Leafy greens, listeria, environmental sampling and tragedy

Dole’s Springfield plant, source of an awful outbreak of listeriosis linked to over 30 illnesses and four deaths, had resident Listeria monocytogenes problem.

With illnesses stretching back to July 2015, confirmed through the amazing whole genome sequencing, the pathogen was hanging out somewhere.

Matt Sanctis of the Springfield News-Sun and I chatted yesterday about the FDA 483 reports posted by folks last week and we talked about environmental testing, best practices and what happens when a positive result is found.ryser_conveyer1

There are lots of risk management decisions and trade offs in environmental sampling – where to test, what to look for, what to do when you find something – all of which United Fresh has fantastic guidance about.

The big questions that folks have are is Lm in the leafy green processing environment common? (yes – see here. And here. and here. And another Dole one. That’s just going back 2 years); should firms be testing food contact surfaces? (it’s complicated – depends why you are testing and what else you are looking for); and, did Dole react correctly when they found listeria in the environment nine times in 2 years (I dunno, there’s not a lot of info).

The idea of environmental sampling is to seek out residential Lm and get rid of it. To accomplish that, positive test results lead to further testing (closer to the product) and an investigation into the cause.

Internal tests at Dole showed positive signs of listeria as early as 2014, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspection reports obtained by the Springfield News-Sun.

Dole performed swab tests at its Springfield facility that tested positive for listeria as many as nine times, beginning in July 2014, the inspection reports show. However the company continued to produce and ship products across the U.S. and Canada.

Dole confirmed Monday that it has been contacted by the U.S. Department of Justice as part of an investigation into its Springfield facility. A listeria outbreak there has been linked to four deaths and several illness across the U.S. and Canada.

The FDA released the inspection reports Monday in response to Freedom of Information Act requests the News-Sun filed in January and March.

“Those FDA reports deal with issues at our plant that we have corrected,” said Bil Goldfield, a Dole spokesman. “We have been working in collaboration with the FDA and other authorities to implement ongoing improved testing, sanitation and procedure enhancements, which have resulted in the recent reopening of our Springfield plant.”

It’s concerning the company continued to ship products after finding several positive samples of listeria over a span of more than a year, said Bill Marler, a food safety attorney based in Seattle. Marler represents the family of Kiki Christofield in their lawsuit against Dole.

“The thing that is concerning to me is you’re finding listeria repeatedly over a long period of time,” Marler said. “It’s less of an issue of should they have told the FDA. It’s more of an issue of should they have shut down their facility and gotten a handle on why they continue to have an ongoing listeria problem?”

“The finished product sample, as well as the in-process sub-samples collected from the water knife, the trans-slicer, and the metal tray beneath the cross-conveyor, all on Trim Line 1, were found by FDA laboratory analysis to be positive for Listeria monocytogenes,” the FDA report says.

Employees at Dole didn’t swab food contact areas for listeria, according to the inspection reports, instead swabbing various locations throughout the facility as close to food contact areas as possible.

More information is needed to determine whether Dole failed its duty to consumers or what steps it took after finding positive samples of listeria in its facility, said Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University.

One key question the FDA reports don’t fully answer is whether the listeria samples were brought into the factory on a product like lettuce or whether it established a foothold within the facility, which Chapman said would be a more serious problem.

It’s also important to know what — if anything — Dole did to resolve the issue, he said.

“It’s not surprising there would be listeria there,” Chapman said. “What we don’t know is if those nine times they found it, whether it was transient or if it was resident. They might know that and they might not. It really depends on what they did further once they found those samples.”

Fancy food ain’t safe food, Australian Brisbane Hilton edition: 50 sickened at wedding reception, show us the menu

More than 50 people have fallen ill, including a groom, after a suspected mass food poisoning at a Brisbane wedding reception.

HBNEQUEENSBALLOOM_FPPublic health officials are probing the cause of the outbreak among people who attended the reception at the Hilton Brisbane last Friday.

At least three of the reception guests were so ill with gastroenteritis they sought hospital treatment.

Metro North Public Health Unit physician James Smith said the wedding reception, attended by about 150 people, was catered for by both the Hilton and an external caterer.

Hotel staff contacted Queensland Health when they became aware guests had fallen ill after the reception. Dr Smith said public health officials were working with Hilton management and the Brisbane City Council to investigate the gastrointestinal illness.

Last night, Hilton Hotel Brisbane general manager Chris Partridge said the hotel had been “as co-operative and helpful as we possibly can” to find out the cause of the outbreak.

