SafeFood© Scary Treats

October 31st, 2014

I just finished preparing a webinar about food allergens and action steps retail foodservices should take to accommodate their customers. Boy, was that eye-opening! It is estimated 15 million Americans have some type of food allergy – and that 8 foods cause 90% of these. In addition to peanuts (who isn’t aware some folks are allergic to this food?) the other 7 major food allergens are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, soy, wheat, and tree nuts (which includes multiple types of nuts and their products, including coconuts). The issue in accommodating is recognizing the presence of these allergens in foods – as someone might not realize a baked cake might have coconut oil in the shortening agent. These products are identified on labels as required by the Food and Drug Administration since 2004, but until recently, many foodservices weren’t as attuned to these risks. Schools and child care centers have been at the forefront in accommodating children with food allergens; colleges and universities are starting to see an uptick. Most little kids learn early on they can’t eat the food they are allergic to; avoidance is the treatment. But come trick or treat night, it might get pretty hard for them to resist the urge to tear open a candy bar or share a treat with a friend. It was interesting to read about the Teal Pumpkin Project – an effort by the Food Allergy Research and Education group, or FARE, to raise awareness about food allergies. Homeowners willing to provide non-food treats, thus avoiding risk of an incident, put out a teal colored pumpkin. Researching food allergies certainly raised my awareness – and sensitivity to the topic. I can appreciate the fears of parents whose children have severe food allergies. Here is hoping that teal becomes the new black (and orange) and the possibilities of scary treats find their own graves! Have a SafeFood© Halloween Boys and Girls (and moms and dads who help test the goods!



Hand in Hand

October 25th, 2014

I recently attended a national conference. While on my travels, I was of course, out of habit, paying close attention to hand washing practices in women’s restrooms. It was not uncommon for those who started washing their hands after me, to finish before me. I don’t think I’m a fanatic, but clearly the 20 second guideline was not always being used. However, I was very impressed with a food service employee who worked in a small food court, where the public restroom was also the employee restroom. Not only did she follow the 20 second rule, she also scrubbed exposed parts of her arms. Clearly, she had received great training and was using what she had learned.
One of the recent news reports summarized a study done by the University of Arizona regarding findings of how contaminated kitchen towels were found to be. All I can say is gross! Findings from this project clearly point to the importance of properly cleaning, sanitizing, and frequently changing kitchen towels. Better yet, single use towels might be the answer as long as the single use guideline is followed. How many paper towel media ads lead consumers to think and believe paper towels are so strong they can be easily be reused?
As posted on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website, in order “to keep pace with emerging public health challenges and to address the leading causes of death and disability, the CDC has begun an effort to achieve measurable impact quickly in a few targeted areas. The term “Winnable Battles” describes public health priorities with large-scale impact on health and with known, effective strategies to intervene.” One of the winnable battles is Food Safety. Sharing data and information, and providing safe food handling education are just some of the strategies identified as ways to achieve this goal. Hand in hand with these goals is the Healthy People 2020 initiative which helps direct the work of the CDC. One of the target objectives is to “increase the number of consumers who follow key food safety practices”. The message is clear, consumer education is essential to making Food Safety a winnable battle. Those working in Extension are well positioned with the knowledge and expertise to help make Food Safety a Winnable Battle. After all, quality food safety training and education for consumers do go hand in hand.


SafeFood© in School Lunches

October 18th, 2014

As we wrap up National School Lunch week, it seems appropriate to give a shout out to the thousands of folks involved in supporting child nutrition programs in schools. This includes government staff at federal and state levels who set up the infrastructure and provide oversight to of course those in the districts who plan, prepare and serve nutritious foods safely to our nation’s youth. Did you know over 31 million lunches are served each day throughout the country? Did you know schools have written food safety plans to minimize risks of any intentional or unintentional contamination of the food? Did you know the number of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunches is increasing? The school lunch program has changed A LOT since its formalization in 1946 with the Richard Russell Act; it is not your mother’s hot lunch program! Yet, the goal of ensuring the health and food security of the children in our country has not changed. Kids need good nutrition to be successful academically. Unfortunately, for some kids, meals at school are about the only adequate nutrition they receive; for others, the food offered broadens their exposure to healthy options. The health stats in this country are pretty clear – we have increased cases of diseases and conditions that could be prevented from a good diet. While the home and family are first teachers for kids, the role of schools cannot be overlooked. The school health environment says a lot about a community. What is the story in your school district? Want to know more? Of course you do – it is your tax dollars that support these efforts!
See our publication about school meals



