Another fairytale: Informed choice on food safety

The paper in Adelaide wrote an opinion piece last week about how consumers basically make faith-based decisions when it comes to food safety.

I recycled an old op-ed in response, and still wondering why the same issues haven’t gained traction after 20 years of publicity in Australia.

cantaloupe.salmonellaThe Advertiser editorial thingies wrote that irony can be really ironic, given that the government department charged with upholding and maintaining food standards in SA treats the public like mushrooms.

By keeping the public in the dark by refusing to release the names of the 621 food outlets in breach of hygiene rules last year, SA Health is denying consumers the right to make an informed choice.

While it is good enough for the NSW State Government to identify offending premises, those who water their gardens with human effluent, sell out of date food and have cockroach-infested kitchens in SA apparently deserve anonymity.

There is more than a whiff of double standards surrounding the secrecy of the data held by SA Health.

On one hand (who writes this crap?), the public is not allowed to know which of their local fast food outlets is cutting food hygiene corners by selling six-day-old schnitzels, and on the other, it wasted no time last week issuing a warning about NT- grown rockmelons being the apparent source of a food poisoning outbreak in SA.

Surely the public is allowed to know the identity of a food retailer that has been found guilty of a major breach of food standards that could potentially have the same impact as eating the dodgy rockmelon.

For a food outlet to be warned several times about using effluent to water gardens simply beggars belief.

SA Health’s repeated warnings to the business owner were akin to being slapped with a wet lettuce leaf.

If such a practice can continue for such an extended period of time, the public can only wonder just what sort of heinous breach of food safety regulations a business must commit to be jumped on immediately.

My response was:

I coach little kids’ (ice) hockey in Brisbane.

For that voluntary pleasure, I had to complete 16 hours of certification training, in addition to the 40 hours of training I completed in Canada to coach a travel team.

To produce or serve food in Australia requires … nothing.

Restaurants and food service establishments are a significant source of the foodborne illness that strikes up to 20 per cent of citizens in so-called developed countries each and every year.

After helping develop and watching the mish-mash of federal, state and local approaches to restaurant inspection and disclosure in a number of western countries for the past 15 years, I can draw two broad conclusions:

  • Anyone who serves, prepares or handles food, in a restaurant, nursing home, day care center, supermarket or local market needs some basic food safety training; and,
  • the results of restaurant and other food service inspections must be made public.

There should be mandatory food handler training, for say, three hours, that could happen in school, on the job, whatever. But training is only a beginning. Just because you tell someone to wash the poop off their hands before they prepare salad for 100 people doesn’t mean it is going to happen; weekly outbreaks of hepatitis A confirm this. There are a number of additional carrots and sticks that can be used to create a culture that values microbiologically safe food and a work environment that rewards hygienic behavior. But mandating basic training is a start.

Next is to verify that training is being translated into safe food handling practices through inspection. And those inspection results should be publicly available.

A philosophy of transparency and openness underlies the efforts of many local health units across North America in seeking to make available the results of restaurant inspections. In the absence of regular media exposes, or a reality TV show where camera crews follow an inspector into a restaurant unannounced, how do consumers — diners — know which of their favorite restaurants are safe?

Cities, counties and states are using a blend of web sites, letter or numerical grades on doors, and providing disclosure upon request. In Denmark, smiley or sad faces are affixed to restaurant windows.

Publicly available grading systems rapidly communicate to diners the potential risk in dining at a particular establishment and restaurants given a lower grade may be more likely to comply with health regulations in the future to prevent lost business.

More importantly, such public displays of information help bolster overall awareness of food safety amongst staff and the public — people routinely talk about this stuff. The interested public can handle more, not less, information about food safety.

Even in New South Wales and Queensland, results are only posted voluntarily. 

So if an outlet sucks at food safety, they don’t have to tell anyone.

Toronto, Los Angeles and New York have had mandatory disclosure, on the doors for years.

Adelaide can figure it out.

And instead of waiting for politicians to take the lead, the best restaurants, those with nothing to hide and everything to be proud of, will go ahead and make their inspection scores available — today.

About time: Boston restaurants could face steep fine if they don’t post food safety

Matt Rocheleau of the Boston Globe reports that Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh is asking the City Council for approval to fine restaurants $300 per day if they fail to post their food safety inspection letter grades in their storefronts.

ny_rest_inspect_disclosureRestaurants and food trucks would have a year to comply after the launch of the letter-grade system being developed for restaurants citywide, though the grades would be available on the city’s website.

