PR before peer review, incomplete advice, damaging food safety reputation

My grade 7 teacher in Canada, Mrs. Patrick, was the grammar police and instilled a strong value in getting things right (write?). My wife has now taken over that role.

powell_soliI explain to students and my kids that grammar is like traffic signals: maybe it’s not efficient but it’s some rules we can agree on so that I can get to the idea of what you’re trying to express.

Science or evidence-based, has its own rules.

Whether it’s a grasp for headlines, funding or ego, press releases before publication continue, and continue to be a bad idea.

Food safety types can do better.

In Sept. 2000, I called Procter & Gamble to substantiate claims their consumer-oriented Fit Fruit and Vegetable Wash removed 99.9 per cent more residue and dirt than water alone.

The PR-thingies hooked me up with some scientists at P&G in Cincinnati, who verbally told me that sample cucumbers, tomatoes and the like were grown on the same farm in California, sprayed with chemicals that would be used in conventional production, and then harvested immediately and washed with Fit or water. The Fit removed 99.9 per cent more, or so the company claimed.

One problem. Many of the chemicals used had harvest-after dates, such as the one tomato chemical that was supposed to be applied at least 20 days before harvest.

That tidbit wasn’t revealed in the company PR accompanying Fit.

Back in 2000 I asked why the results hadn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and the P&G types said it was an important advance that had to be made available to consumers as soon as possible, without the delays and messiness of peer-review.

sorenne.hockeyThings haven’t changed much. What I still don’t quite comprehend is why researchers who do go to the effort of getting published in peer-reviewed journals – which isn’t easy – feel the need to share results publicly before peer review or publication. It lessens their effort.

Maybe it’s a culture thing.

Culture encompasses the shared values, morals, customary practices, inherited traditions, and prevailing habits of communities. It’s when one food service or farm or retail employee says to another, dude, wash your hands, without being told by the boss or the inspector.

Or one when PhD tells another PhD, press release before peer-review sorta sucks. And that’s the culture of science.

Or should be.

In July, 2014, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control took some bi-partisan hits for poor tracking of dangerous pathogens, to which director Tom Frieden responded the agency had corrected the specific defects cited in previous investigations, but had not realized there was a deeper problem with the culture of safety at CDC which he will now address.

For me it’s a hockey-coaching thing: try to do better than last week, have fun, and pay attention – before a 10-year-old runs over the 5-year-old. Keep your stick on the ice and don’t take wooden nickels.

And don’t produce food that makes people barf.

Press release before publication is always a bad idea – cold fusion?

 Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety who shops, cooks, ferments and coaches hockey from his home in Brisbane, Australia.

‘You just feel like you’re dying’ Food handlers cause 70% of norovirus outbreaks

Sunday has become hockey day.

It’s winter in Brisbane, and the locals are wearing parkas and Uggs as daytime temperatures struggle to climb above 80F. Sunday June 25, I was getting ready to take 5-year-old daughter Sorenne to weekly hockey practice when I promptly barfed after breakfast.

“But I’m the coach, I have to go.”

Amy the wife said, how can you preach that food workers shouldn’t show up to work sick when you won’t do it yourself?

She was right.

I stayed home.

The ice hockey world didn’t end (and I went and awesomely coached three hours of practice and games the next Sunday).

I realize the limitations when I, or the U.S Centers for Disease Control, tell the world, sick workers shouldn’t work. Economics and pride get in the way.

Liz Szabo writes in today’s USA Today that norovirus, the USA’s leading cause of foodborne illness, has become known as the “cruise ship virus” for causing mass outbreaks of food poisoning – and misery – on the high seas. Yet only about 1% of all reported norovirus outbreaks occur on cruise ships.

It might be more accurate to call it the “salad bar virus,” and not because customers are sneezing on the croutons.

But food handlers, such as cooks and waiters, cause about 70% of norovirus outbreaks related to contaminated food, mostly through touching “ready to eat” foods – such as sandwiches or raw fruit – with their bare hands, according to a new report from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 90% of contamination occurred during food preparation, and 75% of food involved in outbreaks was consumed raw.

Business practices in the food industry may contribute to the problem.

One in five restaurant workers admits having reported to work while sick with diarrhea and vomiting – the two main symptoms of norovirus – within the past year, the CDC says.

About 20 million Americans are sickened with norovirus every year, with a total of 48 million suffering food poisoning from all causes. The highly contagious family of viruses also causes up to 1.9 million doctor visits; 400,000 emergency room visits; up to 71,000 hospitalizations; and up to 800 deaths, mostly in young children or the elderly. Infections cost the country $777 million in health care costs.

norovirus-2Norovirus is wildly contagious.

As few as 18 viral particles can make people sick. In other words, a speck of viruses small enough to fit on the head of pin is potent enough to infect more than 1,000 people, according to the CDC report, released Tuesday. The virus can spread rapidly in close quarters, as well, such as dormitories, military barracks and nursing homes.

“Norovirus is one tough bug,” said CDC director Thomas Frieden.

