Does food safety risk analysis have a public hope? How politics make us stupid

I have no time for scientists who bitch behind closed doors about how they’re misunderstood by the public.

As Thomas Jefferson famously stated, which I always use to introduce my risk analysis course, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education.”

communicationI’m not a fan of education, but I am a fan of compelling, current, credible information.

Ezra Klein writes about the More Information Hypothesis: the belief that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings. The cause of these misunderstandings? Too little information — be it about climate change, or taxes, or Iraq, or the budget deficit. If only the citizenry were more informed, theb thinking goes, then there wouldn’t be all this fighting.

But the More Information Hypothesis isn’t just wrong. It’s backwards. Cutting-edge research shows that the more information partisans get, the deeper their disagreements become.

This isn’t cutting-edge. This has been known for at least 50 years.

I heard the same thing about genetically engineered foods in the early 1990s (I’m old) and tried to tell the corporations, facts are not your answer: it’s compassion, stories.

That worked out well (that’s sarcasm).

Klein writes that in April and May of 2013, Yale Law professor Dan Kahan — working with co-authors Ellen Peters, Erica Cantrell Dawson, and Paul Slovic — set out to test a question that continuously puzzles scientists: why isn’t good evidence more effective in resolving political debates? For instance, why doesn’t the mounting proof that climate change is a real threat persuade more skeptics?

The leading theory, Kahan and his coauthors wrote, is the Science Comprehension Thesis, which says the problem is that the public doesn’t know enough about science to judge the debate. It’s a version of the More Information Hypothesis: a smarter, better educated citizenry wouldn’t have all these problems reading the science and accepting its clear conclusion on climate change.

That’s a new-fangled version of the needle theory – a willing public waiting to ingest science.

Doesn’t work like that.

Kahan goes on to say that the science community has a crappy communications team. Actually, scratch that: Kahan doesn’t think they have any communications team at all.”

Easy to throw darts from the outside. My team can tell you what you need to know about food safety science communication.

 

 

Message and medium; bye-bye PR hacks; social media as megaphone to pressure food industry

Marshall McLuhan famously said in 1967, “The medium is the message” and got to do a walk-on in the movie, Annie Hall, where he told some pompous professor that he doesn’t understand his theories at all and is not qualified to teach.

Fitting.

With food safety recalls today, it’s the medium and the message, if you want to get Marshall-McLuhan-in-Annie-Hall-300x225people’s attention.

Stephanie Strom of the NY Times recreates those themes for modern audiences (I’m old).

Matthew Egol, a partner at Booz & Company, a consulting firm, said companies were approaching the negative feedback they get with new tools that help them assess the risks posed by consumer criticism.

“Instead of relying on a P.R. firm, you have analytical tools to quantify how big an issue it is and how rapidly it’s spreading and how influential the people hollering are,” he said. “Then you can make a decision about how to respond. It happens much more quickly.”

Duh.

How is a rare burger defined? Why there’s no such thing as simple food safety advice

The UK Food Standards Agency is full of food safety contradictions: cook meat until it is piping hot; wash watercress to avoid E. coli; and, pink steaks are safe.

Back in August, according to the Daily Mail, district judge Elizabeth Roscoe ruled that London-based Davey’s could continue to serve tenderizingPagerare beefburgers, rejecting claims they were a health risk.

“There is a balance to be struck between ensuring the safety of the public and allowing them the freedom of choice that they would wish and have a right to expect.”

The council wanted Davy’s beef supplier to sear and shave the outside of whole cuts of meat to remove any harmful bugs.

Davy’s argued that its suppliers could be trusted to supply beef that could be safely eaten.

But Westminster council’s food safety chief James Armitage, “We are not saying burgers should not be eaten rare  or medium – merely that they should be prepared in a way that makes them as safe as practicably possible.”

What are those controls?

Before the judge’s ruling, the Daily Mail published a bit about how FSA was going to advise that all meat be cooked until no pink remained.

Color is a lousy indicator.

Stephen Humphreys, director of communications at FSA, explained, “We have issued no guidance that would prevent steaks being served rare, we have no plans to do so and why would we?

Steak is safe to eat ‘rare’. Whole cuts of beef or lamb, steaks, cutlets and joints only have germs on the outside, so as long as the outside is cooked any potentially harmful germs that could cause food poisoning will be killed.”

Not quite.

Steaks that have been needle tenderized have the albeit-low potential for pathogens to be entered into the meat, and requiring a higher cooking temperature.

Food safety advice is never simple.