The city’s Inspectional Services Department has been developing the program. Officials there have said restaurants would receive either an A, B, or C grade.

The program would resemble rating systems that New York, Los Angeles, and other cities have been using since as early as the late 1990s. Locally, Newton launched a similar program in the fall that requires numerical ratings to be displayed inside restaurants.

Boston officials have previously told the Globe that letter grades will be issued to all of the city’s roughly 3,000 food establishments, including restaurants, food trucks, cafeterias, and other food vendors.

When an establishment gets a low grade, inspectors will return within 30 days to reinspect, city officials have said. If the violations are corrected, the city would bump up the grade accordingly. If the issues remain, the grade would stand until the next routine inspection, officials have said.

Restaurants would be subject to the $300 fines if they fail to post their letter grades “immediately after receipt, unobstructed, at eye-level, facing outward on an exterior-facing wall or window within five feet of the main entrance in the interior of the restaurant,” according to Walsh’s proposal to the council, which was previously reported on by the Universal Hub website.

The council is due to take up the matter at a meeting in City Hall on Wednesday.

The new rating system would not cost the city any extra money, city officials have said, because it would calculate grades based on the existing system used to inspect restaurants.

 

About time: Pittsburgh unveils updated restaurant inspection stickers

The Allegheny County Health Department is making it easier for restaurant patrons to get a glimpse of what’s going on in the kitchen before deciding where to eat.

stickers0719-restaurant-inspected-bizOn Monday, the county unveiled new inspection stickers for restaurant doors that include QR codes — two-dimensional bar codes — so that people with smartphones can scan the codes and get instant access to a restaurant’s inspection reports. 

The decals — which include green stickers for “Inspected and Permitted” facilities; yellow “Consumer Alert” stickers for when conditions may pose a health risk; and red “Closed” stickers for facilities shut down for serious health code violations until fixes are made — also have been redesigned in an easier-to-read format.

“The updated placards will provide county residents with a clear and easy-to-read status of the facilities they’re considering when making dining choices, while also providing easy access to the reports,” health department director Karen Hacker said in a statement.

Restaurant inspection reports have been available for residents to view online using a search engine on the health department’s website since 2007. The QR codes will provide a direct link to the search page.

stickers0719-restaurant-consumer-alertstickers-0719-closed-resaturant-biz

What about suppliers? Eating safe key to newerer NZ food certification scheme

Auckland Council is rolling out a new-look verification and certification scheme called “Eatsafe” in response to Food Act 2014 standards that came into effect on 1 March 2016.

eat.safely.auckland“Eatsafe is designed to protect and reassure the public by providing more transparency around food safety and suitability in Auckland,” says Bylaws and Regulatory Committee Chair, Councillor Calum Penrose.

The new Food Act 2014 promotes food safety by focusing on the processes of food production and not the premises where the food is made.

“Our industry-leading system recognizes that every one of the more than 8,000 food businesses in Auckland is different, with differing levels of measurement required, depending on the type of food premises,” he says.

The new grading system assesses each business based on food safety, looking at cleaning, cooking, chilling of food and operator conduct, as well as food suitability issues such as food composition and labelling.

“With the increasing number and diversity of food outlets, and the rising popularity of eating out in Auckland, more people will be looking for the Eatsafe “A – Excellent” rating on the wall. Of course, under the new system, a “B” or “C” rating will also be a passing grade and quite appropriate for some types of outlets,” says Councillor Penrose.

Auckland Council’s current blue food safety certificates will be phased out over the three years and food operators serving alcohol have until June 2017 to switch.

 

Fail: Restaurant inspection disclosure programs that remain voluntary

Toronto, Los Angeles and New York City, along with hundreds of jurisdictions have figured this out: public health should disclose public health ratings, at the door, when people make up their mind about entering an establishment to brisbane.stars.scoresspend their money.

But the UK and several Australian states go through this convulsed process where they have scores on doors, but restaurants only have to post them if they want to, and who knows about food in school or hospital cafeterias.

The Brits were never ones for public disclosure (see Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk, 1997, or Yes, Minister).

Australian newspapers are reporting that customers are demanding voluntary food hygiene ratings become mandatory across New South Wales restaurants.

Same in the UK.

