How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat? School lessons in food safety

Today’s USA Today asked a bunch of food safety types what the government could do to improve the school lunch program.

My full answer included,

“Does it have to be government? They’re not very good at this stuff.”

 What got published this a.m., along with a photo by Dave Adams of Kansas State, was,

"Government should set minimal standards and demand continuous improvement from all of its suppliers. More importantly, every cafeteria needs to make microbial food safety — from hand washing to food handling — part of the daily culture." 

Douglas Powell, professor of food safety at Kansas State University and the publisher of

The story explains that in 1982, hamburgers from McDonald’s fast-food chain sickened at least 47 people in Oregon and Michigan. No one died, but the pathogen that caused the severe cramps, abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea turned out to be a little-known, especially dangerous form of the common stomach bacteria E. coli. The new subtype, E. coli O157:H7, produced a toxin that destroyed red blood cells and, in later cases elsewhere, caused kidney failure or death.

Confounded by the discovery, McDonald’s hired one of the nation’s best-known food safety scientists, Michael Doyle, and told him, he recalls, "to bulletproof their system so E. coli never happened to them again."

McDonald’s reconsidered its old assumptions about food — from how often beef-processing plants should test ground beef to how well a hamburger must be cooked to kill off pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella.

The results helped change the industry. For years, the federal food code said burgers had to be cooked only until their internal temperature reached 140 degrees; McDonald’s tests showed the safe standard was 155 degrees and that the meat must register that temperature for at least 15 seconds.

Microbial data also altered the demands McDonald’s imposed on its suppliers.

After a couple of years, the company saw that "about 5% of the suppliers could not get down to what we considered a reasonable level for salmonella and E. coli," says Doyle, now director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety. "McDonald’s worked hard with them, but they couldn’t get there, so McDonald’s let them go."

The lesson, many analysts say, is that organizations with great buying power — such as fast-food chains or the school lunch program — can set higher standards, and industry ultimately will meet those standards because that’s where the money is. The school lunch program purchases huge volumes of commodities such as beef, poultry and other staples –– $830 million worth in 2008.

Potlucks and faith-based food safety

I like potlucks because of the social interaction and sampling different kinds of foods.

I don’t like potlucks because who knows how various dishes are prepared, how they’ve been stored, and the dreaded double dipping.

I told Erin Quinn of the Waco Tribune-Herald in Texas Monday that,

Maybe you don’t want to eat the turkey noodle casserole made in the kitchen of the woman who you notice never washes her hands before leaving the bathroom.

And maybe you should avoid the pumpkin cheesecake brought by the guy whose shirts are always covered with cat hair.

“There is a lot of blind trust in it. Potlucks are really popular because they bring people together and do a lot of good things. But all of that fellowship can turn into a lot of sick people.”

Powell recommends bringing a digital thermometer to potluck parties. He jokes that this is the reason he is hardly invited to potluck parties.

Still, he said these parties are not inherently riskier than eating at restaurants. And most people, he said, wash their hands properly, have clean kitchens and cook food at the proper temperature.

Allison Lowery, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said she, herself, eats at potlucks and is not too concerned about any risks.

“You can’t go around being scared of everything. You’ve just got to have faith.”

Load Australian fridges with food, not beer, and keep it cool

In 2004, I spoke at a conference in Gold Coast, Australia. I did a TV bit on Good Morning Australia, or whatever the equivalent was to the U.S. Good Morning America about food safety. The chef at the conference center was with me, and well-versed in food safety. He had a digital tip-sensitive thermometer in his front pocket, which I asked to borrow for the interview. One of the PR types said something like, you can’t go on TV and talk about using thermometers, we have enough trouble getting Australians to store food in the fridge, which is largely used for beer.

A survey by the New South Wales Food Authority found that some household fridges were twice as warm as they should be after groceries were transferred into them and they took four hours to return to a safe temperature.

The authority’s chief scientist, Lisa Szabo, said while most fridges operated well, overloading them with food or warm products increased the chance of micro-organisms growing, as did the age of the fridge and the condition of the seals.

Of the 57 fridges checked in the study, almost 23 per cent had an average temperature of more than 5 degrees. Almost 9 per cent had an average of more than 6 degrees. The highest average temperature for one fridge was 9.5 degrees.

Salmonella infections rise in the hotter months of the year (it’s summer there right now, and everyone, including Katie, is at the beach).

