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January 28, 2008

SafeFood© Blog – What happened 15 Years Ago?

Today’s entry is for those of a certain age: mature adults, boomers and Gen Xer's as many of you may remember that in 1993, there was national interest in an outbreak of E. Coli O157:H7. This outbreak led to major changes in meat inspections and meat processing regulations. The outbreak at Jack-in- the-Box restaurants was a national wake-up call about the devastating impacts of foodborne illness –four young children died from eating hamburgers that were not cooked to a high enough temperature to kill this strain of the bacteria. We grieved with the families of those who died or who suffered life-altering health, and thought “wow, it could have been me”. The young children were most affected because their immune systems were less developed than the adults who had also eaten the same product. The outbreak awakened the country to hidden dangers, and raised awareness of the need to ensure safe food along the food chain.

Real progress has been made in the last 15 years in raising awareness by industry, employees, food producers, processors, government regulators, and consumers about the importance of food safety and proper sanitation. Brave parents of young children who have died due to negligence and priorities of greed over best practice have advocated for tighter controls. Much research, at all links of the food chain, has been conducted. Ideally, research is used in making decisions regarding policies about food production, processing and service regulations.

I am not so naïve that I don’t realize that occasionally greed trumps safety or that politics rather than sound science come into play as part of determining regulations, but generally, I do trust the food supply in the U.S. I personally have no qualms about food items I purchase. But I am vigilant and aware. The price I pay is getting teased (or eye rolls from my family) about having OCD and being overly picky. Small price as I am not much of a risk taker. Those of you whom have traveled elsewhere may have your own stories to tell about food practices – one of mine is the vision of whole chickens for sale hung at tents in market places of hot and humid climates (No sale to this customer).

Reported outbreaks suggest the last links in the food chain are the highest risk – so we ALL must be vigilant at home, and away from home, about taking action steps to minimize this risk. Speak up if you see an unsanitary practice (such as food handlers licking their fingers or not washing their hands). Be a SafeFood© Advocate - for yourself and your family. As the popular song by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young goes: Teach your children well. Hopefully 15 years from today, in 2023, outbreaks of foodborne illnesses will be a thing of the past. The first three people to email me at our ISU Extension Food Safety Project (cstrohbe@iastate.edu) with a comment about this blog will receive a SafeFood© Advocate packet.

Submitted by Catherine Strohbehn, January 28, 2008

January 23, 2008

SafeFood© Blog –I Love the Xcelerator® Hand Dryer!

The design of bathrooms in public restrooms (including at retail foodservices) has come a long way from the cracked toilet seat and chipped sink I use to see in my college days. In the old days, one felt lucky to find supplies like running water and soap. Now, many restaurants are discovering that many customers factor in bathroom cleanliness when selecting where to eat. So, management is paying more attention to cleaning schedules and bathroom design to facilitate sanitation.

Some neat things I have seen: the Xcelerator® hand dryer; no-door bathrooms, and automatic flush toilets and water dispensers. The Xcelerator® is turbo-powered hot air dryer that is super fast. You can see your skin move around – it is that powerful. (Warning: older kids love it but little ones may be scared). Having disposable towels is good – especially if I have to use the door handle to get out of the room! That way I don’t re-contaminate my hands if I am not wearing long sleeves. But the towel dispensers that require a wave confuse me – I always seem to be waving the wrong hand! I also like places that don’t use doors – rather a curved entry/exit area is in place. Yes, it takes more space and sometimes there is a collision, but I would bet there is less transmission of bacteria and viruses.

Automation is wonderful (imagine the number of germs residing on toilet handles, or don’t, as there are better things to imagine!). Water faucet handles, especially those with dual controls do present issues when turning off, unless there is a disposable towel available (but then I am wasting water, which raises an environmental concern). I try to use by elbow for single lever faucets, but admit to some clumsiness. In my book, automatic features are the answer for better hand sanitation and conservation of resources.