As someone who has been involved in these public disclosure efforts, including NSW’s back in the day, and advocated mandatory public disclosure from the beginning, it’s painful to watch the contortions.

According to The Border Mail, “Some retail food businesses in NSW display their  rating in the window, but only if their council signs up to the program and only if the business is happy with its rating.

Councils and industry groups are calling on the NSW Food Authority initiative, Scores on Doors, which issues certificates with three, four and five-star ratings during routine health inspections, to be made mandatory to standardise food safety across NSW and give customers more consistent information about hygiene at food establishments.

Since the program was launched in 2010, only about one-third of local governments in NSW have adopted the system.

North Sydney Council is the latest to announce that from July 1, following annual food safety inspections, it will begin issuing certificates that eateries can then choose to display.

“If a restaurant is displaying the purple and green poster, it has met minimum hygiene and food safety standards during the last food inspection. If it’s not displaying one, they can ask why,” North Sydney mayor Jilly Gibson said.

Wok On Inn at The Rocks, which scored five stars, has been displaying the certificate since the end of last year, and waiter Sunny Dongdang said he thinks that all businesses should be required to do so.

The best places will always come forward.

Don’t reveal our dirty secrets, beg French chefs

As a postscript to our recent trip to France, friend of the barfblog.com Albert Amgar, who we had the extraordinary pleasure of meeting, forwarded a note from a French colleague who argued that “I think that too much information on albert(food safety) problems creates uselessly an alarming climate of insecurity.”

Fail.

I have a vague understanding of this class-based approach to disclosure.

In 1994, as a graduate student, I was invited to a pre-G7 summit in Naples, Italy. The idea was to bring in a scientist and a journalist from each of the G7 countries to discuss medical conditions and whether patients should be told.

I was the scientist and journalist from Canada.

There was a lot of posturing from the Italian hosts, a lot of drinking and eating, and very little work.

It was a lovely weekend.

The Americans, the Brits and me (the Canadians)  agreed on full disclosure.

The other countries, including France, said their patients couldn’t handle it.

Guess things haven’t changed much.

According to The Times Paris on July 20, 2016, government wants to tell diners the truth by publishing results of health and safety inspections on the agricultural ministry’s website – chefs are aghast.

They are even more appalled at a proposal to stick a label in the window of their restaurants that will say whether hygiene is ‘very satisfactory’ ‘satisfactory’ , to improve’ or ‘to be corrected urgently’. Given that only a few restaurants are likely to be deemed ‘very satisfactory’ , the profession fears for its reputation.

Restaurateurs are campaigning to prevent the plan from being implemented next month. Hubert Jan, chairman of the Union of Hotel Trades and Industries, said that his members were already losing money because of France’s poor economic performance and terrorism fears. ‘The profession, which was badly hit by a fall in custom after the terror attacks, does not need to be thrown to the lions and stigmatised.’

The scheme was drawn up amid increasing concern over restaurant hygiene. In summer 2013, health inspectors ordered the closure of 252 establishments. In Paris, 321 were shut last year. Among the concerns of inspectors were sushi leƞ in the sun, broken fridges and food past sell-by date. The agriculture ministry tried out its ‘transparency of food hygiene’ programme in the capital, testing 367 restaurants. 34% were deemed to have a good level of hygiene, 54% were ‘acceptable’ and 8% were told they had to improve. The figures alarmed restaurateurs, who say that the ratings could be posted on internet guides and remain there even after failings have been rectified. They also fear diners will shun establishments with a label on their doors, unless it says ‘very satisfactory’.

From the duh files: Arizona paper says give diners more information on health inspections

Emery Cowan of the Arizona Daily Sun writes that if a restaurant has print out a calorie count for most meals on the menu, why not a letter grade for how safely it prepared its food?

toronto.red.yellow.green.grades.may.11That’s one of the reactions to our story earlier this month reviewing the Coconino County’s food inspection procedures and listing some of the more serious offenders. We found that although most eating establishments were being inspected twice a year and some even forced to close temporarily, diners were kept largely in the dark. A closed restaurant must post a notice but is not required to give a reason, and the public health department’s bimonthly report usually comes out well after any violations – large or small — have occurred.

Most restaurants never come close to being closed and their violations are relatively minor and fixed almost immediately. What benefit is it to diners to have outdated information about infractions that don’t rise to the level of a health threat?

