Talking turkey with Butterball’s hotline

This is the first American Thanksgiving I’ll be away from Amy, but it’s not such a big deal because it’s too damn hot in Brisbane at this time of year.

turkey.headWe used to run the food safety hotline in Canada, and had all the inquiries you could imagine.

So do the staff at Butterball’s Turkey Talk-Line.

What started in 1981 as a group of six home economists answering calls has grown into a staff of more than 50 food and nutrition experts answering questions via phone, email, online chats and social media.

The hotline is open from early November to the day before Christmas and receives more than 100,000 questions per year. But, not surprisingly, the volume of questions peaks on Thanksgiving day, when the group answers more than 12,000 calls, Sue Smith, co-director of Butterball’s Turkey Talk-line, told USA TODAY Network.

Some of the questions:

• A mother returned home from work to find her husband thawing a frozen turkey in the bathtub while simultaneously washing up the kids. “The kids were like, ‘The water’s cold!’ because, you know, it’s a frozen turkey,” Smith said.

• A woman called the Talk-Line whispering her questions. When asked to speak up, the newlywed explained she was hiding in the closet from her mother-in-law, whom she was trying to impress.

• A young man hosting his first Thanksgiving called the Talk-Line while in a grocery store. A turkey expert stayed on the phone as he walked the aisle, advising him of all the items he’d need to buy.

• A landlord called panicked because his oven was too small to cook a turkey. He eventually was able to “rent” one from a tenant for $25. He thought he’d have to interrupt them every 10 minutes to baste it, but called the Talk-Line to learn that Butterball turkeys come pre-basted.

butterball• A woman lost power one hour into cooking her turkey and called the Talk-Line. The hotline talked her through transferring her turkey to her gas grill to continue cooking. What accounted for the outage? The caller’s neighbor had crashed into a power line while hang gliding.

But not all calls are quite that dramatic.

“How do I thaw my turkey?” is the most commonly asked question, according to Smith. One way is to put it in your refrigerator several days before Thanksgiving. It take one day for every 4 pounds, Smith said. But if it’s too late for that approach, the fastest way is to thaw it in water.

Spend restaurant money at places proud of their inspection results: Indiana investigation highlights problems

State law requires counties inspect Indiana’s nearly 12,000 restaurants twice a year. But even when inspectors find mouse droppings, flies and raw meat stored at the wrong temperature, customers might have a hard time finding out about it, an I-Team 8 investigation found.

jake.gyllenhaal.rest.inspection.disclosureI-Team 8 took a hidden camera into Central Indiana restaurants asking for copies of inspection reports. In four counties, the majority of restaurants wouldn’t provide a report when I-Team 8 asked to see it. Six of eight restaurants refused. One restaurant said, “I don’t have them.”

Even when inspectors have found critical violations, state law mandates counties wait 10 days before making any of those results public.

I-Team 8 took the issue to Indiana State Sen. Vaneta Becker, who was part of the committee that wrote the 10-day rule 20 years ago as a then state representative. She said no one had ever challenged the 10-day rule since, despite most other states not having such a policy.

Some states post letter grades A-F right in the front window. Indiana doesn’t. I-Team 8 checked the policies of all 50 states and Washington, D.C.  Six states require restaurants turn over inspection reports to customers. Many more leave it up to the counties. In South Carolina, grades are posted as a decal in the restaurant immediately after the inspection. Some states like Mississippi you can check restaurant inspections as you walk in on a smartphone app.

Although Indiana doesn’t post grades, I-Team 8 found two restaurants in the metro area that readily handed over their inspections.

“Why make you go through all that work to dig that stuff up when we have it right here?”

The manager at Culver’s in Noblesville immediately said, “I can give you our most recent one, sir,” when I-Team 8 asked for an inspection report.

At Pizza King in Cumberland an employee said, “Yes! They’re supposed to be right here.”

It’s company policy at both Culvers and Pizza King.

“That’s why we have to keep them here,” the Pizza King employee said. “It has to be open to the public, so people can look at it.”

Culvers keeps a copy handy. In fact, the manager said his restaurant helped with Hamilton County Health Department’s online system.

