Food safety indifference

When I repeat a breakout drill on the ice rink for 6-9-year-olds playing hockey – in Australia — I can see the parents rolling their eyes, yet the same parents marvel at the improvement when it comes to games.

powell.food.safe.indiffIt takes time. It takes effort. It takes fun.

I’ve been playing, coaching and sometimes administrating hockey for almost 50 years.

I’ve been playing, coaching and sometimes administrating microbial food safety things for 23 years (I’m old – two grandsons).

There’s not much difference.

Except one group is little kids trying to learn things, and the other is adults, paid money, who seem to want to make money.

And not learn.

Food safety indifference is the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my professoring or professional career: How to get people to care in the absence of an outbreak?

I’ve had the good fortune to work with industry types around the globe who recognized risk and were proactive – but it was really about trade, not fewer sick people.

indifferenceFrom Sara Lee in 1998 to Maple Leaf Foods in 2008 to Blue Bell today, companies act with shock and compassion when they find out they sickened people – in all these cases with Listeria — but a reflective glance is more critical.

They all had Listeria positives, but no one got sick yesterday, so the assumption is there’s a greater probability no one will get sick tomorrow.

Nice approach, until you get caught.

In Sept. 2014, 130 Canadians were sickened with E. coli O157 in pork.

Not the usual vehicle.

When a Canadian television station tried to do a follow-up in 2015, they were blocked by government and industry at every step.

Global News went through a years-long access-to-information process to obtain incident reports on E. coli found in Canadian food plants, most of it redacted.

How is it that 22 years after Jack-in-the-Box, North Americans seem to be adopting an attitude of indifference to food safety?

There’s lots of outbreaks, and communications research would suggest people are overloaded, so what’s a food safety type to do?

There is so much bad food safety advice that circulates in the PR-driven media, I’m not sure: How many years can anyone spend saying, you’re scientifically full of crap, stop it.

Food safety types need to persevere against the push for profit and stick with the message and the medium.

The best companies will do more than have manufactured soundbites about how food safety is their number 1 priority.

It doesn’t match up with reality, and food safety types, you’ll be needed sooner than you think.

Make food safety data public; market microbial food safety at retail; and repeat.

We won the game last week because the kids knew the drill, we’d practiced it, and we had fun.

Food safety should be the same.

Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety at the University of Guelph in Canada and Kansas State University in the U.S., who shops, cooks and ferments from his home in Brisbane, Australia.

dpowell29@gmail.com

0478 222 221

Listeria raw pet food recall…with a twist

Friend and fellow hockey aficionado, Scott Weese writes in his Worms & Germs Blog that the recent recall of Stella & Chewy’s products because of Listeria contamination is noteworthy.

stella.chewy'sWhy?

Because their food is treated with high pressure pasteurization (HPP). That’s a process that uses high pressure to destroy bacteria. My typical line is that I consider HPP-treated food to be similar to commercial cooked products in terms of risk of contamination and public health concerns. Yet, I add in the disclaimer that actual evidence of effectiveness on pet food seems to be limited. It makes sense that it would work; however, various factors impact the effectiveness of HPP so companies should have specific data that show their process works.

So, the big question here isn’t ‘why were bacteria in the food’? It’s raw, bacteria are common contaminants.

The question is ‘why were live bacteria in the food”? Figuring out how Listeria made it through processing is critically important. Hopefully there’s a real investigation into this.

There are a few main scenarios that I can come up with, and they vary greatly in their concern.

Post-treatment contamination: Careful review of the manufacturing process and testing (culture) of various environmental surfaces would typically be part of in investigation of this area. If this was the problem, things such as physical or procedural changes and more QC testing might be indicated.

Ineffective HPP: There could be two different scenarios.

-One is a breakdown in the process, with equipment problems, human error or some similar issue preventing an effective method from working. This is a problem but would presumably be fixable.

-The other (more concerning) one is that the procedure they use is not actually adequately effective.

Figuring out those is important to reduce the risk and help people make informed decisions about buying raw products.

Going public: Yes, Blue Bell sucks at risk analysis

Food safety experts, puzzling over the earliest days of Blue Bell Creameries’ response to a finding of listeria in some of its products, were confused.

blue.bell.scoopsIn mid-February, company workers began quietly reclaiming products from retailers and institutional customers such as hospitals. That was about a month before the iconic Texas-based ice-cream maker announced its first product recall in 108 years.

The stealth approach, called a withdrawal, came before any illness had been linked to the tainted ice cream. A withdrawal, which generally is used for minor problems, requires no broad notice to the public.

