A Grilling About Handwashing; In Summer Wash the Food, Cook it Well
26.jul.02, Doug Powell, The Spectator A11Opinion
26.jul.02, Doug Powell, The Spectator A11Opinion
Another long weekend approaches -- beer, barbecues, and, unfortunately, food
Two years ago, Canada was just beginning to have some myths shattered about
Canadian clean water as reports trickled out about an outbreak of E. coli
0157:H7 in Walkerton. In the end, 2,300 were sickened and seven killed, all
in a town of 5,000.
So far, 2002 looks like another banner year for epidemiologists and others
investigating outbreaks of foodborne illness. In early May, cantaloupes
grown in Mexico were recalled across North America because of salmonella; an
outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 at a banquet in Ottawa; and then an outbreak of
shigella with some 300 people thought to be sickened by Greek-style pasta
But it's not only dangerous pathogens which are proliferating; so are a
variety of food safety myths and, even worse, confounding advice from those
who should know better, both which could actually increase the risk to
Is the food getting worse? No. While direct comparisons are impossible
because of statistical limitations, it is clear that the ability to detect
the sources of foodborne illness have increased substantially through the
use of DNA fingerprinting and other technology. And foodborne illness is
certainly reported and discussed more widely than in the past. Incidents
which in the past would have been written off as the ubiquitous
24-hour flu -- which doesn't really exist -- are increasingly linked to food
and water containing pathogens which make us sick.
The shigella outbreak is a reminder of the importance of cleanliness: your
grandparents had it right -- wash your hands.
(Shigella is a bacteria that causes stomach cramps, diarrhea and even blood
in the stool, and is usually passed human to human. It is serious in the
very young and elderly).
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that foodborne illness could
be reduced by 20 per cent if people practised proper handwashing.
But that's only 20 per cent. And that's why food safety is discussed in a
farm-to-fork system, because there are many opportunities for different bugs
to get into different foods at different points of the food chain.
The shigella outbreak may not have been due to poor sanitation by
foodhandlers, but rather on the farm. There have been numerous outbreaks of
shigella linked to scallions, parsley and celery. Were any of these
ingredients in the pasta salad?
The father of a three-year-old girl from Newmarket, who was released from
hospital in May after a bout of E. coli 0157:H7, was quoted as saying that
the source was "still a mystery and we'll likely never know." But he has a
hunch that Justine picked up the bug from a hamburger at a fast-food
restaurant. "We won't eat hamburger meat anymore, especially if it's cooked
anywhere but at home."
Except that those fast-food burgers were probably quite safe. The foods
Canadians and others think cause foodborne illness -- chicken, hamburger,
the last meal I ate -- are actually low on the list. More likely is the
salad and other food consumed fresh.
Cooking a burger at home can be tricky. Previously, consumers were advised
to use the colour of hamburger patties as an indicator of thorough cooking.
Today's research shows that colour does not guarantee the death of all
bacteria. One study proves that some burgers turn brown prematurely at lower
temperatures, temperatures too low to kill the bacteria within the
hamburgers. Other methods such as juice colour and textural appearance are
also poor indicators.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency recognizes that the only way to ensure
safe burgers is by actually measuring their internal temperature. But
temperature determination can be a tricky process because hamburgers cook at
different rates in different areas, depending on thickness and fat content.
It was found that when the outer temperature of hamburgers reaches a
temperature of 71.1 C (160 F), the inside is only at a temperature of 56.7 C
(134 F), which is not hot enough to kill E. coli. The recommended final
temperature for the inside of hamburgers is a minimum of 71.1 C (160 F).
This temperature is hot enough to kill harmful bacteria and makes burgers
And while there are efforts to convince consumers to use a thermometer to
check the doneness of their burgers -- grab the burger with tongs, insert
sideways and wait 30 seconds -- the practicality of such a procedure is open
to debate (personally, I make my own burgers, make them thick, and stick a
thermometer in them). When I asked how many of my 40 graduate students in a
food safety class use a thermometer to check doneness, not one answered in
the affirmative. For social gatherings where alcohol and hunger come into
play, precooked burgers may be the way to go.
But don't forget the salad.
And that means ensuring that farmers and others in the farm-to- fork food
safety system are doing what they can to reduce the risk of microbial food
safety problems. Perceptions about the causes of foodborne illness are
powerful but often misleading.
Even Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant blamed his recent bout with
foodborne illness on the last meal he ate. Except that it rarely happens
Often the culprit bugs have incubation periods of two days to two weeks.
The suppliers of food -- farmers, retailers, food service -- are
increasingly taking steps to verify that they are supplying safe food. After
all, making one's customers sick is a bad business strategy. But for
consumers, they need to ask the hard questions.
Douglas Powell is an assistant professor and scientific director of the Food
Safety Network at the University of Guelph.