.

The principal industry sector group supporting the establishment of the Fresh Produce Safety Centre has been the Produce Marketers Association Australia New Zealand (PMA A-NZ), which is the representative body of importers and international traders of fruit and vegetables.

The major supermarkets and food safety audit organisations already follow and monitor their own very strict food safety protocols at all points in the supply chain. Commentators are therefore asking why it ought be necessary for the FPSC to be ‘reinventing the wheel’.

Incidentally, the winning tender bid is a team consisting of TQA Australia Inc, RMCG, and the Institute of Environmental Science and Research in New Zealand, in concert with the Food Safety Centre at the University of Tasmania. The project has the support of the NSW Food Authority, Pip Fruit New Zealand, Golden State Foods and Snap Fresh Foods, and Fresh Select.

In 2009-2010, a process had been initiated by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) to incorporate food safety primary production and processing standards for horticultural produce into the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (Food Standards Code). However, the PMA and some of the major produce importers opposed the inclusion in the Food Standards Code of a set of food safety standards for their industry sector. Ultimately, the Federal Government relented and the FSANZ process for developing a new mandatory food safety standard was aborted.

The reasons given at the time for the abandonment of the proposals included: the fact that the majority of horticulture product grown in Australia is already grown under a food safety scheme, and that a better understanding of those products that were not grown under a food safety scheme was required before further regulation should be considered.

FSANZ proposed a collaboration between the horticulture industry and government – with suggested measures such as “targeted guidance, codes of practice, education materials and training” and better through-chain traceability measures.

The PMA took the initiative to establish the concept of a ‘fresh produce safety centre’ with government and industry backing.

Some commentators are now consider the whole process a ‘waste of time and industry resources, and taxpayer funds’, especially for growers, supermarkets and other operators in the horticultural supply chain within Australia.

Meat (and science) mythologies

My latest for Texas A&M’s Center for Food Safety:

HomePage_Soliloquy_powellsworld_aprilOn September 11, 1998, the journal Science published a paper by Cornell and U.S. Department of Agriculture science-thingies that concluded the key to reducing E. coli O157 in cattle was to feed them hay instead of grain beginning five days before slaughter.

The PR writers and journalists had a hay day, saying “a simple change in cattle diets in the days before slaughter may reduce the risk of E. coli infections in humans” or this N.Y.Times headline, “E. coli bacteria can be eliminated from cattle, researchers find.”

Food safety isn’t that simple.

Science isn’t that simple.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota wrote in 2007 that the frequently cited Cornell study, was “based on a study of three cows rotated on different diets and for which the researchers did not even test for E. coli O157:H7. Unfortunately, the authors extrapolated these incredibly sparse results to the entire cattle industry.”

In 1998, I helped Dale Hancock of Washington State University anchor an evidence-based response that was also published in Science, but the damage was done.

In the subsequent 17 years, the data on cattle feeding and E. coli risk has been a mess, and open to citation to prove one’s pre-existing viewpoint – that’s why the Internet exists.

As my former Canadian and Kansas colleague David Renter wrote in Sept. 2006,“Cattle raised on diets of ‘grass, hay and other fibrous forage’ do contain E. coli O157:H7 bacteria in their feces as do other animals including deer, sheep, goats, bison, opossum, raccoons, birds, and many others.

“Cattle diet can affect levels of E. coli O157:H7, but this is a complex issue that has been and continues to be studied by many scientists.  To suggest switching cattle from grain to forage based on a small piece of the scientific evidence is inappropriate and irresponsible.”

Simplistically attacking one facet of livestock production may be politically expedient, but instead provides a false sense of security and ignores the biological realities of E. coli O157:H7. In 1999, for example, 90 children were felled at a fair in London, Ont. The source was a goat at a petting zoo.

Although there have been numerous outbreaks of shiga-toxin producing E. coli involving other ruminants – sheep, deer, goats, elk — the critics and the fashionably fashionable keep going back to cattle, especially feedlot cattle.

The San Francisco Chronicle recently joined the food pornographers at the N.Y. Times, and endless organic propaganda by saying – 17 years after the original, unrepeated study — that grass-fed beef is safer.

There is no evidence to prove this.

There’s some social media amplification going here, just like with the anti-vaxxers and raw milk fans.

I’m not sure how to address all the allegedly scientific nonsense that is out there.

I used to be a proponent of take it head on, but over time, it got tiring. Data has never convinced anyone who didn’t want to be convinced.

Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety at the University of Guelph in Canada and Kansas State University in the U.S., who shops, cooks and ferments from his home in Brisbane, Australia.



