FS108 - Hyperbole and Fire Ants

This show is hosted by Don Schaffner and Ben Chapman (see About-page).

The show title refers to the hyperbole in the media about certain topics like food supply, killer bees, peak oil or fire ants.

They have collectively mastered Skype, all three of them only use it for podcasting. Don doesn’t know John in real life, but they have had a lot of contact over the Internet. Ben feels like he knows John based on listening to John’s stuff. Ben and Don have been colleagues for a while. Ben met Don at a conference where all the food safety nerds hang out probably 15 years ago. Don knew Ben’s major advisor very well, a guy named Dough and Dough took Don to the conference and when he met Ben, he was kind of like an ass and he happened to smoke one of the 4 cigarettes he has ever smoked in his life. Don is in New Jersey, Ben in North Carolina.

They started this podcast 5 years ago.

Don and Ben's background of food science academia (FS108)

Most food safety people come from departments of food science and most of those departments are located in colleges of agriculture. Ben went to the University of Guelph, which is Canada’s food and agricultural hub. Don went to Rutgers and John wonders why that university has an agriculture college, because Rutgers is one of the most urbanized colleges in the country. Although New Jersey is the garden state, the gardens are not in East Orange. There are rooftop gardens in Newark, but that is a separate discussion. There is a lot of agriculture in the Southern part of the state and they grow a lot of Blueberries and Cranberries and Vegetables. As a consequence of that, they had a college of agriculture for some time.

Most of these colleges are Land-grant colleges and were granted land to start the college. At the time they started there was really no land in New Jersey to grant them and so they were granted land in the West or Midwest which they then sold to fund the creation of the agricultural college. The university goes back 250 years and existed before that, but the agriculture department is only 100 and some odd years old. When they wanted to create a college of agriculture they had a choice of different universities to put it at and because Rutgers was the state university that is where it got associated with.

You do not specialize in food safety as an undergraduate, but you are granted a degree in food science. You typically decide to focus when you go to graduate school and have to pick a research topic. At Rutgers there are food biologists, food chemists and food engineers and it is typically the food biologists, specifically the microbiologists that are food safety people. There are people who study chemical toxicology that could be in the food chemistry area and there are some food engineers who study food processing or other types of processing and they may have a food safety orientation, but the majority of food safety people are food microbiologists and they decide that in graduate school.

Ben does not have any degree in food science, but in molecular biology, which is a fancy term for methods and he has two degrees in plant agriculture with a focus on food safety. He came at it from a production standpoint and worked in vegetable production with how to keep Salmonella and E.Coli off tomatoes and cucumbers before he got much more interested in non-production food-safety questions and started working in restaurant, but still under the disguise of plant agriculture.

Coming at food science from a plant culture, how did they learn the whole world of animal husbandry and meat food science? Most departments of food science have another department as their origin. For example the department of food science at Cornell came out of dairy science with a strong dairy processing orientation. The department at the university of Maryland came out of plant science and they have a strong vegetable production orientation. The department at the university of Georgia came from the meat science department and they have a strong meat processing orientation.

Rutgers is a little bit unique because they were formed as a free-standing department and not as an outgrowth of another department. They did pull some faculty from other departments to create their department, but it was not birth from a single department. Depending on their background, different departments may have more or less expertise in a given area.

Ben has worked with colleges from Washington State university who worked in the dairy field with Cougar Gold Cheese. Some of the best work in hamburger cooking, temperature thermometer use and color change also came out of Washington State university. Ben’s area of the field is mostly how consumers handle food at home. Washington State’s food science department and the University of Idaho’s food science department share an administrative head, but they are also only 3 miles apart. Ben has been there a couple of times.

Jack in the Box outbreak (FS108)

Don and Ben know the food safety lawyer in Seattle Bill Marler who got his start with the Jack in the Box outbreak. John was probably a victim of that outbreak. He ate at that Jack in the Box that day and got violently sick, but he was a poor person and didn’t seek any treatment. Instead he just sat around and barfed and pooped and he only become aware afterwards that other people were sick and got killed. John always considered himself as an E.Coli surviver.

Most people who get sick in an outbreak or with a sporadic illness don’t end up reporting it. They may go to the doctor, but the doctor will probably not order a stool culture, but just say they got food poisoning and tell them to get plenty of rest and drink plenty of fluids, meaning that a lot of food-born diseases will go unreported. John had food poisoning many times and a couple of times it has been devastating, but he has never reported it to anybody. He always just crouched on the bathroom floor moaning until it passed, usually in 24 hours.

