Agri-tourism activities flourish this time of year with pumpkin patches, corn mazes, hay rides, and farms with pick your own apples easily accessed from most population centers. We took our annual tour to the apple orchards outside of Gay Mills, Wisconsin last weekend. We weren’t the only ones there! Note to self: next year try to visit on a weekday! There are varieties of apples we don’t usually see at the grocery store AND the value added foods are wonderful! When the kids were little, their first stop would be the fresh apple sundaes (Yum!), followed by apple cider donuts and apple pizza. It has been interesting to note in recent years increasing attention to food safety practices demonstrated by the vendors. Apple samples are now pre-cut with a dispenser for toothpicks that doesn’t require hand touching. There has also been increased signage warning visitors of moving equipment, limiting access to certain areas, and advising to wash hands after petting animals. This last bit of advice is particularly important for teachers to remember when leading student field trips as there have been outbreaks of E Coli O 157 H 7 following kids who didn’t wash hands after petting animals and prior to the snack. Signage is all pretty smart thinking by the orchard owners. Anytime there are visitors on property, there are potential liability risks. The signs educate guests and provide direction. Given the fact there are more and more people who have never been on a farm, the protective measures put into place make sense and are just good business. I have also observed improvements in the food preparation areas (appropriate attire is now worn) and infrastructure (clean and well-stocked public restrooms are available!). Operators of these agri-tourism ventures provide an opportunity for “city folk” to see where and how food is produced. Those who visit these farms should be respectful of that fact and follow directions given on the signage. This results in a win win for all!
From clean your room, to clean labels, to clean and sanitized – we hear the word clean used quite a bit. It is interesting that it seems to have a different meaning for various audiences! Telling your children to clean their rooms may have a different outcome than what was expected. I remember in my early days of managing a foodservice when a student understood my telling him to wash the apples meant getting a scrub brush and really cleaning them! Food Handlers is a company that offers free professional development opportunities to those interested in retail foodservices. The topic on the upcoming webinar this Wednesday (October 11th) is about Cleaning and Sanitizing, presented by yours truly.
Tune in and gain a better understanding of the fundamentals of the process and some tips on how to make it happen in your foodservice setting.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal described how college and university dining operations, as part of a marketing tool to attract students, are focusing on sustainability. This has been a trending concept for over the last decade as students (and other consumers) ask questions about production practices, origin of product, social justice/fair prices for workers, and perceived safety of product (e.g. GMO, pesticides). Lately Clean Labels seem to be vying with Sustainable as the term de jour. On every campus there seems to be a vocal group of students who advocate for sustainable dining and lobby/demand changes. Some may want a meatless world, while others demand Fair Trade coffee or organically grown fruits and vegetables. There is nothing wrong with advocating, in fact, engagement by students on issues is part of the college experience. Inquiring minds want to know! But the deal is that sustainability is a complex issue. There is no common definition – although most agree the term of sustainability refers to economic, environmental and social impacts that don’t cause harm. Given colleges and university settings are/should be about education based on research or evidence-based information rather than opinions or personal preferences, it is hoped students are advocating for campus dining changes based on sound science. Procurement of foods with specific production characteristics are generally priced at a premium. While there are a number of factors that affect pricing of products, larger organizations have established infrastructures and systems to maximize output efficiently while smaller organizations often can’t. These economies of scale in production and/or transportation will affect price. The WSJ article mentioned some parental push back with the higher price tag for room and board. Rooms are certainly changing which may explain part of this – the post WWII 1950’s style box with the bathroom down the hall and only two outlets don’t meet the needs of many students. But higher food costs also contribute to higher rates. It is clear some students have very specific philosophies and opinions about the food they eat – while others just want to eat. The person in charge of purchasing has to be a good steward of resources, provide quality and safe food, and meet needs of customers. There are likely silent students on campus who like and expect animal protein to be on the menu or who really don’t care where or how their produce was grown. A variety of views on what is quality and safe food and how best to use resources requires conversations with, and input from, all stakeholders (not just the vocal minority) to reach consensus. With concerns for rising costs of higher education, science should certainly be part of the discussion!
Most have heard about the heavy rains and subsequent flooding that have hit Texas and Florida this year as a result of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Being in Houston at the time of Harvey and experiencing 30 plus inches of rain over a 72 hour window of time (some places got 50 inches!) I heard and saw quite a bit of the damage. The Houston Chronicle had an article about the impact of the storm on agriculture, notably the smaller produce farms. Many growers from areas around the Houston metro have an advantage for direct marketing of their products to customers because of the population base (six million people!) with many of these folks very interested in knowing the source of the food they eat. This is similar to trends across the nation of increasing numbers of farmers markets and grocery chains promoting local produce. A few blogs back I mentioned impact of road closures on grocery store supply chains – running to the market for a few things to see that the market inventory consisted of only a few items. But with roads reopening, shelves are no longer bare. The potential concern now is a few links back on the food chain. A lot of produce close to harvest was flooded. Some might think once the flood waters recede, it is simply a matter of washing the produce – but no, that won’t change the fact the fruit or vegetable was contaminated. It is a fair bet that flood water contains sewage, disease causing microorganisms, chemical wasters, or other toxic substances. Another concern is the mold growth that might occur with wet foods (such as hay bales) as certain molds produce mycotoxins which are carcinogenic to animals (including us humans).
