Calling Ian Betteridge: Are grocery store conveyor belts a significant source of foodborne illness?

I’m sitting at the NoroCORE annual meeting and listening to Aron Hall and others talk about sources of noro illnesses. Stuff like ill food handlers and bare hand contact in full service restaurants rise to the top as risk factors for the most prevalent food-related pathogens. Dirty conveyor belts, not so much.

Tove Danovich of Food Politic interviewed me a couple of weeks ago about issues related to conveyor belts in grocery stores wondering whether they a good source for illnesses?MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

I told her that when it comes to outbreaks and pathogens, I’m not sure the data is there.

If you’re squeamish about the thought of unseen bacterium and pathogens, stop reading. A 2009 study found contamination on 100% of tested grocery store conveyor belts. Though they often seem clean, a lack of dust doesn’t mean they aren’t a breeding ground for bacteria. The question to ask ourselves us is whether these grocery store workhorses have the potential to make us sick.

The study, conducted by Dr. Zhinong Yan, took 100 samples from 42 grocery stores in Michigan. They were tested for “total aerobic bacteria count (TAC), yeast, mold, Staphylococcus aureus (Staph), and coliforms.” Coliforms are a rod-shaped bacteria that are commonly used as bacterial indicators due to their easy cultivation and large presence in fecal matter. If you’ve got coliforms, you’ve got stool (this is not true, the bacteria that make up the coliform group are naturally associated with lots of plants, without poop – ben). Dr. Yan also tested for more dangerous bacteria like MRSA, E. coli, salmonella, and listeria. Luckily, evidence of the most dangerous foodborne pathogens weren’t found.

What was detected, however, were high levels of just about everything else – including coliform bacteria. These belts might not give you stomach flu but probably needed a good round of sanitation. 

Enter the antimicrobial conveyor belt, a cover for your bacteria-covered black belts. Antimicrobial wraps both kill bacteria and are non-porous (read: can actually be cleaned). A somewhat ingenious advertisement from MessageWrap, an antimicrobial surface that can also display ads or other messages, shows that even a child can install it in under an hour.

Yet not everyone is sure that conveyor belts are breeding grounds for dangerous microbes. Benjamin Chapman, Food Safety Specialist, often works with consumers, grocery, and retail stores to curb potential risks. “When we look at conveyor belts, there are two components of risk: what’s the likelihood of pathogens being there and how they could be transferred to food,” he says. While he agrees that conveyor belts are difficult to clean and sanitize, that doesn’t automatically mean they should be a source of worry.

To put it simply, bacteria can be found in any environment – your bathroom, kitchen table, or cooking surfaces at home. Chapman has never found data to prove that conveyor belts are particularly good at transferring pathogens to food. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for the belt to be sanitized if the person in front of you has a package of chicken that’s leaking fluid. “If I see something, I’m going to do what I can do make it safer,” Chapman adds.

As for microbial wraps, they may not even get rid of potential contamination. As Chapman put it, “It’s not a magic bullet.” All conveyor belts have seams that are often particularly hard to sanitize and clean whether it’s a wrap or black PVC. If you’re going to find bacteria, that’s a good place to look.

So unless you’re shopping for groceries in a particularly dingy store, chances are good that you have little to worry about. “If there’s going to be food, there’s going to be bacteria,” Chapman says. We’d be sick forever if the mere presence of bacteria was enough to give us a foodborne illness.

Don’t avoid the grocery store just yet but be mindful of the state of the surfaces where you set your food. As for your mild case of bacterial OCD? Chapman may have put it best, “I’m not in the business of knowing how much people should be concerned about something.”

This last bit was in response to a question Tove asked “how concerned should people be?” My philosophy (stolen from many other smart people in the food safety risk analysis work) is that I want to present the risks and let people make their own risk management decisions. How concerned someone is (whether an individual or a food safety nerd at a food company) is a risk management calculation. It didn’t come out quite right.

Chinese whistle-blowers to get 60% of food safety fines

The Greater Kaohsiung Council has amended municipal food safety rules to offer whistle-blowers 60 percent of the resulting fines levied on convicted companies — the highest cash reward offered in the nation.

wbCouncilors from across party lines unanimously approved the amendment to food industry regulations, a move fueled by the revelation that Kaohsiung-based Cheng I Food Co has been selling substandard oil to food manufacturers in the latest food scandal to rock the nation.