E.Coli and Salmonella (FS108)

A lot of illnesses are linked to animal hosts like deer that can transmit E.Coli, but humans are also a pretty decent source for Norovirus or Hepatitis A. Half of the food-born illnesses in the US are probably Norovirus and are from human vomit or feces getting into food. Listeria is common in the environment and is increasingly seen in frozen vegetables through soil getting into processing plants where they freeze vegetables or make bag lettuce. When you think Salmonella you think animal intestine, but there are also Salmonella in the soil or even in water in nut orchards. They probably have an animal origin, but are now established in the environment. We can’t always make a clear connection and blame animals for contamination in vegetables. In swamp water those organisms can survive and propagate on their own.

Leftover food (FS108)

John is a leftover food eater and hoarder. His mom grew up on a farm in Ohio in the 1930s and they had an ice box where they stored their food. They also did a tremendous amount of canning. John’s mom has a farm girl’s constitution, as John does, and she has a pretty sanguine mid-century sense of ”Is that food good? Is that food not good?” and she will ask you to smell it and if it smells fine it is probably good. They both eat things that have been around a while or have been sitting out a while. Her theory is that things with a lot of sugar or salt in them won’t ever spoil, it will get moldy but it won’t make you sick. John is never sure and doesn’t have her confidence because he never lived in a corn crib or whatever it was like to be her, but if there is some pizza under the bed he wonders how long it has been there and if it looks and smells good he will eat it.

There are other people in John’s life who blanch at that thought and Don has chimed in quite a bit, like ”Hmm, that doesn’t sound like a very good idea”, but Don is very accepting of other people and he is not going to come through the internet tubes and whack John with a loaf of bread, but this is the realm in which John has a lot of questions. If he puts something in the refrigerator in a glass container and comes upon it again somewhere in the 10-14 day range, it has been in there a long time, but because it is not seafood and it smells fine he generally goes for it. What is he risking and what are some of the things he should know? How does he tell the old good food from the old bad food?

It is complicated and it depends, which is also what John’s mom says. Pickles or ketchup have a lot of acid in it which limits the growth of any of the bugs they are concerned with in food safety, the pathogens, the things that make you sick. Keeping those items indefinitely is not a super-risky situation, but we are concerned with spoilage and that is the smell test. There can be yeast or mold that is not going to make you sick, but can create some off-flavors over time.

The stuff that makes you sick is largely controlled by temperature, acidity and water activity: How moist is the product and how much water is available to the bacteria? The ”depends” part is the food itself and the temperature of the refrigerator and the time. The accepted time/temperature combination would be below 41 degrees (5 °C) and 7 days. Most refrigerators in people’s homes are not at 41 degrees, but they are in the 45 degree range (7 °C) and that shaves 4 days off of the time that you might have Listeria growing to a larger problem in leftovers. Pickles vs Meat Loaf vs Pizza all have different answers, which is confusing.

The tools John’s mom had as a farm girl was using sugar and salt to preserve things. Jams and jellies last so long because they have a very low water availability to microorganisms. Soy sauce is also a very low water activity food, even though it looks liquid, and it is shelf stable because of the presence of salt. You can grow a lot more microorganisms in beer than i pizza because pizza is a baked product with cheese which already has low water activity, it has tomato sauce for acidity and it is bread, so pizza can be shelf-stable for a long period of time. We are making a decision about spoilage vs safety. Something can be unsafe, but be perfectly fine and unspoiled, but something can be spoiled, but be perfectly safe, or it could be neither or both. Normal people often have a fundamental confusion about spoiled food vs unsafe food.

Letting food stand outside for long (FS108)

Let’s say John is making a pot of stew and dishes up a bowl, turns the heat off at the stove and eats the bowl of stew, he wanders around the house, plays piano for a while, waters the garden, lays down on the couch, takes a nap, and the pot of stew has been sitting on the stove cooling off for several hours. "Oh shit, I left the stew on the stove!" He puts a lid on it and puts it into the refrigerator. Was that enough time to grow something?

Any vegetative pathogens like Salmonella and E.Coli have long since been killed if you cooked the stew properly. There is a food-poisoning organism called Clostridium Perfringens that forms spores… (There was a man at the door of John’s office who was about to change the lock on the door. The other day somebody came to check the gas line, see RL215) … that survive the cooking process and there is no way you can kill them in your normal kitchen. If those are in your meat (and they are not in all meat) they are stimulated by the heating process, germinate and grow really well between 80 and 120 degrees (25-50 °C) when that stew is cooling.