While the state health department called the withdrawal acceptable, some food safety experts are questioning why the public was not made aware of Blue Bell’s issues sooner.

“With something like this, I don’t understand how they got away with doing a withdrawal,” said Cliff Coles, president of California Microbiological Consulting Inc. “Withdrawal is not nearly as strong of language as a recall. If you knew that you had listeria, why wasn’t it a recall?

“I think they could have stepped up to the plate a whole lot quicker and done a whole lot more to protect the consuming public,” he added. “They pussyfooted around what they should have done in the first place.”

He and other food safety experts said they were unaware of any past cases in which a withdrawal, rather than a public recall, was used in a case in which a pathogen such as listeria was found in a ready-to-eat food.

Blue Bell, which first announced the listeria issue in a March 13 recall notice, has declined to go into detail about the withdrawal, citing pending litigation.

Blue Bell has been criticized for moving slowly to alert the public to the magnitude of its problem. The March 13 recall notice came as a terse, six-paragraph statement that pointed the finger at a specific production line that put out a “limited” amount of product. The release noted that “all products produced by this machine were withdrawn. Our Blue Bell team members recovered all involved products in stores and storage.”

listeria4Asked if that means 100 percent of the amount distributed was reclaimed, and that none of the product ended up in the hands of consumers, the company declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

That’s a key point. Food safety experts said a withdrawal would only be appropriate if the company could guarantee that it could account for 100 percent of the product that left the plant.

“Even if one [listeria-tainted] box was sold, at that point, the mechanism is no longer withdrawal,” said Mansour Samadpour, president of Seattle-based IEH Laboratories, a food consulting firm. “It has to be a recall. You have to announce it so anyone who purchased it would know not to consume it.”

“The key there is 100 percent,” he said.

In emailed answers to questions from The Dallas Morning News, Blue Bell challenged the notion that it did not move quickly enough to protect public health.

“From the moment we found out about a presumptive positive [listeria] test on February 13, we began working with regulators and immediately retrieved (we call this a withdrawal) the products that were on the market, which had been produced on a specific machine,” the company said. “That machine was already down for maintenance, so no more products were produced on that machine, and it has since been retired.

“As soon as we were notified on February 13, we notified FDA, and began instructing our employees to recover the products in question, which had been distributed to institutional and retail sales accounts,” the company said. “We went to those account locations and withdrew the products.”

Ignoring the safety: NZ company guilty of supplying Listeria-infected meat to hospital

We won’t get caught. No one got sick yesterday, so there’s a greater chance no one will get sick today.

These basics of of the human psyche continue to undermine tragedies from Bhopal to BP to the Challenger and food safety.

But with all the toys and technology, you’ll be found out – so act accordingly, even if decent humanity is not enough against the directive of profit.

A meat processor, its director and an employee have admitted selling Listeria-contaminated meat to the Hawke’s Bay Hospital and omitting to listeria4provide test results showing meat had tested positive.

The Hawke’s Bay District Health Board discovered cold ready to eat meats supplied by the company was contaminated in July 2012, after a number of Listeria cases had been linked to the hospital kitchen.

The outbreak claimed the life of 68-year-old Patricia Hutchinson on June 9 that year, and contributed to the death of an 81-year-old woman on July 9. Two other people were infected.

Bay Cuisine has pleaded guilty to charges laid under the Food Act and was not charged in connection with the Listeria infections.

When the health board discovered a link between the infections and the hospital kitchen it sent 62 unopened plastic pouches of Bay Cuisine meat products to ESR for testing. All the pouches were found to contain Listeria.

A summary of facts complied by the Ministry for Primary Industries said the company had the contract to supply the hospital since 2002.

The summary states that on July 9, 2012 the DHB requested copies of all test results Bay Cuisine had carried out for Listeria. Production manager Christopher Mackie replied by telling the DHB a batch of corned silverside had tested negative for Listeria, when in fact it had tested “presumptive positive”.

The following day an officer from the Ministry, investigating the Listeria cases at the hospital, requested test results. Mackie sent these on July 13 but again omitted reports showing that some products had tested “presumptive positive”.

But analysis of cellphone text messages between MacKie and company director Garth Wise show that on the evening of July 12 Wise had sent a text to Mackie suggesting that he “hold back the presumptive listeria ones [results] as there is only 3 or 4 of them and we just send the good”.