January 15, 2008

SafeFood© Blog - Food Allergies and Retail Foodservices

Do you have an allergic reaction to certain foods? Well join the club. The Center for Disease Control and Prevent reports that the number of Americans with allergies or intolerances to certain foods is increasing; with estimates that up to 8% of children and 2% of adults are affected. The allergies happen because of a family history of asthma and allergies, and/or higher levels of an allergen specific serum immunoglobulin. Only eight types of food account for about 90% of the allergic reactions: cow’s milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soybeans and wheat. Over 3 million Americans are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts but close to 7 million are allergic to seafood. Only eight types of food doesn’t sound so hard to control, until we think about all the food items from each type – how many dairy products are made with cow’s milk and how many food items at the grocery store contain soybean oil? Allergic reactions to foods can cause some pretty serious symptoms – shortness of breath, swelling in the tongue and throat, dizziness, rash or hives and even loss of consciousness. Anaphylactic reactions require epinephrine - an EpiPen® is standard equipment in schools. The best method to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid the food. So that raises some real challenges for retail foodservices, and their customers.

Few airlines now serve peanuts (although, surprisingly, these were a snack on a recent overseas flight), even though most customers are of an age to realize that a reaction might occur, and, because the product is a prepackaged snack, there is little risk of cross-contamination from a food handler.

Schools have been the battle field for many discussions on food allergies because little kids may not understand the risks and consequences, kids trade food at the lunch tables, food is brought from home, and peanut butter is a government commodity. One CDC project called SHPPS (School Health Policies and Programs Study), assessed school health policies at state, district, school building, and classroom levels and found in a 2006 study (go to www.cdc.gov) that 90% of districts and 98% of school buildings required information about food allergies to be kept in a student’s permanent record. The study also reported that over three-fourths of school nutrition programs had a written plan for providing service to students with food allergies. Some districts require medical documentation of a food allergy before any accommodations are made, which I totally agree with as school meals programs have enough on their plates. As a mom who made her kids PB&J sandwiches just about every day of their school careers, I am not sure what would have been in that lunch sack if there had been restrictions. But I would hate to have my laziness cause some little kid to have an allergic reaction. Another finding from the SHPPS report that I found surprising (until I realized this might mean middle and high schools) was about half of school buildings offered a la carte foods (not the reimbursable meal) containing peanuts or peanut butter. Because it is the younger youngsters who don’t get the risk concept, one mom designed a universal symbol to identify kids with food allergies. The symbol is a green stop sign with an exclamation point (see her website at www.AllergyKids.com). Another strategy is “No Peanut Zone” which can serve as a compromise. I am on the fence for this issue – the idea of banning peanut butter from schools seems drastic but some kid dying because of a reaction does also.

But it is a big world out there and hard to police all places where food is sold. Customers with allergies do bear the burden in clearly defining what foods are not allowed when placing their orders. And retail foodservices need to be sure they give accurate information. Having written guidelines in place helps everyone know what to do –customers, staff, parents, and kids. Written information can be as simple as listing ingredients on the menus, or an advisory sign where food is ordered. The chain operations have systematic procurement procedures with well-defined ingredient specifications. It is the smaller operations where a supplier may provide a product from a new manufacturer with a different ingredient that could cause an allergic reaction. Some allergic reactions are so sensitive that one could happen if someone touches a food item that causes allergies and then a utensil used to serve a product to someone with that allergy. Restaurants or places where there is a self-service counter may have some issues. Does the grill guy know whether a peanut or soybean oil was used? Is there an alternative to cow’s milk offered? Do the rolls contain wheat flour? Did any of the above touch anything else in the kitchen? If you are in charge of a retail foodservice and don’t know the answers to these questions – it is time to find out. Food allergies are here and changing the way business is done.

January 10, 2008

SafeFood© Linens & Other Things

Last time, I talked about appearances of those working in food operations. Today I want to add to the conversation and note a few observations from the customer perspective. These deal with linens used in retail foodservices – aprons and cleaning cloths.