It’s gross: fish and chip shop owner fined for sanitation issues

I was explaining to an American friend what a chip butty was this weekend. The oh-so-British delicacy of white bread, butter and french fries all wrapped up into an artery stopping sandwich. The butty was a menu favorite of my grandfather (who introduced me to it when I was a kid) and you could only get one at real pubs (the ones that show Manchester U on Saturday mornings and illegally serve beer before 11) or traditional fish and chip shops.

Like the Nevill Street Chippy in Southport (that’s in England).JS61352288

According to the Liverpool Echo, Chippy owner Kim Paskin was recently fined for breaching local sanitation rules following an inspection.

They found the inside of the microwave that was used to heat up mushy peas and beans to be coated in grime, as well as the can opener being covered in ‘brown grime’ and the top lid of the chest freezer in the potato preparation room to be covered in flour and ‘not sufficiently cleaned or maintained.’JS61351526

Cigarette butts were found on the floor of a food storage area – indicating that people were smoking on the premises – where canned drinks and cans of beans and peas were kept.

The prosecution for Sefton Council noted a ‘tennis-ball sized hole’ in the wall which led out onto the yard, which inspectors said would be an access point for vermin into the kitchen and preparation areas – although there was no evidence to suggest there were any on the premises.

These are all nasty, but only one foodborne illness risk factors showed up:

Inspectors also found insufficient hand washing facilities, with the bottom of the wash basin covered in grime and no soap or hand drying facilities available.

The other stuff fits the yuck factor category, but no handwashing sink/equipment/soap is bad news.




Because when food safety is in question, ask a politician: UK raw milk producer back in business after ban

The North Devon farming family banned last year by the Food Standards Authority from selling their raw milk and cheese is back in action after a six-month ordeal.

baton.farm_.dairy_-300x200And their return to production has won warm feedback from hundreds of well wishers.

But the Wrights of Barton Farm, Kentisbury, are still in the dark about the allegations made about their milk and any connection with cases of E coli food poisoning.

They sought the help of North Devon MP Nick Harvey to try to have restrictions on their farm lifted.

A report about the FSA investigation into half a dozen cases is due to be published at the end of April.

Meanwhile Barton Farm has just won a Good Dairy Award from Compassion in World Farming.

Linda and husband Gary were stopped from selling their raw milk and cheese six months ago when the FSA said it was investigating half a dozen cases of food poisoning which officials linked with the bacteria E coli.

Although the FSA attributed the sickness to raw milk bought from Barton Farm Gary and Linda have had no evidence to link the two.

They recently sought the help of North Devon MP, Nick Harvey, who has contacted the FSA to find out why the restrictions on Barton Farm were continuing so long.

“The lifting of restrictions came out of the blue,” said Gary. “I had gone to Nick Harvey who’s been following our case.

“I can’t say that’s the reason but it’s a coincidence.”

Top-10 kingpin in borders of your hometown: Canada has world-class food safety system?

It’s been 10 years since I left Canada.

And the longer I’m away, the cuter it becomes: I want to send the country a fruit basket.

Stuart Smyth, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan’s bioresource policy, business and economics department, said “Canada has one of the top, if not the top, food safety systems in the world. Other countries look to our regulatory system as a model of food safety. Many developing countries just don’t have the fiscal resources to have the level of quality and control that we do in Canada to ensure that the food products that are available for purchase in our grocery stores are as safe as they possibly can be.”

Smyth’s assessment mirrors that of a 2014 Conference Board of Canada report, which ranked Canada’s food safety performance first among 17 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The report, which surveyed the country’s ability to assess, control and mitigate risks, cited a low number of reported food-borne illnesses and recalls as a reason for the top billing.

Nosestretcher alert: Smyth said a regular food safety issue in Canada is related to organic foods.

“Thousands of cases a year of food illness are triggered from organic products,” he said. “It’s largely due to the process of them using manure slurry as fertilizer and coming down to improper household food preparations in terms of making sure that they’re properly washing organic food.”

That is complete manure slurry.

