Category: food safety

Remembering food-safety epidemiologist, Bill Keene

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of Escherichia coli bacteria of the strain O157:H7 (magnification 6836x).

Colorized scanning electron micrograph (magnification 6836x) of Escherichia coli bacteria of the strain O157:H7. Photo by Janice Haney Carr, provided by the National Escherichia, Shigella, Vibrio Reference Unit at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bill Keene, a senior epidemiologist with the Oregon Public Health Authority and a nationally recognized public-health hero, died this past weekend. He’s being remembered as a groundbreaking, life-saving epidemiologist. As Elizabeth Weise details in USA Today,

Keene and his team of over 30 staffers helped crack numerous national outbreaks [of food-borne illness]….

In 2011, Oregon public health officials noticed an uptick in cases of E. coli O157:H7, a deadly form of the disease. Interviews seemed to pinpoint strawberries, but the fruit had never been known to carry O157:H7.

“So Bill jumped in his car and drove over 100 miles to take samples in the strawberry field,” Hedberg said. Keene collected deer feces and proved that deer could bring E. coli into fields that could then be passed on to humans who ate what was grown there.

His car even sported a personalized license plate: O157:H7.

In 2009, 3-year-old Jacob Hurley testified before a House subcommittee in Washington, D.C., about how sick he was when he became part of a national outbreak of salmonella that was eventually linked to peanut butter produced by the Peanut Corporation of America in Blakely, Ga.

“But it was Bill who went to Jacob’s house to collect the leftover peanut butter crackers” so they could be tested, Hedberg said.

“There are not many in food safety that you can look at and say, ‘This person really made a difference’ — but Bill was one of those few people,” said David Acheson, president of the Acheson Group, which works with companies to improve food safety. He is a former FDA associate commissioner of foods. “Bill’s tenacity and insight saved lives, and he was truly a legend in terms of his epidemiological abilities.”

Head here for the full article, and check out others from Food Safety News and AP.

Food films for your consideration

King Korn: You Are What You Eat

Photo by Flickr user elycefeliz,used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Wondering what to stream online, check out from the library, or rent at your local video store?

Thanks to HuffPost, I discovered a list of “26 Films Every Food Activist Must Watch,” compiled by Danielle Nierenberg and Katie Work.

The films include modern classics like King Corn, others still in production—like Food Chains, whose Kickstarter campaign I contributed to—and a number of movies I hadn’t heard of.

As they describe,

Food Tank has selected 26 films — both long and short — to share with you. From the importance of land rights for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to the insidious dominance of fast food in an urban community in California, each of these films can inform and inspire eaters all over the world.

For the full list with links and brief descriptions of each film, head to Food Tank’s website. Happy viewing!

Fracking beneath the farm

Activists protest fracking outside Gov. Cuomo's office, New York

Photo by CREDO.fracking via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Earlier this year, scores of New York chefs urged Governor Andrew Cuomo to oppose hydraulic fracturing (AKA “fracking”), a controversial technique for releasing natural gas from underground deposits, like the Marcellus Shale Formation that spans parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

More recently, two of the Chefs for the Marcellus penned an editorial featured in The New York Daily News. In it, Mario Batali and Bill Telepan write that

New York’s agricultural economy is strong and vast, and is an important economic driver for our state. We have the second-largest number of farmers’ markets in the country and the fourth-highest number of organic farms — and are the third-largest dairy-producing state. New York is second only to California in its wine production.

As more states pump natural gas from beneath the earth, the negative effects fracking poses to agriculture are more clearly emerging — and we believe they would be devastating for New York.

Across the country, water contamination from toxic fracking chemicals has sickened and killed livestock. Accidents have ruined cropland. Gas companies are not required to disclose the chemicals used in fracking. And there are no conventional procedures for isolating livestock exposed to chemicals from the food chain.

Find their full piece here.

The Marcellus isn’t the only area of the country where this issue is getting attention. Some of California’s fertile agricultural land sits above the so-called Monterey Shale. As Norimitsu Onishi reported recently in The New York Times,

By all accounts, oilmen and farmers — often shortened to “oil and ag” here — have coexisted peacefully for decades in this conservative, business friendly part of California about 110 miles northwest of Los Angeles. But oil’s push into new areas and its increasing reliance on fracking, which uses vast amounts of water and chemicals that critics say could contaminate groundwater, are testing that relationship and complicating the continuing debate over how to regulate fracking in California.