NSW Health statistics show 372 people had salmonella infections in both January and February this year, compared with 129 in June and 101 in July.

Last December 240 people had salmonellosis compared with 103 in June last year.

One fridge in the study was loaded with drinks at 1.20pm, raising the temperature from 3.5 degrees to 14.5 degrees, and it took until 5.40pm for the fridge to return to 5 degrees. The study found that ”although [loading or cleaning] is unavoidable, limiting the duration or frequency of opening the refrigerator can minimize its impact on temperature rises’.’

As fridges across the state are filled with prawns, ham, champagne, desserts and fruit for Christmas celebrations, the Primary Industries Minister, Steve Whan, reminded consumers to keep the fridge out of the danger zone – between 5 and 60 degrees.

Food poisoning during the Dominican honeymoon means Pepto-Bismol and baby wipes

Kansas State University student, and news hunter and gatherer, Gonzalo Erdozain (right, sorta as shown), finally got away on his honeymoon to the Dominican Republic after classes ended last week. Gonzalo returned yesterday and shares his tale below.

I probably contracted a slight case of food poisoning while honeymooning in the Dominican Republic.  So did my wife, and I spent my birthday, literally, in the bathroom and having to use baby wipes on sensitive and inflamed, uh, skin.

We apparently weren’t alone.

The Toronto Star reported yesterday that five passengers aboard a WestJet flight from the Dominican Republic were taken to hospital by ambulance Wednesday night after apparently suffering from food poisoning.

I’d like to know the resort where those other sick people were staying, but if it was anything like ours, it became rapidly apparent that food safety standards in the U.S. are still much, much higher than those of the Dominican Republic.

The resort was luxurious and the service was indeed top of the line, but what they consider to be safe and appropriate is just different than what Americans do.

Gonzo’s do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do advice when visiting a resort in the Dominican:

• don’t eat ceviche that isn’t cold enough or that isn’t entirely covered by lemon and lime juice (which is what is supposed to kill microorganisms;

• don’t eat the fruit they put as decoration on your drinks, its been sitting out all day at the bar in temperatures around 80-90F; and,

• if you want to be extremely careful, even though the hotel tap water is purified, always use bottled water if it will end up in your mouth such as washing your toothbrush, mouth guard (yes, I wear one myself due to grinding), or even rinsing the toothpaste from your mouth – if you use the tap water for any of these, and it happens to be tainted, you will get sick.

Bonus traveler tips: A small bottle of Pepto-Bismol at the hotel costs $18, the equivalent of a year’s supply in the U.S., and yes, baby wipes are available, but there is nothing funny about having to go to the pharmacy and buy baby wipes in a couples-only resort.

Rats filmed in Honolulu’s Chinatown market

Here’s the video of rats in a Chinatown market that sparked the story in the Honolulu Advertiser that Chapman just blogged about.

The video sparked a Department of Health inspection of Pacing’s, which was cited for a violation.

The Geller rat video has been seen by tens of thousands of people, and has spurred some to stop coming to Chinatown, according to shop owners, who say business has decreased — by 30 to 50 percent or more — over the last weeks.

Last year, Sekiya’s Restaurant in Kaimukí closed its doors for days and dumped all its food after an E. coli outbreak, which sickened seven.

Inspection reflection; is more always better?

A rat issue in Honolulu’s Chinatown market has led to politicians to blame the situation on a shortage of state food safety inspectors and environmental health officers.

Inspectors in the region have dwindled from 23 in 1988 to nine today, causing State Sen. David Ige, chairman of the Health Committee, to state that there is an immediate public health need to beef up the number of inspectors on O’ahu.

Maybe. But it’s not as simple as throwing more food referees into the mix.

A couple of years ago, Brae Surgeoner and I interviewed restaurant operators and environmental health officers about their views regarding restaurant inspection. Almost all of the operators suggested that inspection was a good thing, and that they had a good relationship with EHOs.  And that’s when things got fun. Restaurant operators reported to us that what was being seen and recorded wasn’t representative of what was really happening with every meal.  They adjusted their personnel and their procedures so they looked good. The best part of the study for us was that the inspectors reported the same thing: they felt they weren’t getting the full picture and knew everyone was on their best behavior while they were around.

More inspectors alone won’t solve everything, and it sounds like Hawaii Department of Health’s Laurence Lau gets it.

