Jim, maple syrup and anxiety

My friend Jim calms me down almost as much as my puppy, Ted.

I’ve known Jim since about 1996. We collaborated to shut down emotion-not-evidence-based rules on genetically engineered foods in Canada, and he has always brought a practical sense of what a farmer goes through to make a buck.

He also used to terrorize my then young girls by telling them how he shot stray cats left at his dairy farm, because cats carry toxoplasmosis, and it impacted his money-making side.

We were grateful for the three cats from Walkerton.

Jim and Donna’s Walkerton farm is across the road from the source of the E. coli O157 outbreak in 2000 that killed seven and sickened thousands, and I still get chills when Jim recalls another chopper going over the farm, probably another dead person.

Media outlets were broadcasting live from Walkerton, like it was a dam about to collapse.

Or as I said at the time (Jim had to remind me), media wanted cows, manure, river, and townhouses all in one photo.

I spoke with Jim the other day, primarily to balance myself against the most moderate person I know.

Jim has gotten into the maple syrup biz in Ontario (that’s in Canada), he’s got grandkids, like I do, and a seemingly stable situation, running his B&B with Donna, substitute teaching, and new farming ventures.

I admire that.

 

Chlorine works, focus on public health: NZ campy-in-water inquiry wraps up with 16 draft recommendations

I served on one of those water inquires, back in Canada after the 2000 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that killed seven and sickened 2,300 residents in Walkerton, Ontario, Canada, a town of about 5,000.

Walkerton Water Tower

Walkerton Water Tower

It was decent work, but what surprised me most was the actions taken by various social actors in the aftermath of the outbreak: protect themselves, public health be damned.

The number of higher-ups who wanted to meet with me to express why they did what they did, in a private chat, had absolutely no influence on my conclusions, and was sorta repulsive.

Maybe I was naïve.

Still am (I’m the full professor from Kansas State University who got fired for bad attendance with  — nothing, except my family, and that makes a good Hollywood tale).

In August, 2016, about 5,530 or 39 per cent of Havelock North, New Zealand’s population reported gastroenteritis from Camplylobacter in the water supply, 1,072 of those confirmed cases.

Nicki Harper of the New Zealand Herald reports a government inquiry into contamination of a Hawke’s Bay water supply has made 16 draft recommendations.

The inquiry into the Hastings District Council’s request to re-activate a Brookvale Road bore to augment Havelock North’s peak summer water supply retired today with a set of draft recommendations.

Before wrapping up proceedings, inquiry panel chair Lyn Stevens QC thanked the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (HBRC) and Hastings District Council (HDC) for the efforts they made that resulted in the regional council dropping its prosecution of the Hastings council.

This agreement came after the first day of hearings on Monday, when pressure was applied by the panel to re-consider the charges.

After extensive questioning on Monday, the regional council agreed to withdraw the charges relating to breaches of the Hastings District Council’s resource consent conditions for taking water from Brookvale bores 1 and 2 – opting to instead consider issuing infringement notices.

Mr Stevens said, “The panel has noted a level of defensiveness in some of the evidence filed to date.

“I’m not being critical of any organisation or witness but wish to emphasise the overriding interest with this inquiry is the public interest, while we look to fulfil the terms of reference to determine the possible causes of contamination.”

A set of 16 draft recommendations were issued and Mr Stevens said the joint working group would be an important conduit to implement them.

The aim was to have the bore re-opened at the end of January before Havelock North water use reached peak demand in February.

Among the recommendations was a directive that the working group – comprising representation from HDC, HBRC, the DHB and drinking water assessors – meet regularly and share information of any potential drinking water safety risk.

For at least 12 months from December 12, the bore would receive cartridge filtration, UV and chlorine treatment, and a regime of regular montioring be implemented.

It was also recommended that the HDC draft an Emergency Response Plan before Bore 3 was brought on line.