Cheng I has been fined NT$50 million (US$1.67 million) on charges of violating the nation’s food safety laws. That means that if the new rules had been in effect and the news had been broken by an internal whistle-blower, he or she would have been eligible for NT$30 million in cash.

Similar rules in other cities, municipalities and counties pay between 10 and 50 percent of the fine levied on a convicted firm.

Democratic Progressive Party Kaohsiung Councilor Lian Li-jian, who initiated the move to amend the rules, said giving incentives to workers at companies that could be undertaking illegal practices would help deter unethical acts.

He said that the amendment passed by the council also contains provisions that ensure the safety and job security of workers tipping off the authorities.

The amended food safety regulations further require food makers to keep food storage and waste disposal zones separate at their factories.

12 bizarre foods confiscated from U.S. borders

From, people try to sneak in the darndest foods when they’re entering the U.S. From Argentine vicuña patties to Zambian baobab fruit, officials confiscate enough food at the border to throw a months-long (and rather exotic) feast (learn more about it right here).

chinese.beans.oct.14U.S. Customs officials provided a copy of their records from fiscal year 2010 to 2013 listing the kinds, quantities, and countries of departure for all the food items they seized from all commercial flights into America. Meanwhile, we sent photographers to LAX to document a day’s haul at the Customs checkpoint. Here’s what we found

My fav is the Chinese long beans which can be easily purchased in L.A.


An approach to evaluate and manage supply chain risk

Friends of ours were over for dinner last night and the matron is doing some sort of business education upgrade to prepare for the future.

Her research topic is supply-chain management within her firm, so I sent her this from David Acheson and Jennifer McEntire of The Acheson Group (TAG):

supply.chain.risks.oct.14In today’s food and beverage industry, everyone has a supply chain that they rely on. And with that comes risk.  You may be staking your brand reputation on the quality and safety of products or ingredients you are sourcing from somewhere that is not under your direct control. In short, you are relying on someone else to do things right, and inheriting risk if they don’t. Congress recognized that sometimes you rely on suppliers to control risk, which puts supplier management into the bucket of a “preventive control” and thus part of the Food Safety Modernization Act

But the road doesn’t end at regulatory compliance. Food professionals often worry about their supply chain, so much that it provokes many sleepless nights for executive leaders.  Why? Because no matter how many suppliers you have, their operations are not under your direct control. Again, you rely on a third party to make regulatory and ethical decisions in relation to your product, and ultimately, your brand. You rely on them to do the right thing.  And let’s face it—sometimes people just don’t. That’s why The Acheson Group (TAG) has developed an approach that goes beyond a “one size fits all” practice of asking for a certificate of analysis (COA) and an audit report.  With those two boxes checked we feel good about our suppliers and can relax – right?  Wrong!

Clearly the extent of the risk to you from your supply chain is dependent on many factors, some of which directly relate to what you do with the ingredients or products once received.  For example, if you are making a cooked product, then you worry less about microbiological contaminants in your externally sourced ingredients being used in your cooked product.  However, depending upon the region from which they are sourced, you may need to be concerned about heavy metals in those same ingredients since the cooking step will do nothing to mitigate the risks from heavy metals or other chemical contaminants.

One is often faced with the question of how to manage complex supply chains in a way that does not break the bank.  Like most things related to food safety, the logical approach to controlling the supply chain is a risk-based approach.  In simple terms, this means asking yourself, “Which of my suppliers are ones that I consider to be high risk?”  Many in the food world do this type of mental exercise on a regular basis, but typically it is somewhat ad hoc, based on instinct, the result of a group brainstorm, and not fact-based, objective or consistent.  The reliance on “gut feel” doesn’t generally cut it when trying to secure the resources to manage that risk. And it’s not going to satisfy FDA either, which proposes that the evaluation of supplier risk (assessed through regulatory compliance, your history with them, and other factors) be documented when suppliers are controlling hazards – whether through the Preventive Controls rule or as part of Foreign Supplier Verification.