“As farmers, we’re very aware of the first 1,000 feet beneath us and the groundwater that is our lifeblood,” said Tom Frantz, a fourth-generation farmer here and a retired high school math teacher who now cultivates almonds. “We look to the future, and we really do want to keep our land and soil and water in good condition.”

Check out Onishi’s article here. For more, head to this piece by Lauren Somner for KQED Public Radio.

Finally, for more on fracking and our food supply, head to my earlier post on Elizabeth Royte’s great cover story several months ago in The Nation.

Why cantaloupe can’t catch a break

Cantaloupe: Problem Fruit

Photo by News21 – National via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Luke Runyon recently wrote an informative post for Harvest Public Media focused on why the cantaloupe, more than other melon varieties, seems to keep cropping up in news stories about outbreaks of foodborne illness. (I previously posted about one such outbreak.) Runyon explains,

Studies show cantaloupe is more likely to carry bacteria than most other produce, even more than its cousins in the melon family, like honeydew and watermelon. Cantaloupe regularly makes the top five in fresh fruit and vegetables likely to cause an outbreak, according to Doug Powell, professor and food safety expert at Kansas State University. Though, outside of the realm of fresh fruit, produce accounts for a small percentage of foodborne illnesses, at about 13 percent in 2005….

[Colorado State University food microbiologist Larry] Goodridge said from farm to table, there are many places where melons can be subjected to bacterial growth, whether on the rind or in the cantaloupe’s flesh. They’re also dense with water, which make them susceptible to the growth of listeria, salmonella, and E. coli.

“Bacteria love water to grow,” Goodridge said. “Inside the melon, there are a lot of nutrients. The pH of the flesh is neutral and bacteria love that.”

On the production and processing side of things, there are also increased chances of cantaloupe contamination. Unlike in many other fruits, bacteria can still grow inside cantaloupe after it has been picked.

For the full story, including a lot of great links, head here, then check out Runyon’s story about Colorado’s “Sweet Melon Capital,” which was struck by a listeria outbreak in 2011.

Wooden boards give life to aged cheeses

Cheese cave at uplands

Cheese cave at Uplands Cheese Company. Photo by jonny.hunter via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Lest yesterday’s post about the UW Dairy Cattle Center open house lead you to think that I frown on the university’s entire dairy program, I thought today I’d share some info from the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research’s latest newsletter. Bénédicte Coudé and Professor Emeritus Bill Wendorff provide details on the safe use of wooden boards in cheesemaking:

Wooden boards have been used for many years in most traditional cheesemaking countries as a shelving mechanism for aging cheese. In France, more than 300,000 tons of cheese are ripened on wooden boards each year (Meyer, 2005). Most artisan cheesemakers feel that wooden shelves favor cheese rind development and improve the organoleptic qualities of aged cheeses thanks to the formation of a biofilm on the wood surface.

Biofilm, you say? Yep, that’s cheesemaking magic at its best. As Will Fertman describes in a piece for the cheese magazine, culture,

Take a look at an uncut wheel of Camembert, wrapped in its bloomy white jacket. All that luscious rind—the best part to many people—is made of microbes; the cheese itself begins a few millimeters under the surface. The entire outer crust is actually a colony of organisms, sealing the paste away from pathogens and contributing its own unique flavors to the finished product.

The technical term for this community is biofilm, a web of interconnected microbes that rely on each other to create their own environment, like a coral reef. Biofilms are found everywhere that microbes settle, from a slippery river rock to the lining of your stomach….

But biofilms aren’t just masses of microbes; they’re organized. Individual cells constantly send out and measure chemical signals in a process called quorum sensing. When the bacterium or fungus detects enough of its own kind (or enough other species) in the area, the cells switch from acting as individuals to acting as part of a community of connected organisms.

By knitting themselves together with strands of protein and sugars, the microbes become much tougher. While this is a problem with pathogenic microbes, which become harder to control with chemicals or antibiotics, cheesemakers take advantage of biofilm’s toughness by cultivating edible versions that resist the growth of undesirable bacteria and mold, while regulating the flow of gas and moisture into and out of the cheese paste.