Mr Partridge said Queensland Health had inspected the hotel’s kitchens and had “left quite satisfied”.

Food poisoning linked to noodle stall at Canberra market

The Canberra Times reports several cases of food poisoning have been possibly linked to a stall at the Enlighten Night Noodle Markets, ACT Health says.

Enlighten Night Noodle MarketsThe market-goers became ill with diarrhea about 10 to 13 hours after eating food from a stall at the festival, but ACT Health Protection Service was confident there was no ongoing risk to public health from food sold at the stall as the outbreak has been controlled.

Environmental Health Officers inspected the premises that supplied food for the stall on Friday and found potentially hazardous food out of temperature control which was disposed of.

The stall will not be able to sell the implicated food for the remainder of the markets.

Fairfax Events’ head of food James Laing said organisers had notified ACT Health after they were contacted by three people who said they’d become ill after eating at one of the stalls.

“[Inspectors] went to the restaurant of the stallholder, had a look and checked the refrigeration on site and there were no concerns, but to be ultra cautious they took the product and destroyed it and did some tests,” he said.

“We take the issue of food safety incredibly seriously and work closely with the relevant health authorities to ensure that patrons can come to the markets confident that the highest standards are being adhered to.”

Mr Laing said it would remain unclear if the food poisoning was caused by the stall until the test results come back next Tuesday, adding, “The menu item in question we removed tonight, the stall is still trading, but they’ve got a clean bill of health.”

All stalls at the markets were inspected on Friday.

Lucky’s Taproom patrons aren’t so lucky; foodborne illnesses linked to Dayton restaurant

Today I talked to a restaurant operator about something they wanted to do that was risky. After talking about what could go wrong, the operator said ‘I don’t want to make people sick, I’ll figure something else out.’

Making patrons sick is bad business.6980

According to WHIO, a Dayton restaurant has closed as health officials investigate the source of illnesses.

The health department received the first report of Lucky’s patrons and employees being ill on Monday and samples have been sent to the Ohio Department of Health for testing, said Health Commissioner Jeff Cooper.

The testing will identify what specifically the people are suffering from, Cooper said.
Cooper said they are currently still collecting samples and conducting interviews, in part to determine whether there was a particular food or dish that all the sick people ate.

Drew Trick, owner of Lucky’s, confirmed this afternoon that the restaurant and bar voluntarily shut down at least through Friday while health officials test produce and other items to try to determine what caused the food-borne illness that affected both customers and employees.

“We’re doing everything we can to ensure our customers are safe when we reopen,” Trick said.

“We have bleached every square inch of this establishment” and have thrown out all produce and other food items to ensure the threat is eliminated, the restaurant’s owner said.

I wonder if some of those sick employees were working while ill.

Food is getting safer, but still might make you sick

Scott Canon of The Kansas City Star writes in a good food safety feature, go ahead and eat out. Or eat in (edited excerpts below).

produceWhether you dig into Mom’s casserole, feast on the local diner’s daily special or snarf up something from a mega-corporation’s drive-through, America’s meals may arrive as safe now as mankind has ever known.

Just not 100 percent.

Government rules continue to tighten. Various industries, fearful of lawsuits and the lost business that follows bad publicity, put more muscle into keeping things clean.

Yet experts also describe an increasingly elaborate system that tests the power to keep a meal safe.

“The marketplace is probably more complex,” said Charles Hunt, the Kansas state epidemiologist. “The produce that you get in the store today was in Mexico or someplace else just a few days before.”

The Chipotle chain saw multiple, high-profile problems last year. An E. coli outbreak traced to its restaurants in October. In December, the company also was tied to a norovirus incident in Boston, following outbreaks of the pathogen earlier in the year at outlets in California and Minnesota.

In the Kansas City area, more than 600 people got sick after attending shows at the New Theater Restaurant in January, and tests confirmed infections of the norovirus in at least some. It also struck at least 18 staff and patients at the University of Kansas Hospital’s Marillac Campus that month. And about a dozen people were hit with the same vomiting and diarrhea shortly afterward at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Overland Park.

Upticks in detections of outbreaks of food-borne illness, analysts say, likely reflect our increasing powers to spot them — not a growing danger.

In 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration traced an outbreak of salmonella agona to a Malt-O-Meal processing plant in Minnesota. Ten years later, the same plant again shipped out cereal tainted with salmonella, sickening at least 33 people.

With the two incidents separated by a decade, any link seemed coincidental.

