Food Protection Connection: Salmonella Woes
(reprinted from Dietary Manager, October 2006)
Each Food Protection Connection column is approved for 1 CPE hour (level 1) for RDs and DTRs.
Several media stories over recent months underscore the risks of Salmonella bacterium—and the need for food-safe practices throughout the farm-to-fork cycle.
Cadbury’s Under Fire
Take for example the Cadbury chocolate case in Great Britain. While chocolate is not the first food that comes to mind when people say “Salmonella,” chocolate is indeed the suspect in at least 37 cases of Salmonella-related illness that occurred from March through July this year, according to The Times (7/21/06). The strain involved was Salmonella montevideo. More than 53 people were diagnosed with Salmonellosis from this unusual strain. However, investigators estimate the total case load may have been five times this figure, as many people do not report foodborne illness, thinking it is just “the flu.” Some of these cases, though, were severe, and individuals were hospitalized for treatment.
The United Kingdom’s Health Protection Agency could link only Cadbury’s chocolate as a common food in many of the cases, according to a report carried in The Times. Investigators used a technique called molecular fingerprinting to match the exact genetic pattern of bacteria among ill individuals to the genetic pattern of Salmonella found in contaminated chocolate products.
Following a massive recall of more than one million Cadbury’s chocolate products in late June, case numbers dropped, also according to The Times. On July 28, 2006, the paper reported that Cadbury’s blamed the problem on a leaky waste-water pipe dripping over a conveyor belt in one of its factories. Later it was announced that Cadbury’s would be cleaning and dismantling this equipment.
The Food Standards Agency in the UK first discovered Salmonella bacteria in Cadbury products in 2002, reports The Times (7/4/06), and some observers have criticized the risk assessment methods used in manufacturing. The Food Standards Agency’s position was that any amount of Salmonella contamination should be considered unsafe, whereas Cadbury’s standards permitted low levels of bacterial contamination. From January through June 2006, the Health Protection Agency indicated that up to eight different food samples tested as contaminated. Critics have suggested Cadbury’s should have tightened its standards and taken action sooner.
FSIS Warns About Chicken Entrees
In yet another media issue, Salmonella bacteria were linked to an outbreak of Salmonellosis in Minnesota this year. A public health alert issued jointly by the US Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Minnesota Departments of Health and Agriculture warns us that frozen chicken products must be cooked to the familiar 165ºF, and a thermometer-check of the endpoint temperature is essential.
While Minnesota experienced this outbreak, officials say that similar cases have cropped up nationwide, with links to products such as frozen chicken Kiev and chicken Cordon Bleu. The problem is that consumers consider these “cooked” products that only need to be re-heated, and that assumption is false. As a result, some consumers do not cook the products to high enough temperatures to kill off bacteria.
Even though a frozen chicken product may be breaded and pre-browned before packaging, this does not mean the product has been fully cooked. These are simply processing steps that contribute to the creation of a frozen convenience food.
Officials are reminding all of us to check package directions for preparation, and ensure complete cooking. The FSIS will also be requiring new labels for some of these products, according to a notice issued in July, to help consumers follow the proper preparation steps. In sample language, the FSIS suggests a warning like this for package labels: “Uncooked: For Safety, Must be Cooked to an Internal Temperature of 165ºF as Measured by Use of a Thermometer”.
Checking Our Assumptions
Both of the above news items challenge dietary managers as sanitation-conscious professionals to check every assumption when it comes to food safety. What can we learn from these Salmonella outbreaks? For starters, consider these false assumptions:
False Assumption #1:
Certain foods are safe and cannot cause foodborne illness. Around the world, we learned this year that even chocolate bars can be a “hazardous” food. Foodborne illness outbreaks over recent years have been packed with similar surprises. Sometimes a pathogen shows up in the food where you least expect it. What’s the solution? Apply food-safe standard operating procedures (SOPs) to the entire foodservice operation. Don’t assume some food products can be exempt from food safety practices.
False Assumption #2:
A little contamination won’t hurt anyone. Well, yes it will. Or at least, it might. The pathogen counts don’t have to be high to be dangerous. When it comes to foodborne pathogens, any contamination can pose a risk, especially in a ready-to-eat food. The exact counts necessary to trigger illness vary among species of bacteria and viruses, but in many cases are very low. For example, the FDA says that just 10 microscopic particles of a virus like Norwalk or Hepatitis A are enough to spell danger.
False Assumption #3:
We can judge a food’s safety by its looks. Just this year, consumers have proven this one wrong. “Browned” food is not necessarily “cooked” food. USDA has already demonstrated the color myth with research on ground beef patties. “Brown” patties on the grill are not necessarily safe to eat, and red ones are not necessarily unsafe. A number of factors affect the color of meat, so eyeballing “doneness” simply doesn’t work. For chicken, beef, or any food that requires temperature control for safety, only the thermometer knows for sure! (Sample standards from the FDA Food Code are 165ºF, held for at least 15 seconds for chicken; and 155ºF, held for at least 15 seconds for ground beef.)
False Assumption #4:
Food safety is only a foodservice issue. Dietary managers operate in a crucial segment of the farm-to-fork food cycle, close to consumers. Yet every segment of the food industry plays a role in ensuring safe food. There will always be factors beyond the direct control of dietary managers and their team members. Knowing this enables us to select products wisely, and study food handling guidelines carefully to implement the proper controls at critical control points in our HACCP plans.
What, if any, assumptions are at play in your dietary department? The above examples may provide some good talking points. Chat with your staff members and see what myths or misunderstandings you can address to strengthen your food safety program. In reality, it’s easy to make assumptions. Fortunately, we have scientific principles and science-based guidance, such as the FDA Food Code, to keep us on track. By enforcing the health codes that apply to your operation, you can help make sure that false assumptions can’t jeopardize the safety of your clients.
By Sue Grossbauer