Bureaucrat (non) action 2: safest food in the world, EU edition

Come on down, John Dalli, you’re the latest winner in the we-have-the-safest-food-in-the-world sweepstakes.

Dalli, the commissioner in charge of health and consumer policy, told FoodQualityNews.com,

"European consumers enjoy the highest food safety standards in the world. The EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed is a key tool as it allows risks to be identified and removed from the European market.”

In the actual report, Dalli writes RASFF has ensured food safety by averting or mitigating many safety risks “by triggering a rapid reaction when a food safety risk is detected” and that that the RASFF system reinforces consumer confidence in the food and feed safety system.

More faith-based food safety.

Recall fatigue redux: does social media help or hinder?

In July 2007, Robert Brackett, then director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said during the Castleberry canned chili sauce botulism outbreak consumers may be suffering "recall fatigue," given the rash of recalls the past year for spinach, carrot juice, lettuce, peanut butter, pet food and other products. "That’s a real phenomenon. If people aren’t getting sick or their family isn’t, they think ‘Oh, it’s not going to happen to me.’"

I said that public communications about such undertakings must be rapid, reliable, repeated and relevant, and that the produce outbreaks of 2006 marked significant changes in how stories were being told on Internet-based networking like YouTube, wikipedia, and blogs. Producers, processors, retailers and regulators of agricultural commodities not only need to be seen — and actually — responding to food safety issues in conventional media, they must now pay particular attention to the myriad of Internet-based social networking sites that allow individuals to act as their own media outlet. Further, proactive producers, regulators and others in the farm-to-fork food safety system will become comfortable with the directness — and especially the speed — of new Internet-based media.

In 2010, the Washington Post reported that government regulators, retailers, manufacturers and consumer experts were concerned that recall notices have become so frequent across a range of goods — foods, consumer products, cars — that the public is suffering from "recall fatigue."

Craig Wilson, assistant vice president for quality assurance and food safety at Costco, was quoted as saying in 2010 that, "The national recall system that’s in place now just doesn’t work. We call it the Chicken Little syndrome. If you keep shouting at the wind — ‘The sky is falling! The sky is falling!’ — people literally become immune to the message."

Today, USA Today has a story about recall fatigue.

Consumers last year were deluged with 2,363 recalls, or about 6.5 recalls each day, covering consumer products, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and food, according to data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The recalls announced mark a nearly 14 percent increase from 2,081 in 2010 and compare with about 1,460 in 2007.

Christopher Doering writes that the increase is the result of a combination of greater oversight by regulators, better testing procedures and the use of social media where consumers can quickly point out and discuss problems with other people.

Increasingly, retailers and government agencies are expanding the methods they use to communicate with the public — from social-media technologies such as Twitter and Facebook to more traditional methods such as phone calls and postings within their stores. But the same methods that prove successful in reaching one customer could just as easily be ignored by another.

"We don’t feel that our members are getting bombarded but certainly the general public is and sooner or later you don’t know what to believe," said Craig Wilson, vice president for quality assurance and food safety at the warehouse giant Costco.

The 602-store warehouse chain uses data supplied from its estimated 60 million members and notifies them within 24 hours if they’ve purchased a recalled item. It then follows up with a letter. The result is that customers return about 90% of recently recalled products and, in the case of major recalls such as when a food product could cause serious health problems or death, Costco gets "the majority of everything that was sold back."

But Wilson says the national recall system "doesn’t work as designed" and that consumers and retailers alike would benefit from a single, uniform network. He says the CPSC, USDA and FDA each have a different recall system with unique requirements, making it more difficult for companies like his to make sure they are complying with the rules.

At Rochester, New York-based Wegmans, the grocery chain has a detailed recall plan that can require hundreds of people to carry out. The 81-store East Coast chain follows a recall protocol increasingly common among retailers: posting recall information on its web page and within stores for customers, notifying its followers using social media tools and, when possible, calling individuals who may have used a store card for the purchase.

Businesses can ease the burden of a recall on their reputation and bottom line by being honest and upfront with their customers and crafting a response plan before any recall occurs that outlines what they will do with the public, media and regulators, industry watchers say.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack downplayed the number of recalls that are announced considering the number of products that are produced, items that are sold and meals consumed each day.

"I think people want to know and need to know and have a right to know if there is a problem with a particular product," said Vilsack. "We’re going to look at ways in which we (communicate) and constantly improve how we communicate but we’re not going to stop communicating."