“They post all the health inspections too because we helped them set up the program,” the manager said.

Culver’s owner Jeff Meyer said keeping the inspections on-site is about customer convenience.

“You can log on online and see for yourself, so why make you go through all that work to dig that stuff up when we have it right here?”

I post this only because anything cats will increase my blog hits: Our cats, ourselves

Razib Khan writes in The New York Times that it’s commonplace to call our cats “pets.” But anyone sharing a cat’s household can tell you that, much as we might like to choose when they eat in the morning, or when they come inside for the night, cats are only partly domesticated.

lasercatsThe likely ancestors of the domestic dog date from more than 30,000 years ago. But domestic cats’ forebears join us in the skeletal record only about 9,500 years ago. This difference fits our intuition about their comparative degrees of domestication: Dogs want to be “man’s best friend”; cats, not so much.

Domestic cats are not just wildcats that tolerate humans in exchange for regular meals. They have smaller skulls in relation to their bodies compared with wildcats, and are known to congregate in colonies. But in comparison with dogs, cats have a narrower range of variation in size and form.

Wesley C. Warren, an author of the study, notes that domestic cats have excellent hunting skills, like their wild ancestors. This, too, supports the notion that cats are only semi-domesticated.

Comparing the genomes of the wildcat and the domestic cat added much to what we had known. Michael J. Montague, the lead author, told me he’d anticipated that the two genomes would be very similar, but our study found a specific set of differences in genes involved in neuron development. This brain adaptation may explain why domestic cats are docile.

cats.sink.jun.13

Pictures and stories matter: A persuasive chart showing how persuasive charts are

In 1992, while I was working at the University of Waterloo (that’s in Canada), I hosted the annual meeting of the Canadian Science Writers Association.

CoverI brought in some interesting and controversial folks, and because Waterloo was so big on computer graphics, I put together a panel about how images could persuade politicians and mere mortals, and a discussion on the ethical responsibility of such a task.

Heady stuff.

Today, two Cornell researchers, Brian Wansink and Aner Tal, reported in Public Understanding of Science, about a small online survey to assess whether alternative descriptions of the same information were more persuasive. Each respondent read the following description of a mythical drug trial:

“A large pharmaceutical company has recently developed a new drug to boost peoples’ immune function. It reports that trials it conducted demonstrated a drop of 40 percent (from 87 to 47 percent) in occurrence of the common cold. It intends to market the new drug as soon as next winter, following F.D.A. approval.”

When this was the only information given, 68 percent believed that the medication really did reduce illness.

Then for a randomly selected subsample, the researchers supplemented the description of the drug trial with a simple chart. But here’s the kicker: That chart contained no new information; it simply repeated the information in the original vignette, with a tall bar illustrating that 87 percent of the control group had the illness, and a shorter bar showing that that number fell to 47 percent for those who took the drug.

But taking the same information and also showing it as a chart made it enormously more persuasive, raising the proportion who believed in the efficacy of the drug to 97 percent from 68 percent. If the researchers are correct, the following chart should persuade you of their finding.

What makes simple charts so persuasive? It isn’t because they make the information more memorable — 30 minutes after reading about the drug trials, those who saw the charts were not much more likely to recall the results than those who had just read the description. Rather, the researchers conjecture, charts offer the veneer of science. And indeed, the tendency to find the charts more persuasive was strongest among those who agreed with the statement “I believe in science.”

Universities can suck

I loved my time at the University of Guelph and Kansas State University – to a point.

bill-murray-lost-in-translationAt KState, I met my wife, Amy, we have a daughter, and I was made full professor.

But I know, at both institutions, the people around me thought I was a freak, and when I moved to Brisbane to support Amy, the salary became attractive so I was unceremoniously fired.

KState now brags about its virtual campus, but they couldn’t handle me doing more work than others, electronically.

Gotta be there to meet and greet, because if you follow KState president Kirk Schulz’s blog, that’s all he does to bring in the bucks.

