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.


SafeFood at the Fair!

August 18th, 2014

It is that time of year – the Iowa State Fair. Of course you have heard of this and all of the excitement – beginning with the parade, the Governor’s Steer Show (raising funds for Ronald McDonald House), rides, and of course, food!
Food prepared and served in a number of ways – in a cup, bowl, wrap, and on a stick! There are over 200 food vendors and each one is inspected by the local regulatory team to ensure sanitary and safety standards are met – there is no pass because it is a temporary gig. Some foods are riskier than others, like the capresse salad on a stick over the fried butter. For many, a big highlight of the fair is the food (yours truly included). My friend has her “free for all” with fair food on her annual visit – a corn dog, buttered popcorn, handmade fresh lemonade, and a funnel cake. To each their own. Thank goodness the health team is on the job to make sure fair food is fun and safe!



No More Gloves

August 9th, 2014

As I was reading through the July 29, 2014 news postings on the Food Safety News web site I was intrigued by the NEWS DESK article “Hawaii Could Follow California by Repealing Glove Law”. I also read the story link regarding the repeal of the glove law which was passed by the California legislature back in June. Reasons for repealing the law included difficulty created for some chefs while preparing certain items, such as sushi, increased trash, and slowing preparation time. All I can say about increased difficulty in preparing foods is if surgical teams can perform delicate operations while wearing gloves, I hope someone could make sushi with gloved hands. The caveat to the no more glove rule is meticulous documentation of hand washing. The bill “would require employees to use utensils, as specified, to assemble ready-to-eat food or to place ready-to-eat food on tableware or in other containers” and would “authorize food employees to assemble or place on tableware or in other containers ready-to-eat food in an approved food preparation area without using utensils if hands are cleaned in accordance with specified provisions” as outlined in California’s Health and Safety Code. Section 113952-113961 of California’s code outlines in great detail all handwashing guidelines. With the change in the California code, hopefully foodservice operations in this state will be successful in thorough training and monitoring of employees’ handwashing behaviors. The Iowa State University Extension and Outreach website would certainly be one resource which could provide education and training materials regarding proper handwashing. Hopefully the legislators’ decision to alter FDA Food Code regulations will not negatively impact the health of people in California and perhaps, soon to be, those in Hawaii.