We suppose that if a letter grade was the only information available to diners, it could be misleading. But in the age of the Internet, the Health Department can post a lot more information if diners are interested. They just have to know where to look.

But unfortunately, Coconino County’s website has no portal through which citizens can obtain information about the results of a restaurant’s inspection or even lodge a complaint. Even when a restaurant like China Star, which has been forced to close twice in the past five years, posts a notice of closure, there is no way for diners to find the 16 complaints it received since 2009 or the multiple critical violations it accumulated.

A brief tour of the Internet turns up dozens of cities with web sites containing interactive public databases of restaurant inspections and enforcement actions. Many have explanations of the scoring and ranking methods, the most commonly cited critical and noncritical violations and the risk associated with different types of violations.

We urge county health officials to put a restaurant inspection public database on the fast track.

Meet barfblog’s French correspondent

Had the pleasure of finally meeting Albert Amgar, mirobiologist and frequent French correspondent for barfblog.com.

albertWe had lunch, hung out in his family’s apartment, toured old Paris and found out there really are other people in the world who have to have a couple of hours on the internet just to talk about food safety stuff.

Amy said the similarities were somewhat overwhelming.

I thought it was great.

Albert said France was terrible at public disclosure.

Oui.

 

Yelp reviews & Anchorage restaurant health reports just a click away

Next time you look up a restaurant on your phone you can find the business in Yelp reviews along with its food inspection report.

ny_rest_inspect_disclosureMonday the city released more information from its “open data” initiative, which aims to make information more easily available on multiple platforms.

Anchorage food inspection results will now be available on Yelp.com and on Muni.org. The city says information is provided with a LIVES (Local Inspector Value-Entry Specification) open data source link to Yelp.

Yelp will also include a summary of the violations for the past three years of inspections.

“You’re already looking for restaurant information why not put the restaurant inspection data there instead of having to go to the muni site, just give you more information where people are looking for it,” said Brendan Babb, from the city’s Chief Innovation Office.

 

NPR: Greenhouse tomatoes and news for the comatose

I always liked it when Stephen Colbert’s alter ego referred to U.S. National Public Radio as state-sponsored jazz.

jazz.street.montpellier.jun.16It seemed so apt.

So 20 years after greenhouse tomatoes from Leamington, Ontario, Canada, became a big thing in the U.S., Dan Charles of NPR has driven to Leamington, to document the biggest concentration of greenhouses in North America.

I’d rather listen to the real French acoustic jazz playing outside my window in Montpellier (right, exactly as shown).

The NPR story is a puff-piece, soothing to the ears and palate (journalists have a more suitable description) that fails to mention the June 6, 2016 ruling in which Kingsville, Ontario-based Mucci Pac Ltd., Mucci International Marketing and two of its executives were ordered to pay $1.5 million in fines in a case filed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for mislabeling Mexican produce as Canadian-grown.

In addition to the fine, the companies will operate under a probation period for three years.

CFIA filed charges against the Mucci companies, general manager Danny Mucci and vice president of sales Joe Spano in 2014. The charges involved fraudulent misrepresentation of country of origin for imported peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers from November 2011 to January 2013.

When the charges were filed, CFIA named the public at large and three retailers — Costco Wholesale, Loblaw Cos. and Sobeys Inc. — as the victims of the misrepresentation.

Mucci International Marketing and Mucci Pac each pleaded guilty to three violations of Canada’s Food and Drugs Act and the Canada Agricultural Products Act, according to CFIA.

Mucci and Spano each pleaded guilty to a violation of the Canada Agricultural Products Act.

In a June 7 statement, the Mucci companies said CFIA investigators found “anomalies in our computer records.”

tomato“We take responsibility for those mistakes and have promised to make every reasonable effort to ensure that this does not occur in the future,” according to the statement.

The companies said that they were guilty of “regulatory offenses,” which is not the same as admitting they committed a crime.

In a statement, the Leamington-based Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers said the mislabeling of produce is an issue “of great concern” to its grower members.

“We view the convictions as a serious matter, and we will be reviewing the evidence presented in this case and will take whatever actions that we deem appropriate to protect the sector, our producers and consumers.”

Uh huh.

Here’s a couple of more scientific things to consider.