But a few years later, the FDA built a powerful tool for analyzing bacterial strains — Whole Genome Sequencing. It can identify down the lineage of any bacterium in its database. In this case it showed the new salmonella was the direct descendant of the earlier one.

barfblog.Stick It InIt turned out that the first outbreak stemmed from contaminated water used to clean the plant during a renovation. That same water was mixed in with mortar for the construction. Dangerous salmonella had been preserved in that mortar. Over the years, the surface of the mortar turned to dust, got wet and gave new life to that distinct family of salmonella.

Imagine the implications. The plant could prevent repeats by painting a sealant over the unlikely culprit — mortar in its walls.

But think of the child who becomes sick down the road with salmonella. The source could be any of thousands of ingredients consumed by an American kid in a normal day. But what if a doctor shares the salmonella sample with federal disease trackers? By looking at the particular genetic line, scientists can spot the family tree and the likely source.

“It tells you who’s related to who even over many years,” said Eric Brown, the director of the Division of Microbiology at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety & Applied Nutrition.

Technology, food safety experts say, only goes so far.

The bigger payoffs come from diligence. That means, foremost, avoiding contamination from feces.

“Our food safety starts on the farm,” said Doug Powell. A former Kansas State University professor of food safety, he’s now the chief author of barfblog.

“It has to be systemic, repeated and relevant.”

For starters, farmers should not use manure on fresh produce. They need to know where their irrigation supply comes from and whether runoff during heavy rains travels from feedlots or other places where livestock or farm workers defecate. Washing those fruits and vegetables later down the line is necessary, but that often can’t overcome massive exposure to E. coli and other potentially fatal bacteria that thrive in poop.

Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who’s made a high-profile career filing lawsuits in food-borne illness cases, speaks with less alarm about the direction of Big Meat.

After years of restaurants and meat packers weathering expensive lawsuits and public relations disasters, he said, they’ve changed.

Take the slaughterhouse. Cattle arrive splattered with barnyard waste. For years, that created problems because the tainted hides would inevitably taint the skinned carcasses. But now, packing operations routinely steam-clean or treat the carcasses with an acid wash.

“You started to see an amazing turnaround and recalls linked to hamburger have fallen like a stone,” Marler said.

Meantime, he said, restaurants better recognize the business risk of not killing pathogens that cling to meat. Marler said big chains, in particular, devote increasing effort to thoroughly cooking beef, pork and poultry.

And federal rules on the required temperature for cooked meat have increased. Some chains, such as Taco Bell, now cook meat at centralized locations before shipping it to franchises. The local teenager preparing that food for customers still needs to be wary of temperature control, but much of the responsibility for safety has been standardized by corporate operations.

Produce, he and others say, poses a more difficult problem. Food that’s not cooked lacks the critical “kill step” to render harmless the bacteria that do slip through.

That, goes the critique, sets up a corporate culture that valued freshness over safety.

The company has responded by shutting down its restaurants repeatedly for special training days and saying its redoubled efforts to track the practices of its suppliers.

(Many have noted that much of Chipotle’s problems related to contamination from sick workers, not from its pursuit of freshness. More on that later.)

food-handler-card-skillsBut consumers have shown an increasing interest in the source of their food, preferring fresh over processed and local or organic over cheaper commodity ingredients. That’s tied, analysts say, to the belief that food made on a smaller scale and without the use of antibiotics in livestock or pesticides in crops is safer.

Some evidence suggests that such methods provide a more nutritious meal that may avoid long-term health risks. Yet they can pose new challenges in dodging food-borne pathogens in the short term, said barfblog’s Powell and others.

“Natural, organic, sustainable, dolphin-free — those are lifestyle choices,” Powell said. “There’s been no study that has conclusively said one way or another if it’s more likely to make you barf more.”

He worries it might. Smaller farms might not have the resources, or the sophistication, to keep soiled rain runoff from their vegetable patches. The farmer’s market customers or restaurants drawn to their farm-to-plate marketing, he said, might be less inclined to question safety.

“McDonald’s has it covered,” Powell said. “At the boutique places, I say I want my meat cooked to 165 degrees and they look at me like I just came off the turnip truck.”

 

54 sick: Salmonella in lettuce spreads in Australia

This is how bad public reporting of foodborne illness is in Australia.

lettuce.skull.noroRetailers, even with crappy Internet, we have cameras, and you’ll be found out.

An increasing number of Queenslanders claim they’ve been made ill from supermarket-bought salads in the wake of salmonella outbreak, but Woolworths and Coles insist there’s no problem with Queensland supply.

“The supplier in question does not supply into Queensland so there is no need to worry,” a Woolworths spokesman told The Courier-Mail.