Hundreds sickened with Campylobacter in NZ town’s water supply

At least 200 people have been stricken by what appears to be Campylobacter in Havelock North, New Zealand, and residents say Hastings District Council knew the town’s water supply was contaminated hours before they told people to stop drinking it.

Havelock North, New ZealandCassandra Heke said she was angry she heard about the contaminated water from her friends before the council made the issue public.

“The council knew about it on Friday morning but didn’t tell anyone.”

She had chosen to keep her child home for the day, but had called in for some voluntary work at Havelock North Primary School. “I think it’s dreadful, especially the elderly, it’s hurt the community.”

She commended the school’s ability to communicate with them as parents and update them as the saga worsened.

The outbreak has been linked to an underground bore which tested positive for E. coli.

Hastings District Council was unable to be reached for comment this morning.

Colleen Pascoe had just done the school run for her grandchildren while their mother lay sick at home.

“It’s disgusting the council didn’t tell us.”

She said her daughter, not knowing the sickness was waterborne, had focussed on keeping her fluids up drinking lots of water. Catherine Wedd, who had just dropped her child off at school, said she was angry about the lack of communication.

Hastings District Council issued a full page apology this morning for the contaminated water.

Hawke’s Bay Hospital confirmed two older people were critically ill in the intensive care unit. A death at a Havelock North rest home may also be linked to the illness.

Hawke’s Bay District Health Board today said 183 people went to their local doctor and 11 people went to hospital for treatment on Sunday.

Today a leading researcher of infectious diseases said it was likely faecal run-off from sheep and cattle was the cause of this latest outbreak.

walkerton“Groundwater is much less likely to be contaminated than surface water, but if it is campylobacter, based on previous experiences, it is most likely to have come from cattle and sheep and run-off of effluent or faeces,” said Massey University Infectious Diseases Research Centre director professor Nigel French.

He said the outbreak demonstrated even secure groundwater could become contaminated and testing and treatment was advised to ensure the best public health outcomes particularly if there had been a high-risk event such as heavy rainfall.

Hawke’s Bay District Health Board medical officer of health Dr Nicholas Jones said gastroenteritis affected older and younger people much more severely and older people needed to seek medical help early on if they weren’t getting better or couldn’t keep fluids down. The same applied to young children.

He said they encouraged the community to keep an eye out for older people living alone.

“The boil notice will remain until we are confident there is no other bug resistant to chlorination in the water, which is expected to take several days,” he said.

Hands needed to be washed thoroughly by using plenty of soap, cleaning under fingernails, rinsing hands well and drying on a clean towel: before and after preparing food, after going to the toilet or changing a baby’s nappy, after caring for sick people and after touching animals.

What water are the residents supposed to use?

NC petting zoo, weather blamed for deadly E. coli outbreak at fair

State and county health officials have concluded the petting zoo at the Cleveland Co. Fair is the cause of E. coli outbreak across the North Carolina region in late September.

WBTV reports that “N.C. Department of Health and Human Services have determined that the petting zoo at the Cleveland County Fair was the initial source of exposure to E. coli,” the statement released on Friday said.

More than 100 people were infected from the bacteria and a 2-year-old died as a result of the infection that spread into neighboring counties in the early weeks of October. 

According to test results, weather may be one of the factors that played a role in widespread contamination of the area surrounding the petting zoo exhibit.

Two specific strains of E. coli on cases from the outbreak were matched to environmental samples taken from fair grounds. Heavy rains during the run of the fair, from 9/29 to 10/8 resulted in runoff that may have spread contamination from petting zoo into nearby areas.

So why didn’t anyone predict the potential problem when the rain was coming down?

Germany’s E. coli nightmare: Too often, politics trumps safety

The Aug/Sept. issue of Food Quality magazine contains a package of articles about lessons learned from this year’s E. coli O104 outbreak in Germany linked to raw sprouts grown from seeds produced in Egypt.

My own contribution was an attempt, at the editor’s request, to capture the uncertainty and vagaries that characterize outbreaks of food- or waterborne illness.

