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Food safety for students -- the wrong way

13.dec.05, Christian Battista, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

13.dec.05, Christian Battista, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
In attempting to explain why it took public health types more than a month to alert the public about an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in Alberta and B.C., Alberta Health spokesman Howard May said last week that, "When you eat infected food, it can take a week for the E. coli symptoms to show up. Especially when you're dealing with teens, it can take another week to see a doctor, a week to get the lab results back and then another week to get the provincial lab results back which brings us to right about now." Especially when dealing with teens? That sounds like a Sloan lyric; and what's cool for rock and roll may not be cool for public health messages about food safety.
May's statement suggests that teens were the first to come down with cases of E. coli O157 as a result of ingesting contaminated beef. In another recent outbreak, this time in Ontario, cases of Salmonella caused by bean sprouts were first detected in university students. So are young adults and university students at greater risk for foodborne illness than the general population?
Mrs. Cookwell seems to think so.
And she's right. Decades of psychological research has shown that males, 18-24-years-old are the demographic most impervious to risk, foodborne or otherwise; too cool to live, too young to die.
So Mrs. Cookwell was created as the spokesthingy for a campaign designed to get at those nothing-is-ever-going-to-happen-to-me university and college students. The spokesperson, a cardboard effigy of an old lady in a shawl waving a rolling pin, is there to slap careless kids every time they put their unwashed hand into the cookie jar.
The Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education -- the creators of Mrs. Cookwell -- is once again telling Canadians to clean, chill, cook and separate foods in their kitchens. Sound advice, messages that should be targeted at everyone in the farm-to-fork food safety system, not just consumers. But the messages are incomplete; they fail to follow the advice of the World Health Organization to source food from safe sources, they perpetuate the myth that consumers are the primary cause of foodborne illness.
Specifics aside, is Mrs. Cookwell the messenger to help high-risk university students reduce their encounters with foodborne illness? Outside observers often classify university students into the stereotypical groups of rebels and sissies.
Rebel types - the kids who couldn't wait for the freedom of University -- crave independence and seek respect; the last thing rebels want is to take advice from mom and dad. They may miss their parents, but probably won't admit it, and definitely wouldn't call home to ask for cooking help. Rebels are not going to be impressed by images of an old lady waving a spoon in their faces and telling them what to do. The recipes section of Mrs.
Cookwell's website features a photo of Cookwell playing a sweet sax solo, in
case you've got the "cooking blues." Lame. Next time try bringing some turntables to the photo shoot, lady. This whole campaign plays way too much into the parental fantasy of the hapless university student.Then there's the sissies - these are the kids who spend each night on the phone with their parents and every weekend back home. These types would probably appreciate a bit of matronly advice - but probably from their own flesh and blood parents, instead of an actress made up to look like an old lady on a sound stage. Bottom line? Students that would cotton to Cookwell's motherly advice are already getting it - from their own parents.
Be they rebels or sissies, students are all at university for the same
reason - to learn. Which returns us to the Cookwell mandate: clean/cook/chill/separate.
Mrs. Cookwell flogs this motto like frat boys flog pledges. Is this mandate really appropriate for its target group? Students are at school voluntarily to learn, so why not provide evidence-based information, or at least an organized website? Perhaps compelling stories of other students barfing because they did something silly in the kitchen or ate raw sprouts would help.
Mrs. Cookwell also makes a big deal about nothing by insisting it is unsafe to thaw a frozen steak or chop on the counter overnight: there is no data to support this claim. More important is that a thermometer is used to ensure
the correct temperature is reached prior to consumption. Food poisoning isn't something that will just "make you sick." It will ruin your day, week, month, year, and maybe even your life. It means vomit spewing from one end while bloody feces shoot out the other. It can mean kidney transplants and a lifetime of pain from forms of reactive arthritis like the Salmonella-induced Reiter's Syndrome. It means dead kids and dead grandparents.So far, Mrs. Cookwell's all-holds-barred approach to food safety has attracted 137 students to its web site to give feedback about their experiences with the program. The site lists 24 universities and colleges that Mrs. Cookwell has visited; therefore, Cookwell has managed to reach 5 students per school.
Perhaps there was some research that convinced the powers-that-be to go with Mrs. Cookwell, and if she's a success, I'll be the first one to congratulate the architects of this campaign. Anything that can reduce the burden of foodborne illness, which already strikes over one-in-four Canadians each and every year -- let alone those crazy high-risk university kids -- should be encouraged.
But let's not discourage other approaches. Why not fund someone to add too and monitor the Wikipedia's food safety pages? Arm students with tools as well as knowledge. Give tax breaks to meat thermometer manufacturers that offer discounts to students, or include coupons for the same thing in residence kits. Contribute to programs that directly benefit the individual rather than tossing bags of money from boardroom-to-boardroom. If students are slowing down the overall surveillance process, then invest in guaranteed ways to speed things up, like faster bacterial detection kits, not some goofy campaign.
Give us outbreak information, give us data, help us get to the information we're looking for. And if Mrs. Cookwell makes an encore, swap her saxophone for a Journal of Food Protection, and hook her up to a dialysis unit - maybe then she'll have some impact.
Christian Battista holds a BSc. in psychology and is a research associate at 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 the FSN blogs and forums at,, and