UK version: Viruses in the food chain

In 1994, in response to the outcomes of a joint Advisory Committee of Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF) and Steering Group on the Microbiological Safety of Food (SGMSF) meeting, a Working Group was set up to investigate the science and epidemiology of Foodborne Viral Infections.

virus.foodThe Working Group assessed the risk from viruses that were believed to be the primary cause of foodborne illness. This report provides an update to this information and provides a new focus on the viruses which are currently the major route of foodborne illness. Since the publication of the 1998 report, with the exception of two minor risk assessments on hepatitis E and avian influenza, no formal review on viruses had been performed by the ACMSF. It was decided that as significant developments had been made not only in the detection of foodborne viruses, but also in the amount of information obtained from the Infectious Intestinal Disease (IID) Study in England (published in 2000), which indicated a significant disease burden from enteric viruses in the community, it was important that an Ad-Hoc Group was convened to revisit these issues and to provide an update to the 1998 risk assessment.

The FVI Group first met to begin their consideration in November 2010. Over 32 months, the Group met thirteen times to discuss all aspects of viruses in the food chain from farm to fork. As a starting point for the report, the Group reviewed the recommendations from the 1998 report and gave consideration as to whether these had been adequately addressed or were still relevant. At the same time the recommendations from the 2008 World Health Organisation (WHO) Viruses in Food: Scientific Advice to Support Risk Management Activities Matrix and CODEX Criteria, and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Scientific Opinion on an update on the present knowledge on the occurrence and control of foodborne viruses were reviewed.

Using this information along with data on disease burden in the community and outbreak data (from IID and IID2) the Group agreed the scope of the report and what viruses would be its main focus. It was decided that that due to their potential impact and the paucity of data in this area, norovirus, hepatitis E and hepatitis A would be the main focus of the report, although many of the recommendations would also be applicable to other enteric viruses.

During its consideration, the Group reviewed available data on commodities contaminated at source, i.e. bivalve shellfish, pork products and fresh produce and reviewed data on risks associated with infected food handlers. Environmental contamination was reviewed with consideration given to testing methods such as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), person-to-person transmission and food handlers. The Group also considered the engagement with industry and other Government departments (OGDs) regarding environmental conditions of shellfish waters and its impact on norovirus.

A review of data on issues regarding food contact surface contamination, including survivability and persistence was considered along with options for control at all stages of the food chain e.g. thermal processing, storage etc. The thermal stability of hepatitis E was considered with data presented on the increasing occurrence of the disease particularly in older UK males and the recent case control study on the association with processed pork products.

In order to obtain sentinel data the group investigated the important issue of knowledge gathering and surveillance data regarding foodborne viruses. The current limitations of the data were discussed along with what type of data was needed to provide more useful/accurate information on foodborne virus outbreaks. This review included looking at outbreaks from an Environmental Health Officer (EHO) perspective and how they prioritise what they investigate and the data they collect.

Finally, the group reviewed the consumer perspective on risk. This included looking at how risk is presented and information distributed, as this was likely to impact on any future risk assessment.

Within the report the Group has endeavoured to prioritise the recommendations by separating these into those that will inform risk assessments and those that will impact on risk assessments. Full details are provided in the report; however, key recommendations include:

A better understanding of ‘foodborne viral disease’ (Chapter 3) is required by investigating the correlation between infective dose and genome titre. Molecular diagnostics, typing and quantification should also be used to better understand the burden of virus contamination in foodstuffs. Work is also recommended to develop the methods used to assess norovirus and hepatitis E infectivity in food samples. This would better inform surveys and could potentially be applied to routine monitoring.

Improved ‘routine surveillance and investigation of foodborne viruses’ (Chapter 5) is required with Government agencies developing a single integrated outbreak reporting scheme. A joined up approach that would also involve the annual consolidation of records would reduce the chance of underreporting outbreaks. Further to this, reliable methods for norovirus whole genome sequencing should be developed to enable virus tracking and attribution.

More research on the ‘contamination of food’ (Chapter 6) through sewage contamination is recommended. In particular work should investigate the effectiveness of sewage treatment processes in reducing norovirus concentrations, including the use of depuration on shellfish species and disinfection treatments. Similarly, research is needed to identify the most effective means of decontaminating ‘fresh produce’ post-harvest (Chapter 7).

With the emerging risk of hepatitis E in pigs, the Group recommends work is undertaken to investigate the heat inactivation of hepatitis E in ‘pork products’ (Chapter 8). Research on the effect of curing and fermentation on hepatitis E in pork products is also recommended.

The full list of conclusions and recommendation are presented at the end of each subject area and are consolidated in Chapter 12 for ease of reference.

The assessments made and conclusions reached by the Group reflect evidence oral and written drawn from the scientific community, Government departments and Agencies, EFSA and the scientific literature. The Group’s full conclusions, identified data gaps and recommendations are brought together at the end of this report. The ACMSF accepts full responsibility for the final content of the report.