Poop in the greenhouse: Survival of pathogens

Animal manure provides benefits to agriculture but may contain pathogens that contaminate ready-to-eat produce.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards include 90- or 120-day intervals between application of manure and harvest of crop to minimize risks of pathogen contamination of fresh produce. Data on factors affecting survival of Escherichia coli in soils under greenhouse conditions are needed.

Three separate studies were conducted to evaluate survival of nonpathogenic E. coli (gEc) and attenuated E. coli O157:H7 (attO157) inoculated at either low (4 log CFU/ml) or high (6 log CFU/ml) populations over 56 days. Studies involved two pot sizes (small, 398 cm3; large, 89 liters), three soil types (sandy loam, SL; clay loam, CL; silt loam, SIL), and four amendments (poultry litter, PL; dairy manure liquids, DML; horse manure, HM; unamended). Amendments were applied to the surface of the soil in either small or large containers.

Study 1, conducted in regularly irrigated small containers, showed that populations of gEc and attO157 (2.84 to 2.88 log CFU/g) in PL-amended soils were significantly (P < 0.05) greater than those in DML-amended (0.29 to 0.32 log CFU/g [dry weight] [gdw]) or unamended (0.25 to 0.28 log CFU/gdw) soils; soil type did not affect E. coli survival.

food-art-tomatoResults from study 2, in large pots with CL and SIL, showed that PL-amended soils supported significantly higher attO157 and gEc populations compared with HM-amended or unamended soils.

Study 3 compared results from small and large containers that received high inoculum simultaneously. Overall, in both small and large containers, PLamended soils supported higher gEc and attO157 populations compared with HM-amended and unamended soils. Populations of attO157 were significantly greater in small containers (1.83 log CFU/gdw) than in large containers (0.65 log CFU/gdw) at week 8, perhaps because small containers received more regular irrigation than large pots. Regular irrigation of small pots may have affected E. coli persistence in manure-amended soils.

Overall, PL-amended soils in both small and large containers supported E. coli survival at higher populations compared with DML-, HM-, or unamended soils.

Survival and Persistence of Nonpathogenic Escherichia coli and Attenuated Escherichia coli O157:H7 in Soils Amended with Animal Manure in a Greenhouse Environment

Journal of Food Protection®, Number 6, June 2016, pp. 896-1055, pp. 913-921(9)

Sharma, Manan; Millner, Patricia D.; Hashem, Fawzy; Camp, Mary; Whyte, Celia; Graham, Lorna; Cotton, Corrie P.

http://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/iafp/jfp/2016/00000079/00000006/art00003

Dunking tomatoes: Potential for Salmonella internalization

Salmonella bacteria may internalize into tomato pulp when warm tomatoes from the field are submerged into colder water.

Several washing steps may follow the initial washing and packing of tomatoes at the packinghouses; the potential for internalization into tomatoes in subsequent washing steps when tomatoes have a cooler pulp temperature is unknown. Our objective was to evaluate Salmonella internalization into mature green and red tomatoes with ambient (21°C) and refrigeration (4°C) pulp temperatures when they were submerged into water at various temperature differentials, simulating repacking and fresh-cut operations.

Red (4°C and 21°C) and mature green (21°C) tomatoes were submerged (6 cm) into a six-strain Salmonella cocktail (6 log CFU/ml) and maintained at ±5 and 0°C temperature differentials for varying time intervals, ranging from 30 s to 5 min. Following submersion, tomatoes were surface sterilized using 70% ethanol, the stem abscission zone and blossom end epidermis were removed, and cores were recovered, separated into three segments, and analyzed. Salmonella populations in the segments were enumerated by most probable number (MPN).

The effects of temperature differential and maturity on Salmonella populations were analyzed; results were considered significant at a P value of ≥0.5. Internalized populations were not significantly different (P ≥0.5) across temperature differentials. Salmonella internalization was seen in tomatoes under all treatment conditions and was highest in the segment immediately below the stem abscission zone. However, populations were low (typically >1 log MPN per segment) and varied greatly across temperature differentials. This suggests that the temperature differential between tomatoes and water beyond the initial packinghouse may be less important than submersion time in Salmonella internalization.

Influence of temperature differential between tomatoes and postharvest water on Salmonella internalization

Journal of Food Protection®, Number 6, June 2016, pp. 896-1055, pp. 922-928(7)

Turner, Ashley N.; Friedrich, Loretta M.; Danyluk, Michelle D.

http://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/iafp/jfp/2016/00000079/00000006/art00004

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