"Any regulatory and public health program would like to have more staff," said Laurence Lau, the department’s deputy director of environmental health. "We would do more if we had more. We’re just going to do the best we can."

Lau also said even if DOH had more inspectors, they still couldn’t be "everywhere all the time" to prevent problems. "The first responsibility remains with the restaurant and the food seller to sell safe food."

The time the auditor/inspector spends in the facility represents an unrealistic snapshot of what actually happens.  Even if multiple inspectors show up to a facility over a period of time to gather more snapshots, what they see will likely be different. What’s more important to the health and safety of customers is what happens when the inspectors, or auditors, or the boss, aren’t there.

US school lunch program needs more food safety accountability

Today’s USA Today has a feature story today about meat served in the U.S. school lunch program and asks why certain batches of meat were excluded from a Salmonella-related recall and outbreak last year. What stands out is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture initially refused to match suppliers with positive test results as part of an analysis of 146,000 tests for bacteria including salmonella and E. coli.

USDA spokesman Bobby Gravitz wrote in an e-mail to USA Today that divulging their identities "would discourage companies from contracting to supply product for the National School Lunch Program and hamper our ability to provide the safe and nutritious foods to America’s school children."

The newspaper appealed the USDA’s decision. On Monday, the department released the names of the companies.

Although one company, Beef Packers Inc., appeared to stand out for the wrong reasons – in 2007 and 2008, its rate of positive tests for salmonella measured almost twice the rate that’s typical for the nation’s best-performing, high-volume ground beef producers, USA TODAY found — the company kept getting government business. Since 2003, Beef Packers has garnered almost $60 million in contracts.

That sounds eerily familiar to what happened in the 2005 E. coli O157 outbreak in Wales that killed five-year-old Mason Jones (left) and sickened another 160 kids eating their school lunches, where buyers were quick to look the other way to save a pound. A public inquiry into the outbreak concluded the procurement process was, “seriously flawed in relation to food safety.”

One way to push food safety through the system is to demand continuous improvement from suppliers in terms of lowering the number of pathogen positive results. Any consumer-oriented company is going to insist on evidence of such steps or they will take their business elsewhere. Those overseeing school lunches for U.S. kids should demand the same.

What also stands out is that despite the focus on food safety of the feature and an additional heart-wrenching story about a child sickened 11 years ago through the school lunch program, a third story about a company trying to provide low-cost, healthier, natural (whatever that means) school lunches makes no mention of – food safety. The story cites a sample lunch that may now contain fresh lettuce and tomatoes in a wrap, rather than the canned or cooked variety of fruits and veggies. Fresh is great, but introduces an array of microbial food safety and supplier management issues that isn’t even mentioned. Sorta ironical.


For Thanksgiving, I got campylobacter; food safety isn’t simple, neither are stool samples

It’s been a poopy couple of weeks. Literally. Turns out that I’ve been dealing with a Campylobacter infection for a while which has knocked me on my ass. Here’s the story.

Two weeks ago I was preparing to head to Manhattan (Kansas) to hang out with Doug, chat about a few projects, give a talk and take in the K State/Mizzou football game (with tailgating). The trip happened, but I gave a somewhat incoherent talk while sweating, slept most of my visit away, left the football game at halftime and spent two of the nights rushing to the bathroom every hour to evacuate my intestines (which sounded a bit like I was pouring a glass of water directly into the toilet). I wanted to blame Doug. He brings out the best in people.

As we walked to the game I remember saying to Doug that I wished the illness was a hangover because I knew there would be a defined end to it. It wasn’t. I didn’t eat much beyond Cheerios, yogurt and Gatorade for about a week. It was pretty nasty, probably the worst I can remember feeling.
After a feverish trip home and crashing for the remainder of the weekend I made an appointment to see the doctor to get things checked out. At this point I was a bit scared, tired of spending a couple of hours a day on the toilet and had a tender tush. I was also washing my hands like a mad man. With a one-year-old around I was super paranoid about negligently passing anything on to him. Of course, one of his favorite things to do is to stick his hands in the toilet, which is a bit like licking a raw turkey.

