I think we can all agree food is a big and important business. We are long past the era when families could “live off the land” – nowadays most folks don’t even have a patch of land for growing/raising food. Community gardens are one way to provide some space but the reality is almost all of us depend on food retail businesses to feed us. A visitor from outer space might think our society is bipolar when it comes to food – there are those who love from scratch cooking and those who don’t have a clue or the time to do so. (Maybe bringing back required home ec classes is the answer – but that is another blog!). Those who don’t prepare meals at home are sought after by various retail groups –big target markets are the millennial generation or empty nesters. Different sectors of retail food are recognizing these needs – more and more convenience stores are freeing up space for either premade meal items to go (i.e. pizza and sandwiches) or refrigeration for “ready to heat” items for at home dining. Grocery stores continue this trend (many have offered their brands of prepared foods for a while) and some chains have expanded into sit down service options. Pop up outlets from chain restaurants at farmers markets and other venues are also common. The changing landscape of retail food is likely to continue. While the definition of restaurant becomes less clear, the availability of soup or a sandwich anytime, anywhere is widespread. Want a snack at 1 AM? No problem as many C-stores and grocery stores are open 24/7. Convenience is appreciated by many. Let’s just hope all these operations getting into the food preparation and service arena have planned well and trained their staff on safe handling practices! I’d like to see a sign that says SafeFood is Served Here!
Yep – this IS the food season with lots of activity in the kitchen and poring over cookbooks searching for inspiration and the “right” thing to bring to a holiday event. I inherited several classic cookbooks from my maternal grandmother – she prolly is one who influenced my interest in food management. As a kid, she patiently worked with me just about every day in summers to bake a batch of cookies. I think I made about every type of cookie in the first edition Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook but kept coming back to page 204 – peanut butter cookies. My family loved it! Literally, my fingerprints, along with dried food stains, are all over it! These thoughts came to mind when I read this article about the “bio-hazards” from cookbooks published in Food Safety News forwarded to me by friend Janell (you may recall she used to work in our Food Safety Project office so of course, is attuned to these things). The article discusses how cookbooks will likely get splashed with food during preparation and/or handled by someone with unclean hands. Further, there is mention of high bacterial loads, specifically Staphylococcus aureus, found in a 2013 UK study of tablet and mobile phone screens, which are the preferred “cookbooks” of new generations. Janell mentioned how she reminds herself to wash hands when using her phone for a recipe source. What is take away? Awareness of an issue is always the first step – so now, this is on your radar. To prevent? Consider investing in one of those cook book covers that can be used to protect the recipe from splatters or place the screen of the mobile device away from the action. Having said that, the bio-hazards do bring back fond memories every time I pull out the Betty Crocker Cookbook!
Here we go – the kick off to the food (aka holiday) season! Some might argue the food season really begins with Halloween (all the candy!) and clearly grocery stores are increasing inventories of canned pumpkins, turkeys and the like. Stores were like a war zone days prior to Thanksgiving – a bit of a concern was the number of carts seen on Tuesday with frozen turkeys because it takes an average of one day for every four pounds of bird to thaw safely in the fridge. Hopefully Black Friday is still just a shopping phrase and not descriptive of a reaction to any food consumed for those folks who bought the turkeys closer to the holiday! I had tried to avoid hitting the stores this week but had forgotten a few items, and while I was there ended up getting more food and supplies (everything looked so good!). Maybe it is the weather or suggestions from media but Thanksgiving is when food becomes front and center and nesting instincts kick in. From now through the Christmas season food will be all around us – so be cautious about snacks if not sure how or when prepared or whether kept at proper temperatures before offered to you. Enjoy but do so as an informed consumer – literally! More info available at our web site Iowa State University Food Safety Project
Recently returned from the Latin American Food Safety Conference in Cancun, Mexico. (Someone from our group had to present and host a poster about our Leafy Green project – so I volunteered!). What a beautiful place – hard to believe that 50 years ago it was a newly created environment carved out of a jungle. The prediction of the government tourism office that “if we build it, they will come” certainly was proven correct. The number of hotels (big hotels) along the 30 mile hotel zone was amazing. What further struck me was the strong customer service orientation of all the employees and the excellent presentation and service at restaurants. Everyone wore hairnets that completely covered the hair. Chairs were pulled out for ladies. Every server replaced the utensils used with starter course for the main course (none of the typical “do you want to save your fork?” – I always wonder – save it for what???). Orders were taken first of women and then for men. Plates were carefully placed in front of guests from the right with the garnish positioned just so. Attention was paid regarding refills of beverages and chips. Soiled dishware was cleared and placed on bottom shelf of cart before the next course was presented. I used to teach front of the house to students in a restaurant class so had my own checklist of do’s and don’ts – these servers nailed it every time! Housekeeping, front desk and bellhops were equally attentive; I was greeted by name every time I walked on the floor or in the lobby. Obviously training is a key factor in success. Certainly the tourism groups would not want a food borne illness to occur. The conference was held just prior to opening of high season and training for new staff was in full swing. I was told many people return annually to this paradise – it is easy to see why!