SafeFood© – It Depends

October 12th, 2014

Seems everyone is a food expert these days! Even Dear Abby is getting in on the act providing guidance on shelf life of foods. While there is guidance available (which Abby did use), it is hard to have hard and fast rules simply because each food ingredient characteristics are different (i.e. amount of available water or acidity levels); how it was handled at production, processing and preparation stages; and how it has been stored. Any error (human or environmental) along the food chain could result in an unsafe product – pathogenic levels could be very high yet the product looks just fine. That is the tricky thing with food borne illnesses – it is pretty hard to see harmful microorganisms without a microscope! With concerns about excessive food waste in the US when so many are food insecure, it does make sense to apply a little discretion before tossing leftovers (better yet, think about how to reduce the amount of waste to begin with!). So, the general guidance is a “4 day throwaway” (see info and apps for this at for prepared/cooked leftovers. Other foods, such as condiments have a longer shelf life because of the nature of the product. We found a “canned ham” in the cupboard and are going to have some tests run to determine levels of some potential pathogens. As you can see the can looks pretty good and canning is an effective preservation technique. Stay tuned on what we find!



SafeFood: I’ve Always Done it This Way

October 5th, 2014

I recently attended an outdoor event in which a hot buffet was served. The food was delivered by 5:30 PM with the buffet being set up shortly after delivery. Since it was an outdoor event, hot food was keep warm in chaffing dishes heated with sterno with back-up entrees and sides kept in the insulated holding containers. By about 9:45 PM the hostess decided to take down the buffet. Since she knew the food was by now outside the safe food limit and temps were not being checked, she had decided whatever was still on the buffet should simply be tossed. However, as we were moving food back into the house, a couple of the guests thought it would be fine to save the food for another day, especially the leftover beef casserole entrée. When I mentioned the issue of food safety the response was cold beef is fine and we’ve never had any problems eating leftovers. Food safety also came up a couple of times when thawing a turkey which wasn’t quite defrosted and thawing some leftover Thai food. The initial plan for thawing these foods was to run under warm water. I pointed out to thaw food quickly and safely, the food should be put under cold running water. This was obviously a new concept. I am not certain how to best communicate safe food messages to the average consumer. On my drive between Ames and Iowa City there is a bill board on Highway 30 featuring the Safe Food Family graphic icon. While I know what the icon’s symbols means, I wonder about others who see the billboard. What is the best way to educate consumers and share food safety information? How much food safety information is taught in schools, especially for high school students? Extension and Outreach staff certainly play a valuable role by providing a variety of resources. However, are more social marketing messages and food safety information needed in grocery stores? I certainly what to change the thought from “I’ve always done it this way” to “this is the food safe way”.


SafeFood© in China: Now What?

September 30th, 2014

When Smithfield Foods Inc. (the world’s largest pork producer) was sold to China’s Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd a deal approved by the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment) – there was some controversy. A lot of the controversy stemmed from China’s track record in food safety (think back to 2008 when there were six deaths and thousands of hospitalizations reported from milk spiked with an industrial chemical). Not a lot of trust in the government’s oversight in ensuring the safety of food then – or now. The latest incident (which is having global ramifications as it involves several iconic U.S. based restaurant chains) isn’t exactly reassuring. This isn’t a case of someone accidently forgetting to do something the right way – employees at a processing plant (not Smithfields – this one is Shanghai Husi) were shown on TV of using out of date chicken and beef to make chicken products and beef patties. And if that isn’t enough to make you ill, there was videotape of employees picking up meat that had dropped on the floor and putting it back into the processing machine. Which restaurants was this company processing meat for? McDonalds (which is the second largest food chain in China), KFC and other quick service restaurants in China pulled meat and poultry items off their menus. No quarter pounder for you! OSI, the parent company of Shanghai Husi (based outside of Chicago) called the case an isolated incident – yet suspended all sales and recalled all food processed at the Shanghai plant. Really? How reassuring. Has the country really got their food safety act together? At the time of the outcry in mid-July, Husi did not specify how much food it would recall but promised an internal investigation and new management at the plant. The company also pledged to cooperate with authorities, who have ordered the facility closed and detained five people as part of their own inquires. The safety of food sold in China is not limited to quick service – Retail giant WalMart recently headlined an investigation of (again) changing expiration dates on meat products and (maybe not as serious but pretty gross) not changing oil in fryers. The statement from Wal-Mart said the company was cooperating fully with local authorities and would take “immediate actions” to deal with any issues uncovered. Are you reassured?

China is not alone with challenges to safety of their food supply chains – it happens here in the US of A too. Local health inspectors at points of sale, government agencies charged with oversight of food production and processing, and other food safety advocates do have their work cut out for them – but there is a sense of vigilance. And, if there is a problem, outbreaks are investigated so there is a better understanding of food borne illness prevention. Not a fool-proof system, but certainly pretty effective. By contrast, Professor Don Schaffner, current president of the International Association of Food Protection noted in a July blog written by Michael Moss and Neil Gough compared China’s current food safety system to the U.S. meat packing industry in early 1900s as depicted in Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle”.