Amy and I both got this message in the past week:

“Your K-State eID will lose access as of (December 03, 2014) to your K-State email account. That resource is intended solely for use by K-State faculty, staff, students, and sponsored users. This action is being taken because K-State records indicate you are not a currently enrolled student or a current employee.  You will retain access to your eProfile, K-State Online, any student records in iSIS, and any personnel records in HRIS as long as you keep your eID active.”

Don’t expect a donation to the alumni fund. My e-mail is dpowell29@gmail.com. I’m in Japan this week (right, not exactly as shown) which could be a great opportunity to promote KState, but, narrow vision doesn’t go far, no matter how much it’s dressed up by PR flunkies.

 

Salmonella soup – a bad Thanksgiving tradition

One of our food safety friends from Jersey, Michele Samaya-Timm, writes:

It’s November again, and the annual countdown to Thanksgiving is upon us.

therm.turkey.oct.13If you haven’t thought about defrosting the turkey, it might be a good time to get this started –unless turkey popsicles are on the menu.     

Planning this step safely in the refrigerator (as recommended)  is essential to food safety —  experts at USDA calculate the average safe defrost time is one day for every 4 pounds of poultry.   So that 20 pounder could necessitate a lead time of 5 days if the entire extended family is expected to show.   

Growing up in a nice blue collar neighborhood in central New Jersey, I became accustomed to turkey prep traditions that perhaps heralded my future of improving food safety.     

Every year on the Friday before Thanksgiving, my father would come home with a frozen turkey, compliments of his employer.   

 Usually a hefty 20-pound Tom, there was no room for it to safely sit in the modest sized Frigidaire without evicting the usual tenants of milk, eggs, condiments and leftovers.   So my mother did what any good housewife in the 70’s would do…she put the frozen poultry into a scrupulously clean mop bucket, filled it with cold water, and set it in the bathtub to defrost at leisure.  When bath time came for us kids, she would remove the bucket, comet the tub, and scrub us clean.   This would be followed by another bout of comet scouring, and replacement of the turkey bucket in the tub.    T

The process would be repeated every night  until Thanksgiving morn – by which time the bird had melted into a pool of Salmonella soup.   

Mom didn’t realize her turkey prep was flawed, or that she was putting her family at risk.  

In the hectic myriad of preparations, most food safety errors seem like a good idea to many folks,  often wrought out of desperation when a holiday — or one’s family — is looming.    A few of the defrosting debacles I have heard or witnessed are examples of this lapse in knowledge or judgment.       

Food safe defrosting cannot be safely accomplished in a bathtub, on the counter, or on a chair on the back porch.  Likewise, car engines and room radiators are not appropriate food prep equipment.  Hairdryers, clothes dryers, dishwashers and irons are appliances that should be used for their expressed purpose, and in accordance with the manufacturers’ instructions (which will not include any mention of melting a holiday bird.)  Electric blankets, hot tubs and saunas are best used with non-feathered living companions.    And blowtorches might just result in a flurry of unexpected guests yielding Scott Air Packs and hoses.    No matter how you slice it, time, planning and good refrigeration are the best food defrosting tools.  

If you are reading this on Thanksgiving morning, looking for solutions to melt a sub-zero fowl,   consider cooking the bird from its frozen state.    It takes a little longer (about 50% more time, according to USDA), but safety first, right?  Just put out a few more appetizers and watch the game until it’s done.  Or you could forego the Norman Rockwell presentation and tableside carving part of your family meal by opting for a platter of turkey legs and parts —  a dissected bird  will defrost quickly and will get you to a safe internal temp of 165 degrees quicker, too.    Consider it handing down a tradition of healthy and food safe holidays.   

Looking back, I don’t recall if the turkey-bathtub-defrost process from my childhood ever resulted in unwanted stomach effects and lengthy hours in the bathroom post- holiday.    I do know that I have taken over the prep and cooking for Thanksgiving.  That way, I can assure lots of handwashing,  safe turkey defrosting (in the refrigerator!)  and put my food thermometer collection to good use.      Salmonella soup is one tradition I won’t hand down.   