Add to list of things not to say ‘We’re safest place in town to eat’ after outbreak; 75 reports of illness from Ribeye’s Steakhouse in NC

The Nash County Health Department is investigating a possible foodborne illness outbreak in Nash County after 75 people reported becoming ill after eating at Ribeye’s Steakhouse in Nashville last week.

Two people were hospitalized after eating there and have been released, but it has not been confirmed whether their illnesses were associated with eating at the restaurant, said health department spokeswoman Amy Belflower Thomas.

The Rocky Mount Telegram reports she could not say what food dish at the restaurant, if any, might have caused the illnesses.

“Seventy-five people have called us and said they were sick or ate with someone who was sick, and gave me their names,” Thomas said. “It’s not like we’ve gone out and asked people to call us.”

Janice Manning, an owner of Ribeye’s Restaurant, said patrons can feel confident the food served is safe to eat.

“I just spoke to the health department recently,” she said. “I’ve not heard that anything was confirmed. They are working on it.”

She said the restaurant has been sanitized and all of the food that was there when the complaints were filed has been thrown out.

“We are probably the safest place in town (to eat),” Manning said.

She noted the restaurant has had consistently high grades from the health department on its sanitation report card.

Ottawa Lunch Lady to reopen after sickening 54 with Salmonella, mainly kids

The Lunch Lady will resume serving meals to Ottawa schools beginning Monday.

The Ottawa Citizen reports the caterer has been closed for more than two weeks after it was discovered that some meals had been contaminated with salmonella. At least 49 children and five adults had lab-confirmed cases of the stomach bug related to the outbreak, according to the City of Ottawa public health department.

Jonathan Morris, the owner of two Lunch Lady franchises, said since voluntarily shutting down, they’ve undergone new testing procedures at their kitchens and redistributed some of the staff duties. He said the kitchens have been thoroughly sterilized and much of the food has been thrown out.

"This problem was rooted in an individual who made a mistake," said Morris, adding that the staff member has since been let go. He said the fired employee made a "mistake" in the preparation that led to the contamination of the food.

"The beef we received already had salmonella in it, but if the beef had been properly handled it wouldn’t have been issued," he said.

Morris said he feels "bad" that so many children and adults became ill from the food that was sent out to the schools.

But not bad enough to offer a full accounting of what the mistake was.

Morris is offering a variation of the trust us PR approach that usually fails. If one of my kids got sick, or if I was faced with choosing a school meal, I would want to know exactly what went wrong and exactly what has been changed so it wouldn’t happen again. Were the kitchens using meat thermometers to ensure safe temperatures had been reached? What kind of meat storage and prep procedures were followed to minimize cross-contamination? What handwashing procedures are in place and is there any verification such procedures are followed? Basic questions that the Lunch Lady and franchisee Morris seem unwilling to answer.

"My business will survive, but it’s not about me, it’s about those kids," added Morris, who has owned the business for five years. He has a staff of about 25 employees.

Maybe it’s a Canadian thing. Like the 2008 Maple Leaf listeria outbreak, the boss is saying the correct caring things, but that’s of little comfort to those who got sick. Communication needs to be supported with data. People aren’t dumb: explain what happened and what corrective actions are being taken so your commitment to food safety can be accurately assessed, or maybe your business won’t survive.

Daily Show does pink slime; skewers industry and government communication efforts

Political fodder is comedic gold.

Satirists, like others, also eat.

Jon Stewart loves cheeseburgers.

The ingredients of public outrage over pink slime melded like a savory stew last night on the Daily Show to produce a potpourri of insights on how not to chat with people who eat.

And it was so easy because the politicians and industry seem so hapless.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad held a press conference in Des Moines Wednesday afternoon to address concerns and educate the public about the processing of lean, finely textured beef, or LFTB.

"That’s why we’re going to have people from Iowa State University and Texas A&M and knowledgeable people from USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) counter the smear and counter the misinformation with the facts," said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.

Facts are never enough. Otherwise rBST would be routinely used in dairy production, genetically-engineered foods would be flaunted not shunned, and irradiation would make pink slime redundant.

Science is never enough in the public arena.

Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, said education is especially important when a growing number of people are increasingly farther removed from agriculture.

"The reality is a very small percentage of America’s population produces 85% to 90% of what we consume.”

I’m not sure what being a beef farmer has to do with meat processing that involves centrifuges.

Stewart reasoned, "any food can be disgusting if you take its ingredients out of context." Perhaps the same thing was true of pink slime burgers?