Hopefully this number won’t be needed – especially as we roll into the food (aka holiday) season. The Iowa Department of Inspection and Appeals and the Iowa Department of Public Health have created a new way to report a food borne illness which should help affected consumers cut through the regulatory layers. Face it, if you are experiencing the symptoms of a food borne illness, likely you aren’t inclined to work through the bureaucracy figuring out the appropriate report site as different agencies have oversight on different foods and even places where sold. The IowaSic Hotline is a statewide one-call system Iowans can use to report suspected food related illnesses. The hotline is answered by specialists who will ask callers about the illness, symptoms, onset and duration, and other foods consumed for the past several days. Some food bugs take a few days to incubate in your system, so what causes illness isn’t necessarily the last food or beverage consumed. After the call is made to IowaSic (1-844-469-2742), trained specialists will begin an investigation into the “what, why and where” of your illness. In a study our food safety team here at ISU did a few years back, we heard from many Iowans that they didn’t want to get anyone in trouble or cause a restaurant to lose business because they got sick. Given the reputation for “Iowa nice”, this wasn’t a complete surprise. However, not reporting allows poor practices (such as workers not washing hands or working when sick) and/or bad products (foods contaminated at the farm or in transit to selling points) to make others sick. So, reporting is important. Now with IowaSic – it is easy to do so! And, making life easy is important under duress!
With Halloween approaching, usual warnings about adulterated foods float around although trick or treaters (and their parents) know not to eat anything unpackaged or made by someone they don’t know. And most folks realize it doesn’t make sense to prepare homemade treats for random kids knocking at the door. Scary stories about razor blades in apples were common when I was a trick or treater (many full moons ago!). So was interested to read of a complaint made about razor blades present in donuts purchased from a local grocery store. The donuts were part of a reception for Grandparents Day at the elementary school (vulnerable audience alert!). Fortunately, the blades were noticed before consumption and there were no injuries. An investigation was conducted. It was determined that the razor blades were stored on a shelf above the doughnut mixer, and somehow, some way, some of the blades fell into the dough mix with no one noticing until the reception. The report closed with the statement that new storage procedures were implemented. Thankfully! This incident is a good example of why organization and proper storage of food and nonfood items are needed anywhere and anytime food is prepared! Fortunately, this story had a happy attending when it easily could have been a scary tale told for decades by those attending the event!
It seems to me that a trend to provide savory snacks (such as flavored popcorns or cereal mix) at conferences and group gatherings rather than sweets (no examples needed!) is occurring – at least at recent workshops I have been to. As a dietitian, I get the benefits of providing options other than high calorie, low nutrient foods. But as someone in the food safety world, I sometimes cringe at the presentation styles offered. At one a few months back, a big bowl of spice enhanced popcorn was presented on the refreshment table – without a scoop or containers to hold servings. So, guess what happened? Yep, hand to mouth to food in bowl repeated over and over by multiple people. What I knew or had observed and what I didn’t know or had observed of these folks prior actions made me lose interest in the popcorn in a jiffy. As we enter cold and flu season, I hope there is greater awareness by food vendors to think beyond preparation to how the product will be served and handled by the guests.
Am spending the weekend with visiting Guest Chefs from Yucatan, Mexico who are preparing a culinary event with our students here on campus. When I visited these chefs a few years back, the term “cooking clean” was used frequently. In their parlance, it meant, and still does, cooking with an eye to safety and cleanliness. Basically it means separation of clean surfaces from soiled, raw foods from cooked, and an incorporation of mise en place into the processes so the work place was kept organized. I noticed they were still employing these practices while preparing the meal for the event. Yet, when I googled the term, what came up from the search was references to dietary modifications: no gluten, no chemicals, no this, and no that. The term Clean Labels is being used by food manufacturers to showcase adaptations in their product formulations to no preservatives, no chemicals, etc. The use of Clean Labels is driven by consumers, many who are advocating for greater food choices. I hope those purchasing clean label foods are cooking clean in their home kitchens!
As the saying goes – hindsight is 20/20. It is not uncommon for any of us to reflect on past actions and lament “if only” I had done this or that, I would have saved myself some grief. Sometimes the “if only” do over might have saved some lives – say if a dish wasn’t thoroughly cooked or an ingredient came from a questionable source or the person preparing food had not washed their hands when and how they should. I had an “if only” experience the other day. At a family gathering, my sister (much smarter sister!) asked me to thinly strip fresh jalapeno peppers. The reply (from the not so smart sister – me – one who didn’t use this item a lot) was “Sure”! So I got to it – washed the fresh produce, set up my work station and merrily trimmed, seeded, and then stripped the peppers. All was well until I finished and realized my hands were on fire! IF ONLY (caps on purpose) I had worn gloves! I had not because the peppers were to be used in a cooked dish. IF ONLY I had thought beyond simply safe food handling and thought about physical safety! Advice for relief included soaking hands in milk, rinsing with rubbing alcohol, and applying hydrocortisone cream. All worked – for a brief spell. Finally, after hours, the pain subsided. One take away is obvious – wear gloves when handling flammable foods. Another lesson learned is – think about other side effects – this might avoid another IF ONLY moment! Stay safe!
A recent study by researchers at Rutgers University and published in Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology basically debunked the five-second rule of germ transfer. As you might recall from playground info during recess (always a valid source), as long as you pick up dropped food within the five seconds, then you have “beat the germs” as there was not enough time for contamination to occur. Dr. Donald Schaffner led the study where foods with various characteristics (such as amount of moisture, texture, stickiness, etc.) were dropped from a height of about 5 inches onto different surfaces (carpet, tile, wood, and stainless steel) that were bathed in a disease causing bacteria. The key findings were: 1) longer contact with contaminated surface led to higher bacterial transfer; 2) higher moisture food, like watermelon, picked up the greatest number of bacterial cells and 3) surprisingly, carpet transferred fewer bacteria than stainless steel or tile. The real take away is the five-second rule is like a lot of other news from the schoolyard – maybe it is not accurate!