One thing that really bugs me is when I see food workers (and I have seen this at all types of food operations) use the restroom without taking off their work aprons! Just the other day, when entering the restroom of a large, national grocery chain, I saw a sign posted on the door that reminded all employees to remove their work aprons or smocks before entering the restroom. (There were hooks conveniently located). I had a warm, fuzzy feeling and thought – this place is doing things right. But then, the bubble burst as a staff member followed me into the restroom with her smock on, and she kept it on!

Another thing you have seen sometime or somewhere – an employee wiping tables after guests have finished their meals. At a food court of a large mall the other day, I noticed someone wiping down the tables using a spray bottle and a cloth towel. What I didn’t see was any rinsing of the towel in between the many tables. So, what is the big deal? Food is on trays or wrapped in paper – we aren’t eating off the table. That is true, we don’t eat off the tables directly, but do our hands touch the table, and then our food? Does the plastic fork touch the table, and then our food? Does a loose French fry get scattered to the table? Etc., etc., etc. This is called cross contamination and it is a leading cause of foodborne illness. The same thing happens with the aprons in the restrooms, or packages of food containers on food preparation surfaces, or gloves touching money and then your food.
Something to think about? Help cross out cross contamination.
Submitted by Catherine Strohbhen, PhD., RD, CFSP January 10, 2008

January 07, 2008

SafeFood© - Do Appearances Matter?

During a TV ad for a national restaurant chain, a conversation about restaurant employee appearances began. Why? Well, I noted that someone at the corporate office must have had a screw loose to ok this ad with female wait staff members (note plural) with unrestrained long hair shown happily serving guests. I am glad they were happy while doing their jobs but as a customer, I would not have been happy with the hair hovering over my food. I am not aware of any foodborne illness traced back to hair in the food, but you have to admit it is not a good merchandising technique.

Because Food Code says all food handlers must effectively restrain their hair, I assume the restaurant has a policy about this. So, where is the boss? Food Code also does not allow any jewelry (except a plain ring band) – so why do I often see (and hear others comment) about food workers with nose rings, necklaces, etc? Fingernail polish also should not be worn – yet this piece of information is often news to those working in operations.

Individual expression is fine, but if I were the owner of a restaurant, I would expect staff to understand that they represent the restaurant – and if there is not a customer coming through the door, then there is no business. Cultural and ethnic expressions or norms SHOULD NOT TRUMP the science-based recommendations of Food Code, which are in place to protect the public’s health.

Clearly defining expectations in terms of attire and appearance, and then monitoring to be sure these are met is managements’ job. It is the employees’ job to meet these. If these fundamentals get in the way of an employee’s self-expression, then perhaps that employee should be working elsewhere. For the sake of your customers, please work together - appearances do matter.

Submitted by Catherine Strohbehn, PhD., RD, CFSP January 7, 2008

January 03, 2008

SafeFood© Hello – Is FIFO at home?

In my recent blog, I suggested families chat about safe food handling and proper cooking temperatures. These types of conversations do make a difference. My twenty-something aged daughter, who has heard me nagging her about handwashing and other action steps to avoid cross contamination her whole life, recently returned from a national chain coffee house with a tale of her own experience as a SafeFood© Advocate. She had ordered a bagel with cream cheese. The cream cheese was presented in an individual packet, however my daughter noticed the expiration date was November of 2007. So, she returned it to the counter to explain the problem and request another packet. The manager asked another staff member to get a packet out of the storage area and this was given to my daughter. The use by date on this packet was August 2007! At this point my daughter conceded that she would have a plain bagel but I wondered how many other unsuspecting guests were consuming cream cheese from last summer – and this incident certainly raised other questions about stock rotation.

In food procurement classes, the introductory concept of FIFO (First In, First Out) is taught as a way to control inventory and quality. Hopefully not too many future managers miss this day in class. All of us should pay attention to the dates on packages – when purchasing food at retail outlets, grocery stores, checking our own cupboards at home, or those of an elderly relative. The package dates are there for a reason. It is easy to forget about the can of soup purchased three years ago, especially if it gets pushed to the back of the cupboard. The packaged mixes also can be a concern as toxins may form.