So, where is the beef today? McDonalds has since switched suppliers and beef is back on the menus – but decision to stay with OSI is not clear. Stay tuned!



SafeFood© Travels a Gravel Road

September 20th, 2014

Listening to Elvis Radio (!!!) and heard a new one (to me) called “True Love Travels a Gravel Road”. Not quite a country song but there is a message in this, which is that life and love are not always smooth going. I happened to be on my way home traveling over my own gravel road (literally) when I heard the song, so it made me think about goals and achievements, and that most of them do involve some sort of bumps, bruises, or exertion. Students who graduate from our doctoral program often say the road to a PhD required a lot more attention to detail than expected. The same might be said of good food – achieving a quality and safe product does take extra care – but a memorable meal that doesn’t cause illness is worth it! Safe traveling along your own gravel roads!



It Is All About the Money

September 11th, 2014

As I was thinking of a topic, it occurred to me legislative initiatives and policy would be appropriate, thus for a bit of light reading, I started delving into the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama January 4, 2011. The law is in the midst of the rule making process. One of the comments I read was of course about needing money and funding sources. There is agreement the law is important due to the fact 1 in 6 Americans suffers from a foodborne illness which is of course a public health cost, yet the question of how to pay for implementation remains an obstacle. As a result of the 2004 Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, schools foodservice locations are required to have 2 health inspections per school year. However, my experience was 2 inspections per year for our production kitchens, one for our non-prep, service only schools. In addition documentation had to be obtained from our local health department to verify why only one inspection was taking place for some schools. This again, seemed to be all about available financial and staffing resources. I realize money is a significant resource and often a barrier. However, when the health and safety of Americans and our food supply is impacted, hopefully finding a funding stream which is agreeable to all involved is a top priority. However, it does seem far too often, it is all about the money.
Dianemoney photo


SafeFood©: No Way Out!

September 4th, 2014

Last week Diane talked about hand washing supplies. That blog did generate a few funny comments related to alcohol containers and some “but officer, I need the Everclear™ for hand hygiene” jokes. This week I want to take the hand washing a step further and consider how the heck to exit the bathroom without re-contaminating clean hands. Some places make it easy – like airports that have curved wall entrances, automatic faucets, soap and towel dispensers (if you can get the right wave action), and flush toilets. Others aren’t so easy – maybe only hand air dryers are available rather than paper towels. But the door might open in so your clean hands don’t get dirty touching the handle (sad but true not everyone washes their hands!).
On a recent road trip, we stopped at an “almost there but not quite” state of art rest facility. There were auto flushes on toilets, soap (lots of it) dispensed without direct contact, and faucets came on with a brief flash of hands under them. There was both a wave paper towel dispenser and an air dryer. So far, this place was rocking (food safety people’s idea of fun!). But, the only way out was to pull open the door handle. Fortunately in this case they had paper towels. What to do if not available? A sleeve might work – if it isn’t middle of summer and not long- sleeve season. Or, wait for someone to come in or follow on heels of someone exiting. There is a way out – just takes a little strategizing!

bathroom handdryer


SafeFood©: It’s All About the HANDS!

August 29th, 2014

Correct handwashing is one of the key steps in preventing foodborne illness. Endless resources, especially posters with visual images and easy to understand instructions can be found in the restrooms of every foodservice operation, restaurant, and school. As I was organizing Extension food safety materials, the majority of the publications either focused on or contained handwashing information along with great visual images. With all these resources and messages, which people see on a daily basis, you would think controlling outbreaks such as Norovirus would be relatively easy. In fact, the first step listed on the CDC’s Norovirus home page of how to protect yourself is “Wash your hands often”. Yet, as we traveled out to Arizona on our summer vacation, I continued to be amazed as to how difficult correct hand washing was. There were either the c-stores and/or rest stops with no soap in the dispenser, or no paper towels, or only cold water, all of which made hand washing a challenge. Thus “where’s the hand sanitizer” became a frequent statement. Of course, our alcohol based hand sanitizer, like most, certainly did not contain a high enough alcohol concentration to have any effect on killing norovirus. According to the CDC, in the United States, norovirus is a leading cause of illness from contaminated food. With students heading back to school, handwashing messages becomes even more important. As food safety professionals, continued training, messaging, and reinforcement of the importance of proper hand washing continues to be a priority. Just think of the positive health benefits if everyone just correctly washed their hands, after all, it’s all about the hands.