The New York Times had an article about how to avoid food poisoning! This is great that the topic made it in the popular press, not to mention a media with high circulation numbers. And even better, the information was spot on. Information was framed to reflect changing consumer habits such as increased purchases of prepared foods and globalization of the food system. Points about monitoring for time/temperature abuse and avoiding cross contamination were made. Cautions about not washing raw meats and poultry, and avoiding re-washing of bagged salad greens were clearly presented. I also liked that the author mentioned the concept of planning. Plan what foods to pull from the freezer to allow time for thawing under refrigeration, not on the counter. The article also stressed the importance of reporting to the regulatory agencies if one becomes ill. In Iowa, there is a hotline number with an emoji called Ralph as well as lots of other information. To confirm an outbreak, there is a need for a stool sample, which is off putting for many. (Wait, there are [yes, plural!] YouTube videos on How To do this, which takes away some of the mystery). But without the match of the pathogens in the sample with that in the food, a connection cannot be made. Interestingly, the author suggested tracking one’s personal digestive rate so that the source of the contaminated food could be narrowed. Kudos to the Times for providing this useful and relevant information.
My friend sent this photo the other day and wondered if it was part of my brand. Protection of one’s brand, be it personal or professional, is important. Any number of food companies know the negative impact of foodborne illness on their brands. While some bounce back due to effective crisis management (such as Jack in the Box), others do not fare as well (anyone remember Chi-Chi’s?). Good management is critical but so are staff who fully get the importance of actions they take to control for risks of illness from food. The old saying of “one bad apple spoils the bunch” has some truth in it! Everyone in the operation has a role in protecting the brand.
Another car trip, hence another round of talk radio. Yesterday, Rush was going on about the new, enhanced app for his program. It includes archived shows, podcasts, and quotable quotes with the ability to tweat, email, post on Facebook, or send forth in other ways. In listening to this outreach effort, I thought he is everywhere – and makes it easy for folks to pass it on. Maybe that is key with messaging about food safety – making it easy to forward to others. And presenting in a way that makes folks want to do so. If people see or hear something often enough, true or untrue, it seems to become a fact. With our food safety project at Iowa State University, we strive to present information that is not only credible (science or evidence-based) but also useful and relevant to our audiences. See if there is something you think is worth moving forward!
There have been plenty of books devoted to the power of positive reinforcement. This is based on the principles advanced by behaviorist B.F. Skinner with his reinforcement theory, one of the oldest theories of motivation. It has been used in many areas of study to include animal training, raising children, and motivating employees in the workplace. Simply put, positive reinforcement will encourage continuation of the praised behavior. On a recent car trip in Scotland, we saw this applied with the road signs that tracked your speed. If the car was within the posted limit, a happy face appeared with the message “good job!” Of course, the idea is the driver will want more of that positive feedback and stay within speed limits. Ok, so how can this work in a foodservice setting? Do we really need to have a celebration every time an employee does what they are supposed to do? If that were the case, there wouldn’t be much food served! And the reinforcement message would become meaningless because that was all staff heard. But strategic use of positive reinforcement should be used by management – as well as co-workers. When an employee is observed taking the extra steps to ensure safety of food such as calibrating a thermometer so it gives an accurate reading, or rotating stock in the cooler, or refilling the soap dispense at the handwashing sink – these all minimize the risk of a glitch in the system. Another guru in the world of management, Kenneth Blanchard, has a book entitled Catch People Doing Something Right. Although published in 1999, the message is still relevant today. Good Job Everyone!
One of the activities we use in food safety training involves packets of about ten different white powders that could be found in a foodservice operation. These include corn starch, laundry detergent, cleaning agents, flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, and baking soda. The objective is to raise awareness of importance of labeling because we all know using the wrong ingredient can affect the final product, not to mention cause harm to an individual. In the past, I would blithely walk across campus carrying these bags of unlabeled white powder, but in today’s world, unpackaged white powders raise suspicion. Who wants the HazMat team (or police) descending on the operation? In fact, a recent article in our campus newsletter recounted how a dorm room received a HazMat visit because of some type of protein powder stored in an unlabeled container! Moral of the story? Label, label, label. And be sure the label makes sense. I’ve seen spray bottles of sanitizer in restaurants labeled only with “Cook’s” or “Barb’s” – just the “who” and not the “what”. The “what” makes a difference!
Some of you may remember that slogan used in a (my goodness it was back in mid 1980’s – 30 plus years ago!) popular commercial for Wendy’s chain that featured the proverbial “little ol lady” asking about beef in the burgers. She was ribbing another chain about size of the bun in comparison to the hamburger but the slogan has remained in American culture to question the substance of an idea or product.
The question is a fair one for consumers with pending introduction of plant-based protein products grown from cell or tissue culture derived from livestock in the lab, not on the farm. Questions about regulatory oversight for food safety and labeling requirements are not clearly answered. Think about choices you see in the Dairy case at the grocery store. Selections of all sorts of “milk” are available – soy and almond to name some best sellers. Are these really milk? In response to “meat” products being brought to market, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has outlined key principles for regulation of these new foods and submitted these to USDA Food Safety Inspection Service. Interesting times. Reading labels to understand ingredients in the foods you buy is important!