Ever appreciative for the dedicated folks who regularly keep our food and water safe – (and also thankful that mom doesn’t know I write about her culinary practices on the internet. )  

Michele is Health Educator for Somerset County (NJ) Department of Health, currently focused on the (hopefully soon!) completion of a thesis in foodborne outbreak communications. 

 

Pat Quinn, ‘one of hockey’s most respected individuals,’ has died

Whenever I travel, people ask me what I do, and it inevitably evolves into discussions about food safety and hockey.

patquinnThe topics aren’t necessarily connected, other than commitment.

I’m thankful for my parents who spent endless hours at the ice rink so I could play, and I’m thankful for all the food safety types who let me play as well.

Pat Quinn, a Hamilton (that’s in Canada) boy, passed away yesterday and was widely praised as a respected hockey dude.

That’s about the best most of us can hope for, whatever our profession.

Quinn, a two-time Jack Adams winner for coach of the year, led both Philadelphia (1980) and Vancouver (1994) to the Stanley Cup Finals as a bench boss and was highly decorated internationally, winning gold medals at the U-18, World Junior, World Cup and — most famously — the Olympic level, guiding Canada to victory in 2002 at Salt Lake.

Quinn also served as the chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Here’s the statement from Canucks president of hockey operations Trevor Linden, who played for Quinn in Vancouver:

“We have lost a great man. It’s a sad day for hockey and for everyone who loves our game. On this difficult day I am thinking about Pat, his family and his friends, and how much he will be missed.

sorenne.hockey“I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for Pat. He was a great leader and always a teacher. He taught me how to be a professional on and off the ice. He taught me how to play hockey the right way, how to win, and about the importance of respect and loyalty.

“Pat’s impact on our city has been immeasurable. He was responsible for bringing hockey to the forefront in Vancouver. He brought the pride back to the Canucks and today his finger prints and impact are still felt within this organization.”

It’s what I’ve tried to instill in my five daughters. and food safety types around the world.

Exploding poop topples building in China

A cesspool filled with excrement has exploded in central China, injuring 15 people and knocking down a building, state-run media reported.

7427ea210acc15dcc5ed01The blast was apparently sparked by a local man burning waste close to the cesspool, igniting methane gas which was emanating from the pit, the Xinhua news agency said late on Sunday, November 23.

The incident in Zhangjiajie city, in the central province of Hunan, caused a residential building to collapse and three of the injured had to be hospitalized, Xinhua said.

China’s urban infrastructure has often been hastily built with little regard for safety as hundreds of millions of people have moved from the countryside to cities in recent decades.

Hand dryers, even the fancy ones, suck: new study

Paper towels are rare in Australian restrooms, and it’s the same in Japan.

But new research confirms what we’ve been saying for a decade: hand dryers spew bacteria into the air and onto people.

hand-dryerConventional (warm air) and high-velocity (jet air) dryers alike spread bacteria into the air, according to the study. Airborne germ counts near warm-air dryers were found to be 4.5 times higher than the counts near paper towel dispensers, and the counts near jet air dryers were a whopping 27 times higher.

It doesn’t take a lot to figure out what’s probably going on here. As study leader Prof. Mark Wilcox, professor of medical microbiology at the University of Leeds, told The Huffington Post in an email:

“While jet air dryers are good at hand drying, they achieve this by using air velocities of about 400 miles an hour … Unfortunately, this means that the dispersed water droplets (containing more or less bacteria/viruses depending on how hands were washed and how contaminated they were in the first place) will be fired longer distances and some will remain suspended in the air for many minutes (possibly hours).”

For the study, the researchers contaminated people’s hands with harmless Lactobacillis bacteria that normally aren’t found in bathrooms. Then they measured levels of the bacteria in the air at distances of up to two meters away from the dryer after the people had dried their hands.

“This research was commissioned by the paper towel industry and it’s flawed,” a spokesperson for dryer maker Dyson told The Telegraph.

Wilcox acknowledged that the study was funded by the European Tissue Symposium, an association of tissue paper producers. But the group “played no part in the results analysis,” he said, adding that he had no ties to ETS other than the financial support for the study.

The study was published in the Journal of Hospital Infection and presented at a recent meeting of the Healthcare Infection Society in Lyon, France.