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Forgotten lessons

02.nov.05, Douglas Powell, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

02.nov.05, Douglas Powell, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
Five-year-old Mason Jones died a painful and unnecessary death. Sharon Mills, Mason's grief-stricken mother, recounted the events leading to her son's death on BBC Radio Wales Sunday.
"His head was soaking wet and he was drifting in and out of consciousness. He was saying silly things, like he could see slugs, and [he was] looking for a fork which he had never had - because he hadn't eaten anything." Mason died Oct. 4 from E. coli O157 as part of an outbreak which has stricken 161 -- primarily schoolchildren -- in south Wales. The cause is still under investigation, although food supplied to a number of schools from a single facility is the leading suspect.
Sharon said that her son's death was "avoidable" and that lessons "have to be learnt. “ There was nothing wrong with him, only that he ate a dinner - an innocent child eating a dinner. “ I never thought you could die from E. coli. Never. I had heard of E.coli and I just thought it was food poisoning. I never ever thought Mason would die from it."
Such tales are heart-wrenching but unfortunately, all too familiar. The carnage from foodborne illness continues unabated in the so-called developed world, with tales of unnecessary illness and death appearing on a weekly basis. The Jack-in-the-Box outbreak in Jan. 1993 in which some 600 were sickened and four died from E. coli O157 was supposed to have thrust foodborne illness front and centre in the public consciousness. In the summer of 1996, over 9,500 Japanese, largely schoolchildren, were stricken with E. coli O157 and 12 were killed. In November 1996, over 400 fell ill and 16 ‹ largely pensioners who had attended a church supper ‹ were killed in Scotland. That same month, 65 people in four U.S. states and B.C fell ill after drinking juice manufactured by Odwalla Inc. of Half Moon Bay, California and found to contain E. coli O157. A 16-month-old girl died in Denver. For Canadians, just mention Walkerton. Many in the farm-to-fork food system have taken excellent proactive steps to reduce the risk posed by dangerous bugs. Educational campaigns have been undertaken in many countries. And while consumers and others report through surveys that they are aware of the risks and have changed their behaviour, stories like those from Sharon Mills suggest that many of us in the food safety community have missed the target.
Last month, four people were stricken with E. coli O157:H7 after consuming unpasteurized apple cider from a producer in Bowmanville, Ontario. Because of the 1996 Odwalla outbreak, the majority of cider sold in grocery stores is pasteurized. Since 1998, the U.S. has required warning labels on all unpasteurized juices sold at retail (although not at the farm gate). Canada has undertaken consultations, surveys, and best practices, but really, has done “ nothing.
At this time of year, Canadian authorities fall over themselves to issue warnings that consumers should not consume unpasteurized juices, oh, and be careful about petting the animals at the county fair. But they can be confusing (assuming anyone reads them). The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says it 's fine to consume such juices as long as the producers follow a code of practice, which many do, but not all.
And then Health Canada and local health units tell people to avoid unpasteurized ciders and juices, period.
How is a consumer to know?
So our national agencies can't agree on what to do about unpasteurized juices, but they do agree that food safety is largely a consumer problem, and fund sterile campaigns telling consumers to cook, clean, chill and separate.
But what about those juices?
The public health inspectors I've spoken with say that sales of unpasteurized apple cider continue to flourish in the Ontario countryside, where urbanites venture for a taste of all things natural -- including E. coli O157.
The argument for such natural flirtations was laid out by a letter writer to the Cobourg Daily Star on Oct. 31.
"Because unpasteurized cider is not boiled, it retains many of the nutrients of an apple. “ People should be aware of where their food is coming from, but that is why those 'roadside stands, community fairs, [and] farmers' markets' will often offer high quality products sold to you directly from farmers and their families who produce them - not only for you, but also for their own consumption. Consumers worried about the possible health risks of cider, or any other juices or foods, should take a walk down the road and befriend a local farmer; safety doesn't always come in the form of a supermarket shelf."
Tell that to the unsuspecting consumers who end up in the hospital. During the halfway point of a golf tournament in Baltimore in August, a burley, 50-ish goateed he-man requested his hamburger be cooked, "Bloody “ with cheese."
His sidekick piped up, "Me too."
Our golf foursome of food safety types were alternately alarmed and amazed, but ultimately resigned to conclude that much of what passes for food safety advice falls on deaf ears.
So who's to blame? Silly consumers or boring food safety educational campaigns?
I asked the kid flipping burgers if he had a meat thermometer.
He replied, snickering, "Yeah, this is a pretty high-tech operation." The young woman taking orders glanced about, and then confided that she didn't think there was a meat thermometer anywhere in the kitchen; this, at a fancy golf course catering to weddings and other swanky functions along with grunts on the golf course.
This is a failure of management. But it is also a failure of complacency. Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph. The Food Safety Network's national toll-free line for obtaining food safety information is1-866-50-FSNET (1-866-503-7638) and further information is available at < . Visit our blogs at,, and