As you think about how to balance your resources with your risk, it becomes evident that the need for metrics to quantify supply chain risk is an effective approach.  One of the tactics we have taken at TAG is to incorporate this mindset through a logical extension of these challenges and develop an approach that analyzes supply chain risk from two dimensions. The first dimension is to determine the inherent risk of the product or the ingredient.  Clearly some products have more inherent risk than others. For example, leafy greens are generally considered to be a higher risk than a dry powder.  As a result, our approach has been to develop a series of questions, the answers to which each carry a score that then allows you to quantify the inherent risk of a given product or ingredient.  By going through this process with all the products you use, it is possible to then rank the products numerically by risk.

The second dimension to this process is to follow the same steps for each supplier.  Referring to the earlier example, a leafy green supplier may have implemented robust good agricultural practices and be ahead of the game in relation to on-farm risk control.  Another supplier of leafy greens may be adequate, but have a few areas in which there is opportunity for improvement. In this situation, while the inherent product risk is the same for the leafy greens product itself, the actions and controls put in place by different suppliers will lead to differing risks and consequences for the same product.  By again asking a series of customizable questions and placing scores on each answer, you can then rank supplier risk over a wide range of variables.  Much like the product-risk scoring explained earlier, you can then rank the suppliers numerically by risk.

The next part of this process is to match the product with the supplier by comparing the two ranked lists (product ranking and supplier ranking). By going through this process, it is possible to identify the high-risk products with the high-risk suppliers, thus identifying your greatest supply chain vulnerabilities.

This process will allow the application of objective, standardized, and consistent metrics to supply chain risk and rank product-supplier combinations in terms of high to low risk.  But, that is only the first step! Because critical questions have been assigned to both the product and the supplier, it is then appropriate to look at which questions drove the score high and thus develop a risk management strategy that is focused on fixing and mitigating the problem.   For example, if a supplier is scoring high due to the lack of a robust environmental control program or allergen control program, you can address that deficiency specifically with the supplier and thus reduce your risks. This tool allows you to capture not only the identity of the risk, but how to apply resources to eliminate the risk.

Despite all the benefits listed above, the overall value of this approach is to allow your firm to have a tangible, objective method to leverage metrics in driving the decision-making process. It will allow your company to defend why resources need to be directed to certain areas of supply chain risk control.   Another advantage of this approach is that it is possible over time to monitor improvement in risks through the overall reduction in scores.   However, even as overall risk scores drop, product-supplier combinations that reveal the highest risk when compared to the other groupings are still visible, allowing the firm to concentrate new efforts upon driving down risk even further.

In today’s cost-conscious environment, the more we can use technology to drive risk-based decisions, the better we will be able to manage those risks, and successfully!  It has been TAG’s experience that some of the most sophisticated, global food companies struggle more with supply chain risk uncertainties than any other challenge. Perhaps the driver of this worry is the fact that the supply chain is viewed as an “accepted” risk, or maybe because the system itself is so large and cumbersome it seems too difficult to control.  Our philosophy is to help companies understand how to get their arms around the challenge of supply chain risk and to make wise use of limited resources, and thus, we have developed this tool to achieve just that.

Irrespective of whether or not your brand is a household name, you have customers who rely on the safety of your product and expect good quality.  In real terms, when your suppliers let you down and you don’t catch the problem — or you do, but you don’t intervene — you may then be, in reality, not just letting your customers down but your company as well. Thus, managing supply chain risk is not only a forthcoming regulatory requirement, it’s what you need to do to protect your brand.


And so it goes: at least 6 sick from Salmonella in frozen chicken thingies in Minn

