Friday, October 17, 2014

Opinion - Ebola in Dallas Gets Off Easy Compared to Food

This past week Ebola got a running start in the US because it was not quarantined well enough, resulting in two health workers becoming ill with the life threatening infection, and now the potential for contamination on a cruise ship. Could you imagine the level of outrage there would have been if a similar situation occurred in a food facility where an infected food worker contaminated a food that resulted in two life threatening illnesses? Could you imagine the media generated public beating food executives would have taken if this company had overlooked symptoms that were presented to them?

Perhaps those of us who work with the food industry are a bit sensitive. And this is not to say there have not been issues, because here has. But I don’t see the onslaught of press releases condemning CDC or hospital officials, especially from the lawyer types who are so skilled in getting their news releases into the mass media channels regarding foodborne illness outbreaks. Where is the Bill Marler equivalent for the healthcare industry? Where are the proposals for enhanced regulations with stricter environmental control in hospital settings?

A case in point is environmental control for nosocomial infections being linked to food. In a recent PBS Frontline series on infections caused by antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, the focus was on whether food related transfer was responsible for the increasing number of antibiotic resistant infections.  

I do not have a problem with trying to understand the risk of this link between antibiotic usage on the farm and how it is related to infections of the general public, but where is the investigation on whether those specific strains may be originating in the hospitals and health care facilities…places where those specific antibiotics are used , where there are plenty of high risk individuals, and where environmental control is not at the same level as we see in food plants.

In this Frontline report, a young epidemiologist travels to Central PA to study how MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is related to pig farms. The woman put up a map showing the number of cases in relation to the location of pig farms. The match was far from perfect, but there was some overlap. However, It would have been interesting to see the overlap between MRSA cases and individuals that visited area hospitals. Or the link between wrestling teams and those cases reported. (Yeah, there is some big time wrastlin’ in Central PA….unfortunately a sport that is conducive to the spread of MRSA).

Certainly the technology exists now, especially with whole genome sequencing, to traceback these cases seem in the general population to order to discover more definitive links. But rather, there seems to be a tendency to speculate, especially where that speculation can wrangle up some big news stories. Unfortunately, the food and food related industries, they seem to be the low hanging fruit for the picking.  

Fortunately, unlike some of these antibiotic resistant bacterial pathogens, Ebola is not a very hardy environmental pathogen and thus has not been linked to food…..yet.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

NM Peanut Farmers Still Impacted by 2012 Peanut Butter Recall

The economic impact resulting from the 2012 Peanut Butter Salmonella outbreak is still being felt by the regional peanut farmers in New Mexico.  Farmers in this region had grown Valencia peanuts to supply to the Sunland Plant.  After the outbreak, the plant was shut down as the company went bankrupt. The plant was subsequently sold to another company, but the plant has yet to reopen.  And so the farmers have had to plant lot less peanuts, and have moved on to other crops.

These outbreaks go far beyond the cost of the recall.  There are the people who suffered from the Salmonella illness, plant workers who lost their jobs,  the transportation/warehouse providers who lost business, the impact on local businesses were the workers shop, and the suppliers, including in this case, the farmers, who lost their customer.

US News and World Report

New Mexico peanut industry slow to rebound following 2012 salmonella outbreak, production down
Associated Press Oct. 15, 2014 | 4:27 p.m. EDT
By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN, Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — There will be significantly fewer peanuts pulled from the ground in eastern New Mexico this harvest season because of lingering fallout from the bankruptcy and sale of a peanut-processing plant that was at the heart of a 2012 salmonella outbreak and nationwide recall.

Peanut farmers are expected to bring in 6 million pounds less this year, according to forecasts released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That represents nearly a 30 percent drop in production in New Mexico from the year before.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Ebola virus - A Short Primer on Virus Survival and Disinfection

Here is a short primer on Ebola - condensed from information from the CDC website - focusing on disinfection and survival in the environment.
Survival in the Environment
According to the CDC, under ideal conditions where there is organic material (such as blood), the Ebola virus was show to survive up to 6 days in the environment.  But these viruses are susceptible to drying, UV and disinfectants.  (I is important to point out that there have been limited studies.)
That said, without organic material, it will die off quickly, so it is not likely to be present on doorknobs and light switches or other items that people simply touch (without blood or other organic residue).

How does this compare to Norovirus which can survive in the environment for weeks to months?  There are two categories of viruses - non-enveloped and enveloped.  All viruses are comprised of by genetic material within a protein structure or capsid....but enveloped viruses also have a lipid envelope surrounding that protein capsid while the non-enveloped virus do not.  Ebola is an enveloped virus, and that outer lipid layer, so important for attachment and entry to the cell, is more subject to environmental conditions.  Norovirus, a non-enveloped virus, is more resistant.
According to the CDC, Use a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered hospital disinfectant with a label claim for a non-enveloped virus (e.g., norovirus, rotavirus, adenovirus, poliovirus) to disinfect environmental surfaces in rooms of patients with suspected or confirmed Ebola virus infection. Although there are no products with specific label claims against the Ebola virus, enveloped viruses such as Ebola are susceptible to a broad range of hospital disinfectants used to disinfect hard, non-porous surfaces.
Basically, if it is good against the more hardy viruses like Norovirus, it will be fine against Ebola.