My friend Jim called on a Friday afternoon. Jim is a dairy farmer located on the edge of a town in Ontario, Canada, called Walkerton, and he said a lot of people were getting sick. The community knew there was a problem several days before health types went public.

On Sunday, May 21, 2000, at 1:30 p.m., the Grey Bruce Health Unit in Owen Sound, Ontario posted a notice on its website to hospitals and physicians to make them aware of a boil water advisory and inform them that a suspected agent in the increase of diarrheal cases was E. coli O157:H7.

There had been a marked increase in illness in the town of about 5,000 people, and many were already saying the water was suspect. But because the first public announcement was also the Sunday of the Victoria Day long weekend, it received scant media coverage.

It wasn’t until Monday evening that local television and radio began reporting illnesses, stating that at least 300 people in Walkerton were ill.

At 11 a.m. on Tuesday, May 23, the Walkerton hospital held a media conference jointly with the health unit to inform the public of the outbreak, to make people aware of the potential complications of the E. coli O157:H7 infection, and to warn them to take the necessary precautions. This generated a print report in the local paper the next day, which was picked up by the national wire service Tuesday evening, and subsequently appeared in papers across Canada on May 24.

These public outreach efforts were neither speedy nor sufficient. Ultimately, 2,300 people were sickened and seven died—in a town of 5,000. All the gory details and mistakes and steps for improvement were outlined in the report of the Walkerton inquiry
(www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/about/pubs/walkerton).

The E. coli O157:H7 was thought to have originated on a farm owned by a veterinarian and his family at the edge of town, someone my friend Jim knew well, a cow-calf operation that was the poster farm for Environmental Farm Plans. Heavy rains washed cattle manure into a long abandoned well-head, which was apparently still connected to the municipal system. The brothers in charge of the municipal water system for Walkerton, who were found to have been adding chlorine based on smell rather than something minimally scientific like test strips, were criminally convicted.

But the government-mandated reports don’t capture the day-to-day drama and stress that people like my friend experienced. Jim and his family knew many of the sick and dead. This was a small community. News organizations from around the province descended on Walkerton for weeks. They had their own helicopters, but the worst was the medical helicopters flying patients with hemolytic uremic syndrome to the hospital in London. Every time Jim saw one of those, he wondered if it was someone he knew.

I’m not an epidemiologist, but as a scientist and journalist with 20 years of contacts, I usually find out when something is going on in the world of foodborne outbreaks.

The uncertainties in any outbreak are enormous, and the pressures to get it right when going public are tremendous.

The public health folks in Walkerton may have been slow by a couple of days while piecing together the puzzle; what happened in Germany this summer in the sprout-related outbreak of E. coli O104, a relative of O157, was a travesty.
Worse, bureaucrats seemed more concerned about the fate of farmers than that of citizens. By at least one count, 53 have died, and more than 4,200 have been sickened.

Raw sprouts are one of the few foods I won’t eat, and as many epidemiologists have pointed out, sprouts top the list of any investigation involving foodborne illness.

We at bites count at least 55 outbreaks related to raw sprouts beginning in the U.K. in 1988, sickening thousands.

The first consumer warning about sprouts was issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1997. By July 9, 1999, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had advised all Americans to be aware of the risks associated with eating raw sprouts. Consumers were informed that the best way to control the risk was to not eat raw sprouts. The FDA stated that it would monitor the situation and take any further actions required to protect consumers.

At the time, several Canadian media accounts depicted the U.S. response as panic, quoting Health Canada officials as saying that, while perhaps some were at risk, sprouts were generally a low-risk product.

That attitude changed in late 2005, as I was flying back to reunite with a girl I had met in Kansas and 750 people in Ontario became sick from eating raw bean sprouts.

Unfortunately, what food safety types think passes for common knowledge—don’t eat raw sprouts—barely registers as public knowledge. It’s hard to compete against food porn.