Produce items are not impermeable, so entry of contaminated waters into the fruit or vegetable through a leaf, stem, or other exposed portion is possible. This is called internalization. Fruits and vegetables grown using good agricultural practices (GAPs) mitigate this risk under normal growing conditions. GAPs (and the more recent Produce Safety Alliance training required for certain growers as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act) require a buffer of time and exposure. But when flood waters come in contact with edible portion of fruit or vegetable – forget about it. Sound scientific advice is to avoid eating these foods – don’t ask for trouble. In the aftermath of Harvey and Irma, FDA recently released a statement and FAQ about this issue. Small and large farms have lost produce crops with edible portion of items exposed to flood waters. Livestock operations (chickens, cattle, pigs, or horses) had concerns for welfare of animals as well as lost hay used to feed their stock. The impact of flooding remains. Homes will need to be rebuilt but support for agricultural operations will be needed as well.
Some of us who weathered Hurricane Harvey were talking about the continuous emergency warnings received over our cell phones – even in middle of night when trying to catch a little shut eye. I think it is fair to say that the week of the storm was not a restful one for most – worries about rising water, power outages, supply of food, prep of “go to” bags, evacuations, and relocation were on minds of most. Some households were fortunate in that they did not have the flood waters, but notices of heavy rains (yeah, we noticed!), flash flood warnings and even tornadoes were relentless. Lions and tigers and bears! Some in the group said that after time, they tuned the notification pings out – yep, just another warning, nothing happened with the last warning so this probably isn’t going to amount to anything either. Officials pleaded with the public to respect road barricades – the road ahead was flooded and not safe to drive, yet there were some who ignored these physical warnings. Not to downplay the important role played by meteorologists, flood officials, and public safety officers with their continuous reminders to take shelter, but it never ended, mainly because somewhere in the Houston sprawl, there was an immediate danger. I found I relied most on the morning email update by the local police chief; I figured he was closest to action where we were located. If he said the bayou was rising and it was time to evacuate, then we were going to move.
This concept of warning fatigue is likely human nature a la the story of the boy who cried wolf. In my outreach work related to safe food handling at places away from home, it is not uncommon to give the dire warnings – 48,000 people become ill each year in the US! 3,000 die! Lions and tigers and bears! The challenge is to make the connection between actions taken at any given moment and possible consequences real and realistic. It could happen. A worker might think – “I usually clean and sanitize this knife and cutting board after cutting raw chicken strips, but we are really backed up and I just don’t have the time – just this once I’ll give them a quick rinse”. Is the worker playing food borne illness roulette? Our team has worked on other communication approaches such as visual based photos, strategies (kitchen hacks) to work smarter not harder, and application of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation factors. After the week of warnings, it seems a variety of techniques might help avoid fatigue and help people listen to, not just hear, important messages.
Well Hurricane Harvey has created some damage here in Houston area. I read in a few papers that an estimated one third of Houston households were impacted with power outages or flooding. Over 300 (maybe more by now) roads have been closed due to water coverage with only high profile vehicles getting through. It is not uncommon to see lots of boats either towed or in back of trucks along with other vehicles along the open roads, as many have come forth to rescue those affected by flooding. So, with limited road access for travel, most businesses have shut down. Grocery stores and drug stores have attempted to stay open but it is a challenge if staff have to travel OR if there is no inventory. I naively thought I would run up to the Kroger yesterday to get some milk only to find lines of people waiting outside just to gain entry into the store. And then once in the store, limited supply choices – forget the milk and bread. I tried the drug store nearby with no luck – their food shelves were pretty much barren other than some cheese crackers (which had prolly been there for a while). When I mentioned the excursion to my social media savvy sister, she laughed at my ignorance (hey, I don’t do social media!) –apparently there have been pleas made on social media by parents begging for milk to give to their children. Shades of grimmer times in history! Today though the sun was shining and apparently stores’ supply chains were back in play as we were able to score some milk at a store that had plenty, without waiting in line or fighting large crowds. City officials are warning the recovery and rebuilding phase will take a while. Patience and flexibility will be key. And the flooding danger continues due to controlled water releases. Given the dire straits of so many, I can do without milk in my coffee. Please send your positive thoughts to the heart of Texas!
