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Market Madness

20.jun.06, Douglas Powell, Ben Chapman, and Brae Surgeoner, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

Outbreak investigators found that volunteers were not trained in foodservice and "didn’t quite understand the importance of maintaining a hot or cold temperature."

20.jun.06, Douglas Powell, Ben Chapman, and Brae Surgeoner, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
On September 24, 2005, at least 50 people fell ill after eating a barbeque chicken dinner in rural Nova Scotia. The outbreak investigation revealed that eell-intentioned organizers had erred when preparing the potato salad. Sloppy food handling and a lack of timely refrigeration at a safe temperature provided the ideal conditions for Staphylococcus aureus intoxication. Community
volunteers at the event were so shaken up that they requested therapeutic debriefing and counseling.
In September 2004, near Buffalo, New York, 28 confirmed cases of Salmonella infection were reported to the Erie County Department of Health following an annual community roast-beef dinner. Outbreak investigators found that volunteers were not trained in foodservice and "didn’t quite understand the importance of maintaining a hot or cold temperature." The beef was roasted on spits and the juices, collecting in a 5-gallon bucket at room temperature over the course of the day, was poured over the surface of ready-to-eat beef sandwiches. Unfortunately, the sandwiches were being drenched with both flavorful juices and Salmonella bacteria that had multiplied throughout the day at room temperature. Interviews with attendees indicated that approximately 1,500 of the 3,000 who attended the event were ill.
In 1994, 82 people contracted salmonellosis after eating a local Mennonite specialty, cook cheese, prepared in a traditional manner and sold at a farmers’ market in Waterloo, Ontario.
A Nov. 2, 1997, church dinner at Our Lady of the Wayside Parish in Chaptico, Maryland, a town of only 100 residents, left two elderly people dead and more than 100 in the emergency room after partaking of stuffed ham, turkey and fried oysters. Salmonella in the ham likely caused the illnesses.
There have been at least 30 other outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with homecooked products, community dinners and farmers' markets in North America (see http://www.foodsafety.ksu.edu/en/article-details.php?a=3&c=32&sc=419&id=890).
And those are just the ones we know about.
Yet Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman announced last week that those very institutions would be exempt from rules that apply to restaurants and other commercial establishments through amendments to existing legislation.
"We know Ontarians grow, sell and enjoy eating locally produced foods," said Smitherman. "The exemption we're creating allows them the freedom to continue their proud tradition of providing a wide range of high quality goods to the public."
In May the Minister stated, "There are genuine risks that need to be well-managed."
Whether it's the Pie Police, the Potluck Liberation Act, or Egg Saladgate, there's trouble brewing not just in Ontario but throughout North America. And asa politician, Smitherman is, not surprisingly, jumping on the bandwagon.
Matters boiled over when a Windsor, Ontario, health inspector reportedly poured bleach on egg salad to prevent reuse. Or, as Maclean's magazine recounted the tale, setting up bureaucracy against mythical common sense, "It began as a typical fundraiser for the Friends of Willistead - a folksy annual affair complete with friendly volunteers, freshly made sandwiches and a healthy dose of homespun charm."
Except that many health inspectors can recount extraordinary tales of people attempting to reuse food -- a favorite is the executive chef who attempted to reuse 400 pounds of chicken breasts and ham that inspectors had ordered to the garbage can at a prominent U.S. political convention -- so the use of bleach, while heavy handed, is often justified.
Almost one-in-three citizens in so-called developed countries will get sick from the food and water they consume each and every year. That's about 11 million Canadians. Fresh fruits and vegetables are a significant -- if not the most significant -- source of foodborne illness today in North America, yet rarely is fresh produce mentioned, although it was less than a year ago that some 640 Ontarians were sickened with salmonella after consuming raw sprouts.
By pandering to a few vocal opponents Smitherman is undercutting the efforts of the majority of vendors who prepare food knowledgeably and safely, and handcuffing taxpayer-funded public health inspectors.
Markets, church dinners and other community-based events featuring food, are not inherently safer or more dangerous than any other food establishment. Those making the food either know about dangerous bugs and takes steps to reduce the risk, or they don't. The rules should be consistent.
Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at Kansas State University. Ben Chapman and Brae Surgeoner are graduate students with FSN at the University of Guelph.
dpowell@ksu.edu
785-317-0560