From the CDC Website (below)
When an infection does occur in humans, the virus can be spread in several ways to others. Ebola is spread through direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes in, for example, the eyes, nose, or mouth) with
  • blood or body fluids (including but not limited to urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, and semen) of a person who is sick with Ebola 
  • objects (like needles and syringes) that have been contaminated with the virus
  • infected animals
  • Ebola is not spread through the air or by water, or in general, by food. However, in Africa, Ebola may be spread as a result of handling bushmeat (wild animals hunted for food) and contact with infected bats. There is no evidence that mosquitos or other insects can transmit Ebola virus. Only mammals (for example, humans, bats, monkeys, and apes) have shown the ability to become infected with and spread Ebola virus.
  • Fever (greater than 38.6°C or 101.5°F)
  • Severe headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Weakness
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal (stomach) pain
  • Unexplained hemorrhage (bleeding or bruising)
Symptoms may appear anywhere from 2 to 21 days after exposure to Ebola, but the average is 8 to 10 days.
Recovery from Ebola depends on good supportive clinical care and the patient’s immune response. People who recover from Ebola infection develop antibodies that last for at least 10 yrs

NC Company Recalls Vending-Machine Packaged Sandwiches Due to Potential Listeria Contamination

A North Carolina company that produces packaged sandwiches for vending type operations is recalling a wide variety of sandwiches after NC State found sample(s) to be positive for Listeria monocytogenes.

Ready-to-eat sandwiches like this normally have a short shelf life, and have not been subject to recalls, although these types of items can certainly be a vehicle.  Sanitation control in the processing environment is critical for controlling in order to prevent contamination, especially equipment like meat slicers, ingredient refrigerated storage, and cutting boards.

FDA Recall Notice
Sunburst Foods Recalls Products Because Of Possible Health Risk
Contact: Consumer: 919-778-2151

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - October 12, 2014 - SunBurst Foods, Goldsboro NC is voluntarily recalling all of its SunBurst, Fresh Bites and Private labeled products which are currently in the market because these products have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, an organism which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, frail or elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems. Although healthy individuals may suffer only short-term symptoms such as high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea, Listeria infection can cause miscarriages and stillbirths among pregnant women.

CA Company Recalls Pumpkin Seed Pesto in Jars Due to Improper Processing

A California company is recalling Pumpkin Seed Pesto, packaged for the Williams Sonoma label, after it was determined that the product may have been improperly processed, making it a Clostridium botulinum risk.   No illnesses have been reported.

This is another case of products being recalled due to improper processing / C. bolulinum risk issues.  Last month, a WA state company recalled pasta sauce.  Then there was the other CA company that recalled pesto sauce after being linked to a botulism recall.  In these cases, strict process controls are needed in properly ensuring the low acid ingredients are treated (acidified, water activity lowered) in order to prevent C. bolulinum growth.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Organic Food Safety - Fact versus Hype

In an opinion piece in the Des Moines Register, John Block writes about how consumers are mislead regarding the safety of organic foods. He references a report published in Academic Reviews (also below). In that report, conducted by independent researchers and based upon hundreds of scientific documents, researchers conclude that consumers have overpaid millions for organic foods on the false, and even misleading notion that organic foods are safer.

Should we care if people want to spend more on organic?  No.  Certainly people can choose what they want.  And it is always good to support local agriculture for those farms who have made organic their niche.  But it is a problem when people push this as safer.

While there is little support to indicate organic is more safe, in some cases, there actually may be increased risk.  Organic farmers and processors do not have the arsenal of preventive measures available that conventional farmers and processors do, so spoilage and pests can be a bigger issue.  One issue in particular...mold spoilage...that has the potential to increase the risk of mycotoxins, byproducts of mold growth that can cause serious health consequences.  Cleaning and sanitizing also becomes more difficult since there are limited choices of what can be used.  The same goes with preservatives.

As pointed out by Mr. Block, many of the organic producers and processors have pushed against having to comply with food safety regulations such as those proposed in FSMA.

It is interesting to note that many people who want organic also want to be sustainable.  However, with organic practices, there is the challenge of lower yields / higher loss, so this counters being more sustainable.  With food security being a huge issue worldwide, and even in the US, organic foods may not be the best answer.

Is organic food more nutritious than conventionally grown food?  No.  There is no evidence to support this either.

Des Moines Register - Opinion
Consumers are misled about organic safety
By John Block 11:08 p.m. CDT October 6, 2014

California University Recalls Chocolate Bars

A university in California is recalling candy bars that were produced by a student group in less-than-sanitary conditions.

While the story does not indicate how the contamination event occurred, if one had to guess, it would be that the student group made the product without following good sanitation procedures.  Later, a wiser individual(s) realized this (and this person(s) was probably not involved when the product was initially made) and raised questions about sanitation and allergen control.  The group was not able to answer these questions, thus putting the University at risk.  Rather than waiting for people to get ill and for a scandal to erupt, the University took a proactive posture and recalled the product.

Does this situation apply outside a university setting? Absolutely.  Anytime some genius thinks that they can produce product for sale on the fly without going through the proper channels, laying out a food safety plan, etc. This could be a temporary side operation that someone wants to do in a processing facility or a foodservice operation, or a volunteer group that thinks it can easily raise money. 

Here at Penn State, the risk management group has a strict policy regarding  products being made and branded as Penn State.  For good reason.

 The Tribune
Cal Poly recalls some chocolate bars because of possible contamination

Candies may contain allergens or infectious material, spokesman says

By Nick Wilson
October 4, 2014

Cal Poly has voluntarily recalled six varieties of its chocolate candy bars, citing possible contaminations.

The bars may have been tainted with peanut, milk or soy allergens and possibly exposed to microbial contamination, which can include infectious materials such as bacteria, yeast, or mold, the university said.