But is it this wood-riding biofilm safe? Yep, if the right steps are taken. Coudé and Wendorff conclude that

considering the beneficial effects of wood boards on cheese ripening and rind formation, the use of wood boards does not seem to present any danger of contamination by pathogenic bacteria as long as a thorough cleaning procedure is followed.

Want all the fascinating technical details? You can find their article on pages 8 and 9 of this PDF.

Finally, to see an award-winning cheesemaker at work, aging his much-sought-after cheeses on wooden boards (and even wrapped in spruce bark), check out the episode of Wisconsin Foodie that features Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese. (Hatch also happens to be a dairy science alum of UW-Madison.) Enjoy the whole program if you’ve got time, or skip ahead to catch a couple minutes starting at time mark 10:11.

Poultry inspection controversy

Photo by AFGE via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Amy Mayer’s recent piece for Harvest Public Media examines a current proposal to change the USDA’s poultry inspection system. She writes,

Retired federal inspector Phyllis McKelvey spent 44 years looking for blemishes and other defects on chicken carcasses. She started as an inspector’s helper, worked her way up, and in 1998, became part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture trial.

“I was one of the first group of inspectors ever put on HIMP,” she said in an interview from her home in north Alabama.

Fourteen years later, the HIMP* [see footnote below] inspection system is at the center of controversial new regulations proposed by the USDA for chicken and turkey processors.  It’s all part of an attempt to modernize an inspection system that dates back to 1950s-era poultry law….

For links and a map of federally inspected poultry plants, as well as audio and print versions of Mayer’s full piece, head here.

The USDA program garnered attention and generated controversy last spring. Although it isn’t on the front pages today, the story continues. Three recent guest editorials at the website of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution help give a sense of some of the competing views. As moderator Rick Badie describes,

The USDA wants to reduce the number of chicken plant inspectors and increase line speeds that process and inspect carcasses to 175 birds per minute from 140. Critics, including two of today’s guest columnists, have cried foul with concerns about poultry worker safety and consumers of chicken products. A Georgia poultry executive defends the modernization of processing lines in an industry that contributes $18.4 billion a year to the state economy.

Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, writes in her contribution that

The USDA readily admits that the poultry industry will stand to earn an additional $260 million per year by removing the cap on line speeds, and tries to explain away the risk of contamination by promoting the use of a chemical cocktail at the end of the slaughter process. Companies are allowed to use chlorine, tri-sodium phosphate (used to clean cement) and hypobromous acid (used to clean swimming pools) to treat poultry for salmonella and to sterilize feces that might still be on carcasses.

The proposed rule puts company employees in the role of protecting consumer safety, but does not require them to receive any training or prove proficiency in performing duties normally performed by government inspectors who are required to take training before they are assigned to the slaughter line.

Lack of training is not the only impact this rule will have on workers. Increasing line speeds will have a negative impact on worker safety….

All three editorials are worth a read, so check them out here.


*Harvest Public Media translates this serving of classic bureaucratic alphabet soup: “HIMP stands for HACCP-based Inspection Models Program.  HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, a method of identifying potential problem areas and maintaining written plans for managing the risks they present.”

Experts say energy-drink claims suspect, we say “duh”

On the heels of my post featuring a Red Bull-sponsored video (of cranberry harvesting—and wakeskating—on a northern-Wisconsin farm), I thought I’d share this recent story from Barry Meier of The New York Times. Meier reviews the evidence supporting the health and performance claims made by makers of these food-like products and finds it to be sorely lacking:

Energy drinks are the fastest-growing part of the beverage industry, with sales in the United States reaching more than $10 billion in 2012 — more than Americans spent on iced tea or sports beverages like Gatorade.

Their rising popularity represents a generational shift in what people drink, and reflects a successful campaign to convince consumers, particularly teenagers, that the drinks provide a mental and physical edge.

The drinks are now under scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration after reports of deaths and serious injuries that may be linked to their high caffeine levels. But however that review ends, one thing is clear, interviews with researchers and a review of scientific studies show: the energy drink industry is based on a brew of ingredients that, apart from caffeine, have little, if any benefit for consumers.

The full story is worth a read, so check it out here.

Photo by Simon le nippon via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)