While a Cole statement confirmed: “None of the recalled products are sold in Queensland, there is no cause for concern.”

It is believed Coles and Woolworths have stopped taking supplies from Tripod indefinitely.

Chelsea Bienke is just one of Queensland consumers who believe a bout of extreme vomiting and diarrhea was sparked after eating Woolworths lettuce.

The Brisbane woman and her sister were extremely ill for days after eating a meal with mixed salad.

“We had diarrhea for days and I was vomiting” Ms Bienke said.

“I felt like complete crap. I couldn’t go to work this week.”

She said she doubted claims that the product wouldn’t affect any customers.

“Well it’s strange how we bought the product last week and by Tuesday we were vomiting and had diarrhea,” Ms Bienke said.

“My niece who doesn’t eat the product is perfectly fine.”

Another Queenslander wrote on Coles’ Facebook page: “Are you sure Qld products are not affected. I bought spinach and rocket mix. My child has been unwell for three days.”

Another Brisbane mum posted on the same page: “You say Qld isn’t affected but my kids have been sick with headache and nausea. We eat your salads all the time and five of my six kids have been sick.

Chipotle’s processing changes: soundbite edition

I missed out on chatting with Jim-don’t-call-me-Louis-CK-Cramer but CNBC’s Closing Bell continues to cover the Chipotle outbreak anthology.

CNBC also has a decent breakdown of how outbreaks are investigated (good background for food company executives so they don’t say that CDC is picking on them).

Doctors and lab technicians are required to alert health authorities if a patient is diagnosed with any of a number of diseases, including many food borne illnesses. The reports made to state health departments help to collect data and determine disease trends.

The state health departments use techniques such as serotyping, which identifies more particular types of a given bacteria, like Salmonella. They also do DNA “fingerprinting,” which isolates variable elements in a string to be matched to other DNA found in a cluster.

They input their findings into a system called PulseNet.

One problem for the CDC in identifying fresh produce as the source of an outbreak is that by the time investigators find the food, the infected produce could be spoiled and no longer available for testing. Between physicians, state health authorities and CDC lab testing, the whole process can take weeks.

That means it’s likely that once you read about people taken ill in the news, they were infected a while ago. The illnesses that were reported the week of Dec. 21 started between Nov. 18 and 26, for example.

An exercise in risk management: some of Chipotle’s plans come out 

With six outbreaks now associated with Chipotle since July, the burrito chain is under scrutiny from the public and food safety folks for being heavy on promises to be 20 years ahead of everyone else and light on details. A couple of weeks ago they talked about switching their tomato handling from largely an in-store process to a centralized commissary with controls.

According to AP, here are some of the other specifics:2014-10-28-Chipotle_burrito2.jpg

Onions will be dipped in boiling water to kill germs before they’re chopped. Raw chicken will be marinated in re-sealable plastic bags, rather than in bowls. Cilantro will be added to freshly cooked rice so the heat gets rid of microbes in the garnish.

“When you’re given a project like this, you look at the universe of hazards,” said Mansour Samadpour, CEO of IEH Laboratories, which was hired by Chipotle to tighten its procedures.

Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said many of changes will be implemented in coming weeks, but that the company doesn’t expect the taste of its food to suffer. Among the tweaks the company is making:

—Cheese will now arrive in restaurants shredded.

—Ingredients like onions will be macerated with lemon or lime juice to kill germs.

—60 samples of every 2,000 pounds of steak will be tested before it’s sent to stores. A similar testing program will be implemented for chicken in coming weeks. Pork and barbacoa beef are already delivered cooked in sealed bags.

—Tomatoes, cilantro and other ingredients will be chopped in centralized locations, rather than in stores, so they can be tested. Chipotle has said in the past that tomatoes taste better when freshly diced in restaurants. After the outbreak, Chipotle co-CEO Steve Ells changed tunes: “If I’m eating a burrito that had tomatoes that were chopped in a central kitchen in the salsa or one that was chopped in house, I probably couldn’t tell the difference,” he said in an interview on CNBC last week.

Not all chopping will be moved to centralized locations. Onions, for instance, would oxidize and smell bad if they were chopped days in advance, Samadpour said. So they will remain chopped in restaurants, along with lemons, limes and jalapenos. All will now be blanched to kill germs.

These are some good steps, I’d love to see the validation data that shows onions macerated with high-acid juice will take care of pathogens. Salmonella has been shown to be pretty hardy in the ceviche-type setting (resulting in a 1-2 log reduction according to some work done by barfblog friend and podcast buddy Don Schaffner).