Stewart cut to an animated news report that explained the process for making pink slime: Waste trimmings are gathered, simmered at low heat to make it easier to separate fat from muscle, then put into a centrifuge, sprayed with ammonia gas to kill bacteria, compressed into bricks, flash-frozen and finally shipped to grocery stores nationwide, where it’s added to ground beef. Yummy!

He also expressed his admiration for the beef industry’s preferred nomenclature, "lean, finely textured beef." "It makes it sound like something rich beef-eaters can buy from Hammacher Schlemmer," Stewart said. "It’s the cashmere of beef."

Stewart also marveled at the irony of pink slime: "McDonald’s doesn’t think it’s an appropriate thing to eat? These are the people who molded a pork disc into a rib-shaped sandwich … that contains no ribs. Nobody knows how they did it! But this stuff, pink slime? That’s too fake for McDonald’s?"

I can provide references for everything I say – that educating people is about the worst communications strategy because it invalidates and trivializes people’s thoughts. But that stuff is boring.

Stewart says the same thing but in a way that is much more entertaining.

Whenever a group says the public needs to be educated about food safety, biotechnology, trans fats, organics or anything else, that group has utterly failed to present a compelling case for their cause. Individuals can choose to educate themselves about all sorts of interesting things, but the idea of educating someone is doomed to failure. And it’s sorta arrogant to state that others need to be educated; to imply that if only you understood the world as I understand the world, we would agree and dissent would be minimized.

Or as Stewart said, “You got rid of it because we found out it was pink slime.”

Proponents of pink slime or any other technology shouldn’t expect consumers to roll over and accept it. They need to promote, brag and saturate microbial food safety claims in the marketplace. Otherwise, any farmer, processor or restaurant can be held hostage by a mere accusation – regardless of the science.

Shoppers will support honest information, instead of being told they have to become better educated about someone else’s limited perspective.

The Daily Show segment is available for U.S. viewers at http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-march-28-2012/march-28–2012—pt–2.

Repeat: rapid repeated reliable relevant food safety messages; repeat

Florida has only a few restaurants with flawless inspection scores, and chefs who run them offer some tough advice: Hire outside inspectors, treat the ice machine as a potential felon and become fanatical about details that others overlook.

Mark Brown, executive chef of The Sanctuary Golf Club on Sanibel Island, one of just a half-dozen kitchens to earn perfect inspection scores this past autumn, told Richard Mullins of Tampa Bay Online, "Are the Coke machine nozzles clean? Is the ice machine maintained? Are the trash cans clean? Because when you drag them through a kitchen, they’re a great way to transport waste and disease. This is something you have to train on every single day, over and over. … My first year here, I think the staff was ready to hang me."

To avoid that fate, the most rigorous restaurant operators get out front of the health department inspections. They contract private companies for extra inspections, with standards much tougher than the government’s.

"The good restaurants know the most important thing is to make the customer happy," said Beth Cannon, associate director of quality assurance for the inspection company Steritech Group Inc.

While some restaurants refrigerate soup in 5-gallon buckets, Brown said that’s far too large a container to cool down enough to prevent bacteria growth. So his chefs seal and date soup in small bags, and soak them in ice water before storage in the refrigerator.

With potentially risky items like oysters, his kitchen keeps records on every one for a year, so any problems can be tracked back to a particular harvester.

Cross-contamination happens in even the smallest instances.

For instance, if a dish-washing employee sprays off plates, loads them in the dishwashing machine and then forgets to wash his hands when unloading the machine, he’ll track potential illnesses to the clean plates.

If a kitchen worker stacks boxes of vegetables on the floor, those boxes will track germs from the floor into the refrigerator.

If a chef prepares patties of raw hamburger, even while wearing gloves, and wipes his hands on his apron, he can track potential bacteria and germs into the "hot" side of the kitchen when grilling burgers.

If a salad chef accidentally touches his nose and then grabs a head of lettuce, he can potentially transfer hepatitis A.
Training a kitchen full of employees on all the right practices isn’t simple, particularly with the high turnover in the restaurant industry.

Five Guys uses Steritech for periodic inspections, but it also employs "mystery eaters" to review each location at least twice a week, grading everything from the bathroom floors to the quality of the fries, said Jo Jo Jiampetti, a regional vice president for Five Guys in Tampa.

"You have to teach every day what the standards are, and hold everyone accountable."

60 sick with E. coli O157 in 10 states: it was Romaine lettuce (grown in California?) served at Schnucks salad bars by Mr. Green

A day after Missouri health types announced the source of the Schnucks-salad-bar-related E. coli O157 outbreak may never be found, the feds announced they found a source.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported today that as of Dec. 4, 2011, 60 persons infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli serotype O157:H7 had been reported from 10 states.