Timing is everything right? My scheduled visit to Houston coincided with Harvey’s – I arrived Friday evening before the storm began and since have been watching TV to assess potential for damage. Certainly there are many serious situations unfolding – the stories are heartbreaking. Decisions have to be made – stay or go? Priorities continually are rearranged with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (remember that from school?) taking precedence over non-emergency needs. Shelter from the relentless rain and fresh water and food are key needs. Word to prepare began last week with many stocking up with water and nonperishable foods and in some cases a generator. Others filled containers with water and froze them so that in the event power went off, they could use as ice packs in coolers or as drinking water. Unfortunately, these were put into use. Exposure to the flood water brings its own risks, but many have had no choice but to leave their flooded homes to shelters. Fleets of private boats have arrived throughout the state with volunteers rescuing other citizens – reminiscent of the Dunkirk evacuation in WWII. Many ad hoc shelters have opened doors in response to need. Local officials are stressing the need to provide shelter and food in efforts to keep people safe and comfortable. I recalled some instances when Iowa experienced flooding and the list of resources complied to help with recovery – I think EVERYONE affected by this hurricane wish would happen soon!
Jack in the Box restaurant chain is one of the most widely known when we think about food borne illnesses – the infamous E. Coli O157:H7 outbreak of 1993 is forever linked with its reputation chain though has survived and almost a quarter of a century later, is still going strong. As a result of this outbreak, there were widespread changes in regulations and practices across the food chain. Other restaurant chains haven’t fared so well. Some of you may remember the Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant chain which declared bankruptcy after Hepatitis A outbreaks from green onions in the early 2000’s affected over 600 people. And then there is Chipotle, which has faced not one but two outbreaks stemming from poor practices. Of course, their fresh fast food model requires greater buy in and attention from staff, not always an easy endeavor in the restaurant realm where 100% + turnover of employees is pretty common. The research tells us that almost half of reported food borne illnesses are traced to fresh produce and nuts – fresh produce doesn’t have the kill step of cooking, which reduces pathogenic load (micro speak for kills the disease causing microorganisms). It will be interesting to see how Chipotle handles the latest outbreak and what changes are made in house, and whether these result in 1) improved market appeal and 2) avoidance of another outbreak. Simply saying cleaning and sanitizing practices are being improved doesn’t mean new procedures are followed! This is a people industry and it takes committed staff at all levels to meet restaurant goals and achieve customer satisfaction. Stay tuned as this plays out.
The recent NY Times article I mentioned in the last blog certainly generated some feedback – so much so that there was a follow-up piece! It is great to see this level of interest by readers. In this follow-up story, work at KSU by our friends and colleagues was cited, and collaborator Dr. Kevin Sauer was quoted. As someone in the academic world, being referenced as an expert by a well-respected publication like the NY Times is a big deal! Let’s just say the audience reach is much more than some of the academic journals, or even, a blog! The study was led by former ISU researcher Jeannie Sneed in which she built upon work engaged in here at Iowa State as part of a USDA study investigating cross contamination in retail foodservices. In that study, we swabbed refrigerator door handles to determine bacterial counts and found high salmonella, staph and listeria counts). We also found “clean” dishware that became re-contaminated when handled by the same person who loaded soiled dishware into machine. One outcome of that project were visuals we called YUCK photos – a photo gallery of WHY prevention of cross contamination is important. These make for some great story telling – especially if trying to make a point to visual learners! One of the recommendations made in the follow-up story was to discard the sponges – the same point I suggested last week. A bout with an illness due to unwillingness to replace a sponge chock full of bacteria is going to be much more expensive (medical costs, loss time from work, not to mention the physical debilitation) than replacing the sponge (remember, a replacement new sponge is only going to run about a dollar). Be safe with your sponges!
The New York Times summarized a recent study warning consumers to STOP “sanitizing” their sponges in the microwave because they were actually doing more harm than good. In their samples of kitchen sponges, Dr. Markus Egert and his colleagues found dense populations of 362 different species of bacteria survived the nuking process with survival at levels Dr. Egert described as similar to stool samples. Sponges have the key ingredients for bacterial growth and survival including moisture and food particles, coupled with heat from the microwave that may not hit all of the sponge at the same temperature levels, findings from the study make sense. Food services do not allow the use of sponges, for this reason and the ease with which they can serve as the “cross contaminator”. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to see tables cleaned with the same, tired, soiled cloth. At home, you have greater control. With sponges running about a buck each, maybe it makes sense to swap old sponge with a new one every few weeks. Demote the old kitchen sponge to floor wipes or bathroom detail. Sounds like that is where it belongs!