A subsequent search of the Bay Cuisine premises by the Ministry found the company had not provided the original, correct spreadsheet to the Ministry. This spreadsheet showed positive Listeria tests for meat products on June 18 and July 10.

Bay Cuisine, Wise and Mackie appeared in Napier District Court on Friday.

Through its lawyer Jonathan Krebs the company pleaded guilty to five representative charges of selling contaminated food, one charge of suppressing test results and one charge of omitting to provide information to the Ministry. Mackie pleaded guilty to one charge of suppressing test results and one of omitting information. Wise pleaded guilty to one charge of omitting information.

More than 140 other charges were dropped by the Ministry. The company and the men vacated not-guilty pleas that had entered a year ago.

Other charges to which the company pleaded guilty related to meats it had provided to various outlets between May and July 2012.

The company faces a fine of up to $500,000 on the charges of deception and omitting information and fines of up to $5000 for each of the other five charges. Wise and Mackie faces a maximum fine of $100,000.

Good Seed Inc. recalls soybean sprouts due to Listeria

Raw sprouts, you always deliver news to food safety nerds.

(not so) Good Seed Inc. of Springfield is voluntarily recalling all packages of soybean sprouts and mung bean sprouts because they have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

Mung-bean-sprouts-in-bowlThe following products are being recalled by the firm.

1-lb bags of soybean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled “GOODSEED Soy Bean Sprouts” “Keep Refrigerated” with a UPC Code of “21111  10035” produced on or after May 8, 2015.

1-lb bags of mung bean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled “GOODSEED Mung Bean Sprouts” “Keep Refrigerated” with a UPC code of “21111 20136” produced on or after May 8, 2015.

2-lb bags of soybean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled “GOODSEED Soy Bean Sprouts” “Keep Refrigerated” with a UPC Code of “21112 58772” produced on or after May 8, 2015.

2-lb bags of mung bean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled “GOODSEED Mung Bean Sprouts” “Keep Refrigerated” with a UPC code of “21111 25871” produced on or after May 8, 2015.

10-lb bags of soybean sprouts in black plastic bags labeled with a sticker “GOODSEED Soy Bean Sprouts” produced on or after May 8, 2015.

10-lb bags of mung bean sprouts in clear plastic bags labeled with a sticker “GOODSEED Mung Bean Sprouts” produced on or after May 8, 2015.

These items were distributed to retail stores in Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey.

The contamination was discovered through surveillance monitoring coordinated by the Virginia Rapid Response Team (RRT), Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Testing by the Virginia Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services revealed the presence of Listeria monocytogenes in the product.

‘No food is safe’ Blue Bell, industry, flout Listeria guidelines

I treat all food as a risk, because I know how it’s produced, I’m familiar with the outbreaks, and I don’t get invited to dinner much.

But I eat (probably too much).

blue.bell.creameriesBlue Bell Creameries, according to the Houston Chronicle, ignored critical parts of federal recommendations aimed at preventing exactly the kind of foodborne illness that thrust the Texas institution into crisis this year.

Among the most straightforward: If listeria shows up in the plant, check for it in the ice cream.

The draft guidelines for fighting the bacteria inside cold food plants were published seven years ago. They were optional and have yet to be finalized but nonetheless provide a road map for hunting and destroying the bug.

Ice cream companies large and small have flouted the guidelines.

Blue Bell “is no better or no worse than probably 90 percent of the rest of the companies,” said Mansour Samadpour, whose IEH Laboratories runs testing programs and crisis consulting for food producers.

Three ice cream makers got into trouble with listeria within the last year: Snoqualmie Ice Cream in Washington state, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Ohio and the much larger Blue Bell. It’s among the top purveyors of frozen treats in the United States. Of the other big companies, Unilever, which makes Breyers and Ben & Jerry’s, declined to say whether it follows the 2008 guidance. Nestlé S.A., which produces Häagen-Dazs and Dreyers, also wouldn’t say. Wells Enterprises Inc., maker of Blue Bunny, didn’t return messages.

The 2008 document, called “Guidance for Industry: Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Refrigerated or Frozen Ready-To-Eat Foods,” laid out a plan to attack one of the most ubiquitous and pernicious microbes in the environment. It lives in soil and animal feed. Refrigeration provides little deterrent to growth. It survives freezing. Once it enters a plant, it’s so hard to remove that, in extreme cases, entire facilities have been demolished to eliminate it.