State health and agriculture officials said today that six recent cases of salmonellosis in Minnesota have been linked to raw, frozen, breaded and pre-browned, stuffed chicken entrees. The implicated product is Antioch Farms brand A La Kiev raw stuffed chicken breast with a U.S. Department of Agriculture stamped cFunkyChickenHiode of P-1358. This product is sold at many different grocery store chains. Investigators from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) determined that six cases of Salmonella infection from August and September 2014 were due to the same strain of Salmonella Enteritidis. One person was hospitalized for their illness. “Our DNA fingerprinting found that the individuals were sickened by the same strain of Salmonella,” said Dr. Carlota Medus, epidemiologist for the Foodborne Diseases Unit at MDH. “The Minnesota Department of Agriculture collected samples of the same type of product from grocery stores and the outbreak strain of Salmonella was found in packages of this product.” There have been six outbreaks of salmonellosis in Minnesota linked to these types of products from 1998 through 2008. This is the first outbreak since improvements were made in 2008 to the labeling of these products. The current labels clearly state that the product is raw.  Salmonella is sometimes present in raw chicken, which is why it is important for consumers to follow safe food-handling practices. This includes cooking all raw poultry products to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. “The problem arises when consumers don’t realize that they are handling and preparing a raw product,” according to Dr. Carrie Rigdon, an investigator for the MDA Dairy and Food Inspection Division. MDA and MDH officials advised that consumers with these products in their freezers, if they choose to use them, should cook them thoroughly. Other important food handling practices include hand washing before and after handling raw meat, keeping raw and cooked foods separate to avoid cross-contamination, and placing cooked meat on a clean plate or platter before serving. Consumers can find more information about safe food-handling practices on the MDH website at: Symptoms of salmonellosis include diarrhea, abdominal pain and cramps and fever. Symptoms usually begin within 12 to 72 hours after exposure, but can begin up to a week after exposure. Salmonella infections usually resolve in 5 to 7 days, but approximately 20 percent of cases require hospitalization. In rare cases, Salmonella infection can lead to death, particularly in the elderly or those with weakened immune systems.

Direct video observation of adults and tweens cooking raw frozen chicken thingies 01.nov.09
 British Food Journal, Vol 111, Issue 9, p 915-929 
Sarah DeDonder, Casey J. Jacob, Brae V. Surgeoner, Benjamin Chapman, Randall Phebus, Douglas A. Powell;jsessionid=6146E6AFABCC349C376B7E55A3866D4A?contentType=Article&contentId=1811820
 Purpose – The purpose of the present study was to observe the preparation practices of both adult and young consumers using frozen, uncooked, breaded chicken products, which were previously involved in outbreaks linked to consumer mishandling. The study also sought to observe behaviors of adolescents as home food preparers. Finally, the study aimed to compare food handler behaviors with those prescribed on product labels.
 Design/methodology/approach – The study sought, through video observation and self-report surveys, to determine if differences exist between consumers’ intent and actual behavior. chicken.thingies.raw.cook
Findings – A survey study of consumer reactions to safe food-handling labels on raw meat and poultry products suggested that instructions for safe handling found on labels had only limited influence on consumer practices. The labels studied by these researchers were found on the packaging of chicken products examined in the current study alongside step-by-step cooking instructions. Observational techniques, as mentioned above, provide a different perception of consumer behaviors. 
Originality/value – This paper finds areas that have not been studied in previous observational research and is an excellent addition to existing literature.

Wash hands, sick (and non-sick?) workers stay home: 278 sickened in Norovirus outbreak at Shanghai boarding school, 2012

Researchers conclude in BMC Public Health that this Norovirus outbreak could be limited by good hygiene, daily disinfection and “excluding asymptomatic food handlers from food preparation.”

NorochickI’m not sure how that would work, but based on fecal swabs, nine were Norovirus-positive in asymptomatic food preparers.

Here’s the abstract:

More than 200 students and teachers at a boarding school in Shanghai developed acute gastroenteritis in December, 2012. The transmission mode remained largely unknown.
An immediate epidemiological investigation was conducted to identify it.

Methods: Using a retrospective cohort design, we investigated demographic characteristics, school environment, and previous contacts with people who had diarrhea and/or vomiting, drinking water conditions, recalls of food consumption in the school cafeteria, hand-washing habits and eating habits. Rectal swabs of the new cases and food handlers as well as water and food samples were collected to test potential bacteria and viruses. Norovirus was detected by real-time reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR).

Results: A total of 278 cases developed gastrointestinal symptoms in this outbreak, and the overall attack rate was 13.9%. The main symptoms included vomiting (50.0%), abdominal cramps (40.3%), nausea (27.0%), diarrhea (6.8%) and fever (6.8%).
Twenty rectal swab samples were detected as Norovirus-positive, including 11 from student cases and 9 from asymptomatic food handlers (non-cases). Among environmental surface samples from the kitchen, 8 samples were also detected as Norovirus-positive.
The genotypes of viral strains were the same (GII) in patients, asymptomatic food handlers and environmental surfaces. Other samples, including rectal swabs, water samples and food samples were negative for any bacteria and other tested viruses.
Asymptomatic food handlers may have contaminated the cooked food during the food preparation.