At the doctor, I described my symptoms, had a rectal exam (fun) and was given the materials needed for a stool sample. I’m not going to lie; I was a bit excited by the stool sample stuff. I was looking for anything to cheer myself up and I kept thinking about the ironic blog post at the end of the ordeal. Or as my friend Steve said “Wow – [Campylobacter] sucks. Although once you’re healthy again, it automatically becomes funny.” Yes it does.

The idea of stool sample harvesting was way more fun than the actual act. It’s amazing any foodborne illnesses are confirmed with stool samples because the process is a bit nuts.  It took some thinking to figure out how to catch the sample without contaminating it with water or urine. The final decision was to use the bucket from our salad spinner – which has now been retired – and place it in the toilet bowl. I then proceeded to do what I had been doing eight or nine times a day and produced a sample. I had three vials to fill (one for C. difficile, one for parasites and another for other pathogens), and a bonus margarine-like tub for “other things.” The vials were easy, they came with their own spoons. After ten swipes across the base of the former salad spinner I was able to messily get the rest of the sample collected in the tub. Then came the clean-up.  This whole episode took me about 45 minutes and made me think I was on Dirty Jobs.

I proudly returned to the doctor’s office with samples in hand and then waited a few days. On Monday I received a call from the physician’s assistant explaining that I’m now the owner of a culture-confirmed Campylobacter infection. The doctor prescribed some ciprofloxacin and I’m feeling much better than I was 13 days ago.

My stool is beginning to resemble what it did before this whole ordeal, but I’m not totally done. Although rare, I could still develop arthritis problems or Guillain-Barr syndrome (an immune system issue that can lead to paralysis) but I hope not.

I’ve been telling folks over the past couple of days about the campylobacterosis and the responses can be grouped into two categories: “that’s ironic;” and, “where do you think you got it?” The second question is more interesting and easier to answer: I’m not sure.

The Campylobacter could have come from lots of sources. It might have been something Dani or I did at home.  We try to avoid cross-contamination and I’m religious about using a food thermometer, but those practices reduce, not eliminate, risks. I eat out a few times a week and put my trust in the front-line staff at restaurants to do what they can to keep me from getting sick. I also eat a lot of fresh produce that could be contaminated with fecal matter pretty much anywhere from farm-to-fork. Who knows? 

Being a food safety nerd I’m still waiting on follow-up information on the typing and whether I’m part of a larger cluster of illnesses.  If I am, maybe that will help answer the source question. To be continued.

What this incident has shown me, better than I understood before, is that foodborne illness really isn’t as simple as some make it out to be. I like to think that I have some basic knowledge about what I can do to avoid it.  But I still spent 13 days on the toilet and I don’t really know what led to the fun.


Jail time for poor health inspections in UAE

Maktoob Business reports that a poor health inspection in Abu Dhabi could land a food outlet’s operator in jail. In response to two outbreaks earlier this year that caused the deaths of three children, the emirates food standards regulator has proposed a new law establishing jail time for outbreaks and infractions.

The authority has already stepped up its campaign to clean up the emirate’s eateries, shutting down close to 70 food establishments for health and safety violations so far this year, according to the paper.
“These regulations will be in place so that it’s obligatory for every food establishment to follow them,” ADFCA spokesman Mohammed al-Reyaysa was quoted as saying.

Frank Yiannas of Wal-Mart writes of the behavioral effects of consequences in his book Food Safety Culture. Frank says:

Although negative consequences should be used from time to time in the field of food safety, they should be used with care and discretion. Ideally, negative consequences for knowingly or intententional unsafe behaviors can be integrated into the disciplinary or performance management process already established.

Studies have repeatedly shown that an emphasis on positive consequences over negative consequences generally leads to enhanced performance.

The proposed law definitely establishs some negative behavior consequences; whether they are culturally apporpriate behavior modifiers and will result in less sick people is unknown.

Gratuitous food porn shot of the day – oven baked salmon, squash soup, garlic bread, strawberries and melon

Farmed salmon fillets with oil, lime, garlic, rosemary and white wine, baked in a 400F oven. Roasted butternut squash soup with apple, cinnamon, nutmeg potato and carrot, pureed, and using a homemade chicken stock (the stock makes the soup). Cheap whole wheat buns I picked up at Dillion’s at 7 a.m. after dropping Chapman off at the airport, topped with roasted garlic in butter, rosemary and some shredded Italian cheese (the bread, not the Chapman).

She’s also eating whole strawberries and chunks of melon. Her six teeth are helping with that.