When companies use the guidelines, they find that they work.

listeria4After the Nebraska Department of Agriculture found listeria in a random sample of Jeni’s, the CEO instituted a monitoring program as stringent as what the FDA prescribed in 2008. After destroying product worth $2 million and spending hundreds of thousands on thorough cleanings and plant upgrades, the company again found listeria in its product June 12 – illustrating the pathogen’s resiliency. But this time, Jeni’s caught it before it left the plant.

Blue Bell now is trying to follow suit, committed to becoming “first-in-class with respect to all aspects of the manufacture of safe, delicious ice cream products,” spokesman Joe Robertson said in an email. It now has a team of microbiologists and, like Jeni’s, will test and hold its ice cream until proven safe, once production resumes. He said the company “always tried to do the right thing to produce high-quality, safe products,” but pending lawsuits in the listeria outbreak prevented him from discussing whether Blue Bell previously followed any aspects of the 2008 guidance.

The FDA recommended that even the smallest companies regularly test food contact surfaces and the food itself for listeria. That may seem like an obvious strategy, but industry and consumer advocates have long fought over it.

FDA records show that Blue Bell had written plans to test its plant environments for pathogens. But they didn’t include sampling the surfaces that come into contact with food or the food itself, or finding the root cause of the contamination. From 2013 to early 2015, Blue Bell found listeria on drains, floors, pallets, hoses, catwalks and surfaces near the equipment that fills containers. But it never looked for listeria in the ice cream.

Mandatory microbial testing on plant surfaces and in food has long been viewed by industry groups as a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t work and costs too much, especially for small producers. Some have deemed it unnecessary when there are controls – like pasteurization – that kill pathogens. But consumer advocates say those arguments veil a deeper objection: Companies know that if they test for bugs, they will find them, and if they find them, the law says they must act.

If Blue Bell had followed the 2008 guidance, the first listeria positive would have set off an intense hunt for the source and likely triggered recalls or stopped shipment of potentially tainted products.

The list of foods at “high risk” for pathogens continues to grow, a fact that exasperates Samadpour. Peanuts and peanut butter, for example, weren’t on the radar until a series of outbreaks that caused hundreds of illnesses beginning in 2007.

“The way the food industry operates, they have an assumption that any food is safe until proven otherwise,” he said, noting that outbreaks of foodborne illness get detected by chance – Blue Bell’s was discovered only because South Carolina officials randomly tested ice cream early this year. “At what point are we going to say … no food is safe?”

The ultimate stopgap – testing food before it gets shipped – isn’t foolproof. The only way to detect everything is to test everything, which is impossible because the tests destroy the product. But Samadpour points to advances in the ground beef industry, which caused E.coli O157 infections to drop by half since 1997. After regulators declared the bacteria an unlawful “adulterant,” the industry ramped up testing.

Other food manufacturers balk at the cost, but there is a price either way. The FDA estimated the Food Safety Modernization Act will cost the food industry $471 million a year, while foodborne illness costs the nation $2 billion.

“One thing about food safety is it doesn’t regard the size of your company,” said Samadpour, who was hired by Snoqualmie. “You can be a tiny company and kill 50 people.”

Engineer develops real-time Listeria biosensor prototype

A Texas A&M AgriLife Research engineer and a Florida colleague have developed a biosensor that can detect listeria bacterial contamination within two or three minutes.

94051_web“We hope to soon be able to detect levels as low as one bacteria in a 25-gram sample of material – about one ounce,” said Dr. Carmen Gomes, AgriLife Research engineer with the Texas A&M University department of biological and agricultural engineering, College Station.

The same technology can be developed to detect other pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7, she said. But listeria was chosen as the first target pathogen because it can survive even at freezing temperatures. It is also one of the most common foodborne pathogens in the world and the third-leading cause of death from food poisoning in the U.S.

“It can grow under refrigeration, but it will grow rapidly when it is warmed up as its optimum growth temperature ranges from 30 to 37 degrees Celsius — 86 to 98 degrees Fahrenheit,” Gomes said. “This makes it a particular problem for foods that are often not cooked, like leafy vegetables, fruits and soft cheeses that are stored under refrigeration.”

Currently, the only means of detecting listeria bacteria contamination of food requires highly trained technicians and processes that take several days to complete, she said. For food processing companies that produce and ship large quantities of foodstuff daily, listeria contamination sources can be a moving target that is often missed by current technology.

The biosensor she is working on is still in the prototype stage of development, but in a few years she envisions a hand-held device that will require hardly any training to use.

Gomes is collaborating with Dr. Eric McLamore at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

“I do the biological and polymer engineering; he does the electrochemistry and nanostructures,” she said.