I’d love to see the data associated with adding-cilantro-to-hot-rice – sounds like a good idea, but what is the heat transfer like and what does it do to the pathogens?

Sealed bags vs open bowls for marination is good – but those bags still need to be opened and the juices controlled.

Outbreaks matter: food safety still a problem at Joy Tsin Lau

Outbreaks happen all the time. The majority are avoidable and can be linked to a few factors or bad decisions. While I’m a self-described outbreak junkie, it’s not the gore of vomit and barf associated with tragic incidents that I’m interested in. While the stories are important, I’m not into embellishment to scare folks into behavior change.

The philosophy I subscribe to is to present folks who make decisions, from the teenage produce stock boy to the CEO of a food company, with the risks and consequences of their actions. And let them make a decision. Hopefully they choose to avoid making people sick.tsin-lau-12001

I’m an outbreak junkie because the sick and the dead are real people with families; individuals whose lives changed because they ate something. Something, for the most part, that wasn’t supposed to make them ill.

And if nothing is learned from those illnesses, and changes made, food doesn’t get any safer.

Sam Wood of Philly.com reports today that less than a year after being linked to an outbreak that sickened over 100 lawyers and law students, Joy Tsin Lau is still having trouble managing food safety.

Five pounds of raw duck feet and another five pounds of seaweed were tossed into the garbage last week after a city health inspector returned to Joy Tsin Lau.

The inspector took the temperature of the feet and found they weren’t cold enough. At 44 degrees Fahrenheit, they were in what the USDA considers the “danger zone,” where dangerous bacteria can double every 20 minutes.

Inspector Thomas Kolb cited the restaurant for three foodborne risk factors and four lesser violations. The restaurant’s owner did not return calls for comment Monday.

Learn from stuff.

Chipotle seen and heard: apologies, stock prices, recovery and another outlet shut

The saga of Chipotle’s food safety woes continued today. This morning, according to Business Insider, Chipotle CEO Steve Ells hit the Today Show to talk about one of their current outbreaks (the E. coli O26 one, not the norovirus one).

“This was a very unfortunate incident and I’m deeply sorry that this happened,” Ells said on NBC’s Today Show. “But the procedures we’re putting in place today are so above industry norms that we are going to be the safest place to eat.” Ells said it’s a “really tough time” for Chipotle.Chipotle_Brandon.jpeg

“We have closed our restaurants out of an abundance of caution and tested all the ingredients, surfaces — thousands and thousands of tests — and they call came back negative for E. coli,” Ells said.

A team of epidemiologists and food-safety experts has investigated the delivery, handling, cooking, and serving of all 64 of Chipotle’s ingredients, and developed better food-safety standards for the chain going forward.

“It has caused us to put in practices … that will put us 10 to 15 years ahead of industry norms and I believe this will be the safest restaurants to eat at,” Ells said.

I’m still not sure what this means. Or what it is that Chipotle plans to do that is so revolutionary, but since food safety isn’t a competitive issue; I’m sure they’ll share the details.

In related news, Chipotle’s stock rebounded with a five per cent bump following Ells pledge for better food safety.

James Surowiecki of the New Yorker compares Chipotle to Jack-in-the-Box which still carries stigma over 20 years after a devastating and tragic outbreak.

Chipotle can take solace in the knowledge that Jack in the Box did eventually recover, and indeed prospered. And Chipotle has advantages that Jack in the Box did not. Its reputation for quality before the crisis was stronger, which means that the reservoir of good will among customers is higher. It is also the market leader in the fast-casual category—a sector it essentially created—rather than an also-ran, as Jack in the Box was. Still, those advantages only go so far. There are now myriad good fast-casual alternatives in much of the country. Customer loyalty is no longer what it was—consumers are far more likely to abandon brands when they disappoint. And while Chipotle has said that it is introducing more stringent testing and reassessing its food-handling practices, its reliance on local suppliers means that the task of insuring the integrity of its supply chain will be harder than what Jack in the Box faced.

Oh, and according to Bloomberg, one of Chipotle’s Seattle outlets that was closed last month during the O26 investigation, and then reopened, was closed again today after an inspector found deficient handling practices including temperature control issues.

The public-health department for Seattle and King County closed the restaurant, which was located in the city’s South Lake Union neighborhood, according to a statement from the agency on Thursday.

In Seattle, an inspector found that food wasn’t being kept hot enough on a line that prepares takeout orders, said Chris Arnold, a spokesman for Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. “We are looking into the cause of that and will certainly address it,” he said in an e-mail.