Sprouts present a special food safety challenge because the way they are grown, with high moisture at high temperature, also happens to be an ideal environment for bacterial growth.

Because of continued outbreaks, the sprout industry, regulatory agencies, and the academic community in the U.S. pooled their efforts in the late 1990s to improve the safety of the product, implementing good manufacturing practices, establishing guidelines for safe sprout production, and beginning chemical disinfection of seeds prior to sprouting.

But are such guidelines being followed? And is anyone checking?

Doubtful.

This was demonstrated by two sprout-related outbreaks earlier this year linked to sandwiches served by Jimmy John’s, a chain of gourmet sandwich shops based in Champaign, Ill.

Sprouts served on Jimmy John’s sandwiches supplied by a farm called Tiny Greens sickened 140 people with Salmonella, primarily in Indiana. In January, Jimmy John’s owner Jimmy John Liautaud said his restaurants would replace alfalfa sprouts, effective immediately, with allegedly easier-to-clean clover sprouts. This was one week after a separate outbreak of Salmonella sickened eight people in the U.S. Northwest who had eaten at a Jimmy John’s that used clover sprouts.

If the head of a national franchise is that clueless about food safety, can we really expect more from others?

Sprout grower Bill Bagby, who owns Tiny Greens Sprout Farm, said in the context of the German outbreak that, for many like him, the nutritional benefits outweigh the risk:

“Sprouts are kind of a magical thing. That’s why I would advise people to only buy sprouts from someone who has a (food safety) program in place (that includes outside auditors). We did not have (independent auditors) for about one year, and that was the time the problems happened. The FDA determined that unsanitary conditions could have been a potential source of cross-contamination and so we have made a lot of changes since then.”

Independent auditors? Like the ones who said everything was cool, everything was OK, at Peanut Corporation of America (nine dead, 700 sick in 2008-09) and Wright County Egg (2,000 sick in 2010)?

Like the Walkerton E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in 2000, too many are using the filters of their politics to advance their own causes and saying too many dumb things in light of the sprout outbreak of 2011.

It’s really about biology and paying attention to food safety basics—no matter how much that interferes with personal politics.

Walkerton 11 years later; E. coli O157:H7 in a municipal water supply

On Sunday, May 21, 2000, at 1:30 p.m., the Bruce Grey Owen Sound Health Unit in Ontario, Canada, posted a notice to hospitals and physicians on their web site to make them aware of a boil water advisory for Walkerton, and that a suspected agent in the increase of diarrheal cases was E. coli O157:H7.

Not a lot of people were using RSS feeds, and I don’t know if the health unit web site had must-visit status in 2000. But Walkerton, a town of 5,000, was already rife with rumors that something was making residents sick, and many suspected the water supply. The first public announcement was also the Sunday of the Victoria Day long weekend (which happens this weekend in Canada) and received scant media coverage.

It wasn’t until Monday evening that local television and radio began reporting illnesses, stating that at least 300 people in Walkerton were ill.

At 11:00 a.m., on Tuesday May 23, the Walkerton hospital jointly held a media conference with the health unit to inform the public of outbreak, make the public aware of the potential complications of the E. coli O157:H7 infection, and to tell the public to take necessary precautions. This generated a print report in the local paper the next day, which was picked up by the national wire service Tuesday evening, and subsequently appeared in papers across Canada on May 24.

The E. coli was thought to originate on a farm owned by a veterinarian and his family at the edge of town, a cow-calf operation that was the poster farm for Environmental Farm Plans. Heavy rains washed cattle manure into a long discarded well-head which was apparently still connected to the municipal system. The brothers in charge of the municipal water system for Walkerton were found to add chlorine based on smell rather than something like test strips, and were criminally convicted.

Ultimately, 2,300 people were sickened and seven died. All the gory details and mistakes and steps for improvement were outlined in the report of the Walkerton inquiry, available at http://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/english/about/pubs/walkerton/.