As for the biological component, Gomes said she is using “nanobrushes” specially designed to grab particular bacteria.

The nanobrushes utilize “aptamers,” which are single-stranded DNA or RNA molecules that bind to the receptors on the target organism’s cell outer membrane, Gomes said. This “binding” is often compared to the way a key fits into only one lock.

In this manner, the nanobrushes select for only a specific type of cell, which in the case of her work is the listeria bacterium.

Gomes noted that the inspiration for the nanobrushes comes from the Hawaiian bobtail squid, a football-sized creature that forms a symbiotic relationship with bioluminescent bacteria. Microscopic, hair-like structures, called cilia, on the squid’s light organ select and capture the bacteria from a very complex microbial soup of the ocean.

“The squid feeds the bacteria sugar and amino acids and in return, the bioluminescent bacteria allow the squid to produce light, which then allows the squid to escape from things that might want to eat it,” she said. “To predators, the bioluminescence is very similar to the light coming from the moon and stars at night, which acts as a ‘camouflage’ when observed from below.

“The selection process the polymers use to select for specific bacteria in the listeria biosensor is very similar to the squid’s cilia. We are trying to mimic the same mechanism of bacteria’s capture used by the squid’s cilia.”

Currently, the listeria biosensor is about the size of a postage stamp, with two wires leading to two etched conductive areas. After a few minutes, when the polymer nanobrushes have had time to grab the selected bacteria, the rest of the sample is washed away and the impedance, or resistance, between the two surfaces is measured electronically.

Gomes and McLamore are moving on to refining the electronics to something that can be handheld and easily used. Also in the works is a disposable paper-based biosensor that can be disposed of after one use.

In early April, they were awarded a three-year $340,000 National Science Foundation grant to continue their work on nanobrushes for pathogen detection.

Listeria also in Canadian mushrooms

The food recall warning issued on June 7, 2015 has been updated to include additional product information. This additional information was identified during the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) food safety investigation.

listeria.mushrooms.jun.15Champ’s Mushrooms is recalling sliced mushroom products from the marketplace due to possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination. Consumers should not consume the recalled products described below.

This recall was triggered by Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) test results. The CFIA is conducting a food safety investigation, which may lead to the recall of other products. If other high-risk products are recalled, the CFIA will notify the public through updated Food Recall Warnings.

The CFIA is verifying that industry is removing recalled products from the marketplace.

There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of these products.

Listeria found in NZ parsley

I’m wary of the herbs.

italian.parsleyThey’re natural and groovy, but also microbiologically messy.

I grow them, but rarely eat them raw, and am considerate about crosss-contamination.

People are being urged to throw out bags of Italian parsley from a Nelson, New Zealand,  company after tests showed traces of listeria.

Traces of Listeria Monocytogenes, which can cause listeriosis, were found in 50-gram bags of Italian parsley sold by Riwaka-based Tasman Bay Herbs. The affected bags have a use-by date of up to June 27 and were sold to nine retail outlets in Auckland, Wellington, Nelson and Christchurch.

The stores were among those which recalled all Tasman Bay Herbs stock on Monday afternoon after a test revealed potential contamination.

Further testing showed the 50 gram bags of Italian parsley had traces of listeria contamination. All other products tested negative for listeria.

It takes effort: Listeria found again in Jeni’s kitchens, all scoop shops temporarily closed

Listeria has been found once again at the production facility of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams.

jenis-ice-cream-leadjpg-3107e469ad83e50eIn a message on Friday from CEO John Lowe, he says listeria was found through routine swabbing.

In response, Lowe says all scoop shops will be temporarily closed and ice cream production will be halted until the matter is resolved.  Lowe claims ice cream served in scoop shops since the re-opening of stores in May is “100% listeria-free.”

This comes after Jeni’s shut down all scoop shops and recalled its entire product line in April after listeria was found in a pint-filling machine at a production kitchen.  A government investigation into Jeni’s revealed there was inadequate testing and cleaning in its Columbus plant before listeria was found in some of its ice cream pints.

The Food and Drug Administration released the results of its investigation into Jeni’s plant in late May after a Freedom of Information request from The Associated Press. The report says Jeni’s managers did not have an adequate sampling and testing program and were not sufficiently sanitizing some surfaces, including the floors. The report also details residue being found on some equipment.

The report said Jeni’s regulatory manager and director of operations, employees responsible for assuring compliance with government food safety guidelines, showed a “lack of competency” by failing to comply with some of those guidelines.