Collaborative investigative efforts of state, local, and federal public health and regulatory agencies indicate that romaine lettuce is the likely source of illnesses in this outbreak, and contamination likely occurred before the product reached retail stores.

CDC called Schnucks Chain A, and the farm the lettuce was traced to Farm A, without saying in what state the lettuce originated. But one of the Missouri health types did, saying a grower in California was suspected of being connected but records were “insufficient to complete the picture.”

The public reporting of this outbreak reeks of the Leafy Greens Cone of Silence – that the most noticeable achievement since the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement was created in the wake of the 2006 E. coli O157-in-spinach mess is the containment cone of silence that has descended upon outbreaks involving leafy greens.

Things didn’t sound quite right back on Oct. 28, 2011, when St. Louis County health officials first publicly confirmed that the source of the E. coli O157 strain that had sickened 23 people was foodborne, but that the investigation was ongoing. Though retailers have not been asked to pull any food, Schnucks voluntarily replaced or removed some produce in salad bars and shelves, beginning Oct. 26, 2011.

"Once we heard that the health department had declared an outbreak, we took some proactive steps with our food safety team to switch products out that recent history told us could be potential sources," said Schnucks spokeswoman Lori Willis.

A Schnucks store, Culinaria in downtown St. Louis, put a sign up on empty shelves that read in part, "Due to a voluntary recall on pre-packed lettuce, we will not be able to produce these pre-made salads. Be assured quality is our main concern. All of the lettuce on the salad bar is fresh and not involved with the recall."

As a retailer, Schnucks drew my attention earlier this year when it announced it was expanding its so-called Peace of Mind initiative from pricing to quality assurance with a new website, www.peaceofmindquality.com, that emphasizes the chain’s dedication to quality and food safety. Unfortunately, quality and safety are seemingly used interchangeably on the website when they are actually two different concepts.

A table of leafy green related outbreaks is available at http://bites.ksu.edu/leafy-greens-related-outbreaks.

I’m not feeling peace of mind.

More from the CDC report:

As of December 4, 2011, 60 persons infected with the outbreak strain of E. coli O157:H7 have been reported from10 states. The number of ill persons identified in each state is as follows: Arizona (1), Arkansas (2), Georgia (1), Illinois (9), Indiana (2), Kansas (3), Kentucky (1), Minnesota (3), Missouri (37), and Nebraska (1).

Among persons for whom information is available, illnesses began from October 10, 2011 to November 4, 2011. Ill persons ranged in age from 1 to 94 years, with a median age of 29 years old. Sixty-three percent were female. Among the 45 ill persons with available information, 30 (67%) were hospitalized, and 2 developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). No deaths have been reported.

Collaborative investigative efforts of state, local, and federal public health agencies indicate that romaine lettuce sold primarily at several locations of a single grocery store chain (Chain A) was the likely source of illnesses in this outbreak. Contamination likely occurred before the product reached grocery store Chain A locations.

Ill persons reported purchasing salads from salad bars at grocery store Chain A between October 5 and October 24, 2011. A total of 9 locations of grocery store Chain A were identified where more than one ill person reported purchasing a salad from the salad bar in the week before becoming ill. This included 2 separate locations where 4 ill persons reported purchasing a salad at each location. For locations where more than one ill person reported purchasing a salad from the salad bar and the date of purchase was known, dates of purchase were all within 4 days of other ill persons purchasing a salad at that same location. Chain A fully cooperated with the investigation and voluntarily removed suspected food items from the salad bar on October 26, 2011, out of an abundance of caution. Romaine lettuce served on salad bars at all locations of grocery store Chain A had come from a single lettuce processing facility via a single distributor. This indicates that contamination of romaine lettuce likely occurred before the product reached grocery store Chain A locations.

The FDA and several state agencies conducted traceback investigations for romaine lettuce to try to identify the source of contamination. Traceback investigations focused on ill persons who had eaten at salad bars at several locations of grocery store Chain A and ill persons at university campuses in Minnesota (1 ill person) and Missouri (2 ill persons). Traceback analysis determined that a single common lot of romaine lettuce harvested from Farm A was used to supply the grocery store Chain A locations as well as the university campus in Minnesota during the time of the illnesses. This lot was also provided to a distributor that supplied lettuce to the university campus in Missouri, but records were not sufficient to determine if this lot was sent to this university campus. Preliminary findings of investigation at Farm A did not identify the source of the contamination. Farm A was no longer in production during the time of the investigation.