Today, as the 11th anniversary of the Walkerton outbreak approaches, Canadian Press reports the Ontario government has paid out more than $72 million in compensation to victims of Walkerton’s tainted water tragedy and their families.

Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley says over 99 per cent of the more than 10,000 compensation claims have been resolved, and the remainder are supposed to be resolved by the end of this year.

A total of 10,189 claims were made, with 9,275 qualifying for compensation.
Bentley says while nothing will ever make up for the tragedy experienced in Walkerton, he hopes the compensation plan has helped all those who suffered continue along the path to healing.

Among the 121 recommendations on an inquiry aimed at preventing a recurrence of the public-health disaster were ones geared toward mandatory training and certification for water-system operators.

10 years after E. coli O157:H7 in Walkerton, Ontario water

On Sunday, May 21, 2000, at 1:30 p.m., the Bruce Grey Owen Sound Health Unit in Ontario, Canada, posted a notice to hospitals and physicians on their web site to make them aware of a boil water advisory and that a suspected agent in the increase of diarrheal cases was E. coli O157:H7.

There had been a marked increase in illness in the town of about 5,000 people, and many were already saying the water was suspect. But the first public announcement was also the Sunday of the Victoria Day long weekend and received scant media coverage.

It wasn’t until Monday evening that local television and radio began reporting illnesses, stating that at least 300 people in Walkerton were ill.

At 11:00 a.m., on Tuesday May 23, the Walkerton hospital jointly held a media conference with the health unit to inform the public of outbreak, make the public aware of the potential complications of the E. coli O157:H7 infection, and to tell the public to take the necessary precautions. This generated a print report in the local paper the next day, which was picked up by the national wire service Tuesday evening, and subsequently appeared in papers across Canada on May 24.

Ultimately, 2,300 people were sickened and seven died. All the gory details and mistakes and steps for improvement were outlined in the report of the Walkerton inquiry.

Boston area boil-water advisory affects two million plus; 10 years of food safety for me

I’m a sucker for the cliche of anniversaries and today is sort of a big one for me. Ten years ago today I started pulling news in the Powell lab, seeking out the raw stories that made up listserv postings for the precursor to bites, FSNet. Pulling news then meant scouring newspaper websites and manually searching news wires for anything food risk-related. Now, we’ve got google alerts, twitter and RSS feeds.

About three weeks in, I fell in love with the content and became hooked on food safety communication. That’s when an E.coli O157 outbreak linked to Walkerton Ontario’s town water system hit. I was already interested in disease (maybe it was because of Outbreak or the Hot Zone?), but the coverage and discussion within the Powell lab around Walkerton (how the outbreak was handled and communicated to the folks drinking the water) drew me in. The outbreak started with few reported illnesses and a boil-water advisory was issued. In the end, seven died, over 1300 were ill and many who have long-term health issues related to the outbreak will continue to feel the effects for years.

This weekend, a precautionary warning about the water supply in parts of Massachusetts reminded me of the Walkerton situation. Not so much the tragic aspects revolving around the illnesses, but issues like the best ways for public health officials to get information out to residents and how anyone making food deals with not having potable water.

According to Boston.com, a major water pipe which supplies Boston and about 30 other communities sprung a leak yesterday prompting a boil-water advisory for over two million residents, businesses and institutions.

Governor Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency and issued a "boil-water" order for the Boston Area "The water is not suitable for drinking. … All residents in impacted communities should boil drinking water before consuming it," he said at a news conference this afternoon. Patrick said the state had asked bottled water companies to make more water available in the state and emergency drinking water supplies could also be made available to the affected communities through the National Guard.

People flocked to stores to buy bottled water when they heard the news. In Lexington, an hourlong run on water cleared a supermarket’s shelves. In Boston, Mayor Thomas M. Menino declared a state of emergency and took a number of steps to inform residents, including reverse 911 calls and sending officers into the streets with bullhorns. Downtown restaurateurs declared the boil order a major inconvenience.