Norovirus can make people violently ill so quickly that they don’t have time to reach a bathroom, says Doug Powell, a food safety expert in Brisbane, Australia, and author of People who get sick in public often expose many others. Norovirus also can live on surfaces, such as countertops and serving utensils, for up to two weeks (I’m told it’s up to six weeks, which is why I always refer journalists to others more knowledgable about certain topics instead of talking out of my ass).

Norovirus is also the Terminator of germs — very tough to kill. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers don’t work very well, says Lee-Ann Jaykus, a professor of food science at North Carolina State University. That makes frequent handwashing important.

But even cooking may not kill noroviruses, which can survive the freezer and cooking temperatures above 140 degrees, the CDC says.

CDC recommends that restaurants offer paid sick leave and require food workers to stay home when sick, remaining out of work for at least 48 hours after symptoms cease. Restaurants should train their staffs well and have on-call workers who can fill in for sick co-workers. Lastly, restaurants should require food handlers to use disposable gloves and wash their hands frequently.

That may be easier said than done, says Powell, who notes that few restaurant workers today get paid sick leave. Many earn minimum wage and can’t afford to miss work. Others fear being fired if they call in sick.

Some restaurants are doing more than others, Jaykus says. “The large retailers are well-aware (of norovirus) and working very hard,” Jaykus says. “Smaller restaurants have, of course, fewer resources.”

The only good news about norovirus?

Scientists are working on a vaccine, although it’s in early stage.

And norovirus is less serious than other foodborne germs, such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria, all of which have led to recalls of fresh and frozen produce in recent years, Powell says. Although norovirus can sicken people for two to three days, it’s not usually fatal.

“You just feel like you’re dying,” Powell says.

The full CDC report is available at


Encouraging thermometer use, one person at a time shuts down for Easter.

It’s the end of two weeks of school holidays, the weather in Brisbane is ideal, so everyone is at the beach.

We went to the arena.

We did go to the beach Friday, but Saturday was two different outings and sausage sizzles.

First it was leisure in a park down by the Brisbane River. Brisbane has numerous, fabulous parks outfitted with lots of electric grills, and open spaces for kids and adults alike. I had forgotten my thermometer but my brofriend remembered to bring the one I had given him.

thermometer.chicken.apr.14The grills aren’t the most efficient, so people were waiting for us to hurry up and get on with things. A couple saw us temping sausages with the tip-sensitive digital thermometer and proclaimed, what a great idea. They were preparing ginger-soy chicken, so I said, use the thermometer. We’ll get it back later. They were hooked.

Then it was a hockey tournament at a neighboring arena where Sorenne made her game debut, and I returned to coaching for the first time in nine years.

They also had a sausage sizzle as a fundraiser. I was too busy with the kids to ask about thermometers, but it was a great way to spend a Saturday evening.

Beach, hockey, thermometers – what’s not to like?


Parents baffled by doll that literally poops rainbows

As a father of five daughters, I’ve always tried to introduce some activity into their routine to balance all the girly stuff.

Sure Sorenne wears a pink sweater, but she plays hockey.

sorenne.hockeyShe’s also really into human anatomy videos on youtube, so maybe the Moxie Girls are for her.

TM, the brand that owns Bratz and Bratzillas, tells girls what it means to have moxie and the tagline “Be True, Be You.”

The Moxie Girls’ pet unicorns actually poop. But not just any poop, rainbow poop.

One commentator said “I suppose a doll with a pooping pet has some sort of educational value (might encourage potty training), but really, I think they could have done more. After all, it’s a UNICORN. Pooping rainbows is one thing, but if it doesn’t also fart moonbeams and sunshine, then really, it’s only half a unicorn.”


Hockey, cones and food safety

Hockey starts this weekend in Brisbane (that’s ice hockey) and I’ll be coaching and playing a little, and even brought my ice cones over from North America during my last trip (they’re called witch hats here; I can’t make this stuff up).

Apparently I have to sterilize them.

Contractors were forced to spray contaminated road cones in Mairehau, New Zealand, with disinfectant to prevent staff from getting sick.

Toilet paper and other sewage was still flowing out of a drain in the road yesterday morning. 

Jim Young, of Transfield Services, said some of the cones had been floating in the flood waters. They would be hosed down with a water-blaster once he had finished spraying them.

“We don’t want our guys to get sick from touching them before they eat lunch or anything pylon_display_imagelike that,” he said.

Smith said he saw footage on television of children playing in contaminated water, during the floods, which was “not ideal”.

In Missouri, about 40 people, including nearly half the roster of a minor league hockey team, got ill at a charity event Monday night, and health officials say a nasty stomach virus is the likely culprit.

The family bowl night at Harvest Lanes was a benefit for Autism Speaks. Members of the St. Charles Chill hockey team were on hand to sign autographs, and about 36 hours later, many of the players and front-office workers developed symptoms.

Doug Bolnick, a spokesman for the St. Charles County Health Department, said officials suspect the illness is the work of the norovirus.