I was leafing through the February edition of Wallace Farmer (yes, I am behind!) and an editorial by Alan Newport titled “USDA needs to get out of the regulation business” caught my eye. His beef was that most regulations result in more than raising the cost of doing business and that repealing all specialty-food regulations (such as organic and grass-fed) is needed. His contention is it is the job of the food sellers to define their product and consumers should take personal responsibility for their choices. The editorial was published shortly after USDA withdrew one of its organic rules which attempted to include animal welfare requirements into the definition of organic and resulted in a firestorm of controversy by food activists. Mr. Newport does concede that some regulatory oversight may be needed particularly as it pertains to safety of food. I do not disagree. Yet a suggestion is made that the public should decide the extent of this oversight not elected representatives. Hmmm. Given the free-wheeling information readily available, much of it not vetted for accuracy, I am not sure that is such a good idea. Most people I interact with believe that if a food item is on the shelf, then there has been some oversight somewhere along the farm to fork path to ensure it is safe. There is a faith that unsafe food cannot be sold and fairly high trust in vendors. Much of the trust is assumed because today’s consumer is usually short on time – convenience trumps due diligence. Yet, some personal responsibility is needed. Failure to store perishable foods at correct temperatures, failure to cook to end point temperatures, and failure to cook in a clean environment are not the responsibility of the food producer or seller. Regulations that require meat packages to include education for consumers via meat handling labels has been on the books for over 20 years (a byproduct of the Jack in Box E Coli outbreaks in 1993) and STILL someone somewhere has become ill from improper handling or cooking. Whether the advice is followed is left to the consumer who makes that personal choice. The editorial ends with the comment that rules cannot replace morality; no argument from me. There is also that old saying that you can’t regulate common sense! What do you think?
Word of the day – crazing. It is term for the patchwork of very fine cracks on plastic polyethylene containers that are first signs of deterioration. As mentioned in the recent blog on quality of plastics used in making of bath toys, the same can apply to food containers. Many vendors package products using this material. Who doesn’t occasional reuse a margarine, yogurt, or sour cream carton? At first glance, it seems a shame to toss these. (Sidebar 1: When we cleaned out my in-laws place, we found quite a collection of margarine containers; of course my mother-in-law grew up during the Depression when everything had a second or third life! Sidebar 2: I remember staff talking about excitement when feed bags arrived in their youth as they knew this was fabric that would be used in making a new dress.) The mantra of reduce, reuse and recycle makes sense for many items in our lives. However, keep in mind that plastic containers for food are intended for single use. Repeated washings will result in crazing, which can result in leeching of some harmful components of the plastics into food. I try to reuse the containers but avoid direct contact with food; rather I use them as a double wall of protection, mainly for quality control purposes. The 16 oz. plastic containers work great at storing a half bag of rice in dry storage or a partial bag of frozen vegetables. The container is fairly sturdy and helps in keeping storage areas organized. You can also put them to use outside of the kitchen and keep paper clips or other office supplies organized. All sorts of “Hints from Heloise” suggestions. Go crazy but watch the crazing!
A study recently published in the Journal of Biofilms and Microbiomes (full disclosure: I did not read the actual manuscript, rather a newspaper article’s summary) counted microbes on insides of bath toys, like the beloved rubber ducks. Warm bath water coupled with bodily fluids (like urine and sweat) created a balmy area for some bacteria. The study reported Legionella and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (often associated with hospital acquired infections) were present in large numbers (up to 75 million cells per square centime of surface). The difference in bacterial counts depended on quality of the materials used in making the bath toys; the conclusion was higher quality polymers could prevent bacterial and fungal growth. So what does this have to do with Safe Food? Well, cleaning and sanitizing properly are fundamental to ensuring a safe food preparation environment. Typically the concern is with cross contamination – I know I have seen plenty of “cleaning” occur with dirty clothes and soiled water. But what about quality of materials used in making of the cleaning tool? One example that comes to mind is produce wash brushes. Is this an area needing more research or oversight with labeling of products to ensure they are safe to use with food? Most of us recognize we don’t live in a bubble or a sterile world and thankfully, our immune systems protect us most of the time from the presence of harmful microorganisms.
Here in Iowa, home of Music Man Meridith Wilson, most folks recognize the phrase! The song captures the excitement of mail order deliveries in the early 1900’s. Fast forward over one hundred years, and the concept is a hard one to get our heads around. What? No daily mail delivery, no Prime delivery, Fed Ex Overnight of packages or – gasp – no electronic communications? Food shopping has certainly changed too. Until recently, specialty, upscale foods (think Omaha Steaks) were mail delivery based but day to day needs required a trek to the grocery store. Many of the larger chains, and even concept like Super Target and Walmart, will provide online grocery shopping. Go through virtual aisles and pick what you want/need. Amazon’s entry into fresh food delivery, ramped up with its purchase of Whole Foods last year, is likely going to lead to changes throughout the industry. Certainly delivery services are nice – and for some folks with mobility impairments, a necessity. From a food safety perspective, hopefully packaging will protect integrity of food, strict protocols for delivery personnel regarding protection and timelines will be in place, and temperature controls will be provided to ensure limit bacterial growth of products. The times are a’ changing but fundamental food safety precautions are constant.