True story: Last year, my 21-year old nephew checked into my parents’ weekend place to study for finals, and came across a box of opened Rice Krispies. He thought it was good that the product had been placed in the fridge in a ziplock bag to protect from pests, but he was surprised to see ads about the popular teen-age show (well, popular back in early 1990’s) Saved by the Bell! The fix is easy – simply rotate products when you come home from the grocery store so older products are in front. Do the FIFO!

For leftover foods (and who doesn’t have goodies from the holiday parties in the fridge) the general rule is to toss after 7 days. Or as the old saying goes – If in doubt, throw it out! The price of the discarded food is more than worth the cost of a foodborne illness

Don’t just take items from your cupboard to a food bank. You don’t want to make others sick. If you are not sure about the product shelf life and there is no use by date on the can or package, simply call the 800 phone number on the package and give the product code information – they should be able to identify whether it is still safe to consume. Your Extension office is also a place to go for information. Below is link to many university based Extension offices throughout the country and a link to a publication authored by University of Georgia Extension. This publication has neat charts that tell how long specific types of food should be kept.


University of Georgia http://www.fcs.uga.edu/ext/pubs/fdns/efnep/FDNS-NE-601a.pdf
Submitted by Catherine Strohbehn, PhD, RD, CFSP January 3, 2008

January 02, 2008

SafeFood - Have you had The Talk?

Family time is a good time to chat with those you love about safe food handling. An understanding of why recommendations exist for end point cooking temperatures can go a long way in helping people practice these on a regular basis. For example, the question came up with relatives who had grown up before fresh shell eggs became a potentially hazardous food about why it was necessary to cook the egg until the yolk was set. This led into a conversation about relative risks and other factors that can lead to foodborne illness.

There are options available for those who like eggs over easy and soft poached eggs. Pasteurized shell eggs have been heated to high enough temperatures for a short period of time – long enough to reduce bacterial loads but not long enough to cook. Yes, they do cost more, but consider this an investment – certainly it is worth the price one would pay for a food borne illness. I know, I have experienced one before, as have the estimated 76 million other U.S. citizens each year.

If someone in your family likes rare hamburgers – there are also options. One is to purchase electronically pasteurized ground beef patties, although these are not widely available anymore due to fewer irradiation facilities. Yes it does cost more for this added value but it is money well spent, particularly for those in at risk groups.

Another option is to purchase your own whole muscle cut – say a round roast – and grind your own. Many of the upscale mixers have a grinding attachment or seek out one from grandma’s cupboard. Be sure to clean and sanitize it well before and after use.

Another option is to source your own meat products. While the meat industry takes many precautions, it is still a very large system with batches containing products multiple sources. The new COOL labeling will provide some assurances, but many people have discovered some benefits to purchasing meat directly from a producer. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that my family does raise cattle). While the scientific evidence does not show local meat is safer than that from a centralized system, knowing origin of food they eat is a comfort for many people, and likely a reason ‘food with a face’ is increasingly popular.

But, products still need to be kept cold, handled properly, and cross contamination avoided. That means washing your hands and cooking to properly. So many times foodborne illnesses can be avoided by proper handling, cooking, handwashing and cleaning. These are Consumer Control Points – and who doesn’t like to be in control? Check out bookmarks with these control points at www.extension.iastate.edu/store and click on Publication number EDC 111. There is a small fee for shipping and handling but other costs are covered through USDA Food Safety and Quality Project at Iowa State University.

Lets all work to lower that 76 million cases of foodborne illness each year – I’ve been there and done that and it is not an experience I wish to repeat. So have The Talk with those you love. More information and links on cooking temperature and safe handling at www.iowafoodsafety.org
Submitted by Catherine Strohbehn, PhD, RD, CFSP January 2, 2008