Prevention and training are boring – and essential

I learned how to use an epi pen.

braun.sorenne.skate_.sept_.13-225x300And that all of my CPR training was about 30 years out of date.

As part of my subtle but ultimate quest to get more girls playing hockey (that’s ice hockey, not running or in-line hockey, they’re different) I participated in an 8-hour sports medic course on Saturday (far more training than most cities require staff to serve food that can kill).

When the instructor, who’s the medic for girls rugby league teams, got to the part about, if you’re there and have the knowledge, you have the responsibility to help, I glanced again at the leftover deli-based sandwiches that had been provided for lunch and noted they’d been out at least an hour after we had eaten.

I saw a refrigerator, so just got up and went to move the leftovers – that many were planning to take home.

But that fridge wasn’t cold.

I spoke up and said, if anyone wants to take those sandwiches home to their families, they need to be refrigerated; is there a refrigerator that works?

I briefly explained why, and how I had knowledge, so had a responsibility to act.

One of the hockey club dudes took the sandwiches and placed them in a working braunwynn.hockeyrefrigerator.

But the class of 10 was whispering, what an a-hole.

That’s the boringness of how tragedies are avoided.

Skating, seafood and the Queen’s swan found barbecued on riverbank

My mother and 20-year-old daughter Braunwynn began their trek back to Canada this morning. Braunwynn says she doesn’t know how she’ll ever eat seafood again in Ontario after the Brisbane indulgence.

We went skating, because Braunwynn had to teach Sorenne that princesses can wear hockey skates (it was B’s idea) and B kicked all the boys in the skating races and won. braun.sorenne.skate.sept.13The Aussies had never seen quite a thing.

We also ate kangaroo burgers. I temped them to 165F.

One country’s cultural norm is another’s ick factor.

But it’s sorta creepy that British police are investigating the killing and apparent barbecuing of one of Queen Elizabeth’s swans.

The bird was butchered, burnt and stripped of its flesh before the carcass was dumped on a riverbank near Windsor Castle, west of London, police and an animal charity said on Wednesday.

“It was done neatly, presumably to get at the meat.” 

All wild mute swans in Britain are considered the property of the crown and it is an offence to kill one.

Who wants a hockey puck for a roast?

I spent the last two hours doing my annual talk and chat session with summer public health students, invoking in them the capacity to care; public health’t glamorous, but it matters.

Contrary to what Kansas State University admin types may think, the stagecoaches manage to run through Brisbane at 1 a.m.

Somehow I also managed to comment on needle tenderized beef, while not physically in Manhattan (the Kansas version) even though I’ve been there the majority of the last four months.

And I made a hockey analogy.

I even had a guy visit me at the house yesterday to talk food safety, and he asked me to show him a hockey puck.

I did.

Elizabeth Weise writes in USA Today today that after years of food-safety concerns and at least five outbreaks of illness, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing that mechanically tenderized meat — 26% of all the beef sold in the USA — be labeled as such and that labels include cooking instructions.

Tenderizing meat mechanically involves forcing hundreds of tiny blades or needles through it to break up muscle fibers and make it more tender.

Unfortunately, it can also drive pathogens that might be on the surface, such as E. coli O157:H7, deep into the cut’s interior, where cooking may not kill them. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have braun.hockeybeen five E. coli outbreaks attributed to mechanically tenderized beef, sickening 174 people. Four died.

It’s impossible to tell just by looking that a cut of meat has undergone mechanical tenderization, said USDA Undersecretary Elisabeth Hagen.

“When people buy cube steak, you see the marks where the machinery has cubed up the steak,” Hagen said. “When people buy ground beef, they know they’re getting ground product. But when people order this product, they don’t know. And certainly, when people are ordering in a restaurant, they don’t know they’re ordering this product.”

She added, “A lot of people want a medium-rare steak. But if folks knew that the steak they’re buying might not be what they think it is, and might be in a higher risk category,” they might want it well done.

Some stores do label the product. Costco labels mechanically tenderized beef it sells as “blade tenderized.”

Until now, the USDA hadn’t required producers to label mechanically tenderized meat so consumers know what they’re buying. The new rules, to be announced Thursday, would require that mechanically tenderized products be labeled. The labels would include cooking instructions.

Hagen said mechanically tenderized meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees, then allowed to sit for at least three life.hockeyminutes after it is taken off the heat to insure any potential pathogens are killed.

Canada has rules in the works to require labeling of mechanically tenderized meat. Last October, an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 linked to meat processor XL Foods sickened 18 people and led to the country’s largest beef recall, almost 2.5 million pounds of meat. Some of it was mechanically tenderized.

Some food-safety specialists aren’t sure labeling would make much difference.

“We can’t get people to use thermometers on steaks. Why would they do it for needle-tenderized meat?” said Doug Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.

Cooking blade-tenderized meat to 145 degrees, the temperature required to kill E. coli, would “turn it into a hockey puck,” Powell said. “Why would someone pay the premium for steak or roast and then turn it into a hockey puck?”