Conclusion: The study detected that the outbreak was caused by Norovirus and should be controlled by thorough disinfection and excluding asymptomatic food handlers from food preparation. Early identification of the predominant mode of transmission in this outbreak was necessary to prevent new cases.
Furthermore, good hygiene practices such as regular hand washing and efficient daily disinfection should be promoted to prevent such infection and outbreaks.

Author: Caoyi XueYifei FuWeiping ZhuYi FeiLinying ZhuHong ZhangLifeng PanHongmei XuYong WangWenqin WangQiao Sun

Credits/Source: BMC Public Health 2014, 14:1092

Hundreds of U.S. bioterror lab mishaps cloaked in secrecy

Allison Young of USA Today reports that more than 1,100 laboratory incidents involving bacteria, viruses and toxins that pose significant or bioterror risks to people and agriculture were reported to federal regulators during 2008 through 2012, government reports obtained by USA TODAY show.

oops.britneyMore than half these incidents were serious enough that lab workers received medical evaluations or treatment, according to the reports. In five incidents, investigations confirmed that laboratory workers had been infected or sickened; all recovered.

In two other incidents, animals were inadvertently infected with contagious diseases that would have posed significant threats to livestock industries if they had spread. One case involved the infection of two animals with hog cholera, a dangerous virus eradicated from the USA in 1978. In another incident, a cow in a disease-free herd next to a research facility studying the bacteria that cause brucellosis, became infected due to practices that violated federal regulations, resulting in regulators suspending the research and ordering a $425,000 fine, records show.

But the names of the labs that had mishaps or made mistakes, as well as most information about all of the incidents, must be kept secret because of federal bioterrorism laws, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the labs and co-authored the annual lab incident reports with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“More than 200 incidents of loss or release of bioweapons agents from U.S. laboratories are reported each year. This works out to more than four per week,” said Richard Ebright, a biosafety expert at Rutgers university in New Jersey, who testified before Congress last month at a hearing about CDC’s lab mistakes.

The only thing unusual about the CDC’s recent anthrax and bird flu lab incidents, Ebright said, is that the public found out about them. “The 2014 CDC anthrax event became known to the public only because the number of persons requiring medical evaluation was too high to conceal,” he said.

CDC officials were unavailable for interviews and officials with the select agent program declined to provide additional information. The USDA said in a statement Friday that “all of the information is protected under the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002.”

Such secrecy is a barrier to improving lab safety, said Gigi Kwik Gronvall of the UPMC Center for Health Security in Baltimore, an independent think tank that studies policy issues relating to biosecurity issues, epidemics and disasters.

doublesecretprobation“We need to move to something more like what they do in aviation, where you have no-fault reporting but the events are described so you get a better sense of what actually happened and how the system can be fixed,” said Gronvall, an immunologist by training and an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Gronvall notes that even with redundant systems in high-security labs, there have been lab incidents resulting in the spread of disease to people and animals outside the labs.

“People understand that mistakes will happen,” Gronvall said. “But you want it to be captured, you want it to be learned from, you want there to be a record of how it was dealt with. That’s something I think should happen with biosafety.”

Who doesn’t buy canned beets from a gas station?

It was somewhere around 2000 when Chapman accompanied me on a two-week whirlwind tour of Australia and New Zealand, speaking on a variety of topics, sampling kangaroo, and initially staying at a bed and breakfast in East Gippsland on a large winery that the owner, Owen, and his wife, moved to after the heart attack in the city.

beetroot.slices.recall.oct.14We thought Owen might have another at the dinner table.

I’d been invited by an ex-pat Canadian and had a chat with about 50 local farmers in the town pub.

But this is about beetroot.

There are some universal truths of travel, and one is that nothing beats an Egg McMuffin at 5 a.m. upon arrival in Melbourne after 30 hours on the move.

We probably had three each.

But I noticed the lunch menu and the inclusion of beetroot on the Big Macs.

What was a beetroot? The part of the beet that grows in the ground that North American’s call beets.

HJ Heinz Company Australia Limited has recalled Golden Circle Beetroot Slices from Coles, Woolworths, IGA, convenience stores and some petrol stations nationally due to the potential for microbial growth. Food products with microbial growth may cause illness if consumed. Any consumers concerned about their health should seek medical advice. The product can be returned to the place of purchase for a full refund.

That’s the only info available, but I’ve wanted to write for so long about beetroot.