With Salmonella and E.Coli you can get sick from one single cell, while with Clostridium Perfringens you probably need hundreds of thousands, which you might have depending on how long you left that stew on your counter, probably not in 4 hours, but by the next day for sure. Putting it in the fridge after playing the piano is not what they call a best practice, but you should get it into the fridge after 1-2 hours, but 3-4 hours is probably okay, but they wouldn’t push it much beyond that. Perfringens is probably not going to put you in the hospital, but just make you sick for 24 hours.

Let’s say John is cooking sausage. He pulls it off the stove and cuts it up when it is halfway cooked. The inside is still pink and cold while the outside is already burned and starting to cook. Then he puts it back in the pan and cooks it all the way through. Is the cutting board polluted?

Potentially yes. If that sausage was below 135 degrees (57 °C), you are probably treating that just like if it was at 40 degrees (4°C) because temperature does not always immediately lead to color change. We could cook a hamburger or pork on really high heat for a short amount of time and change color, but if the temperature had not reached above 135 degrees, you are not likely to kill all of the pathogens that have been there in the first place.

There is a theoretical risk that John has contaminated his cutting board, but if they would sample a bunch of fresh, uncooked sausages on the market place, most of them would probably be free of pathogens. Most of the time you would be fine with that practice, but every 1 in a 100 times or 50 times you would contaminate that cutting board. Not every egg has Salmonella, but in the US probably 1 in 10.000 or 20.000 eggs has.

If John makes a egg in a cup (see RL232), even if he doesn’t fully cook that egg, the risk is relatively low, but it is not zero. Silvester Stalone has a good chance of not going to get Salmonella from his 15 eggs in a blender Rocky-milkshake, but each egg increases the risk. (with 15 eggs it is 1 in 667, and if you do that every day in a year the risk of getting sick is 42%).

Steak Tartare (FS108)

Why can we eat steak tartare?

We can eat anything, it is just a risk management choice. Steak tartare carries more risk than steak non-tartare. Not all meat is going to be contaminated at all or at the same rate, and even the risk of the different pathogens might be different, like E.Coli O157:H7, the type that was linked to the Jack in the Box outbreak, or Salmonella. With all these things mixed together there is relative risk and benefit. Ben would not eat steak tartare because the benefit does not outweigh the risk. There are other types of food he would rather eat raw and get a taste benefit, like raw fish Sushi.

The pathogens for sushi are historically parasites and we manage those by freezing the fish first, which should kill the worms. In the last couple of years we have seen Salmonella be associated with different grades of sushi. All of those things boil down to personal choice, relative risk and what is worth it. Don and Ben sit in this area of trying to give people the best information to make informed decisions and let people make their own choices. Ben will eat Sushi himself, but he won’t feed it to his kids who are still developing their immune systems at age 8 and 5.

BPA Water-bottles (FS108)

John’s daughter at 5 years old has typically a pretty limited palette. John doesn’t feed her leftovers, but he prepares her meal individually for her each time. She doesn’t want Sushi for obvious reasons, but John has tried to feed it to her because he eats it a lot. He has given her California Roll, that weird fake crab meat dosed in mayonnaise. She prefers a pretty simple range of foods so it is easy to give her food that he is not worried about.

When John went to the Conference on World Affairs (see RW91) a few years ago, one of the speakers was a scientist who had done extensive research about how the hormones in plastic, especially in BPA water-bottles, leech into the water and he was so agitated to the point of preaching from the pulpit that for most of us grown adults it is too late and the ship has sailed, but if you have a young daughter, don’t ever let her drink water from a plastic water bottle. BPA-free plastic is baloney because they just changed the name of the thing and these plastics cause them weird early puberty and terrible things happen. John is very conscious of her not drinking water from that kind of plastic bottle.

If it really was a danger, then the FDA would manage that risk for us. They have a ton of really smart toxicologists who are charged with overseeing the safety of the food supply which includes bottled water and they are not worried about it. Risk is all about priorities: The risk of not eating still outweighs the risk of eating. We have to eat and drink something! If BPA was a priority of the FDA they would do it. The industry is also trying to cater to consumer concerns, whether or not they are based on science. Ben is not very concerned about it from a parent standpoint. He is much more concerned with the stuff we know leads to illnesses. We can only make priorities on the risk and we cannot focus on everything.

Sushi (FS108)

John is very curious about Ben’s comments on Sushi. A lot of the Sushi in North Carolina has to be culturally filtered through a place where they actually know what Sushi is and then trucked to North Carolina, because their coast is just swamp people, right? Sometimes those swamp people can roll a mean Sushi roll, but a lot of the fish they have for Sushi does not come from their cost.

When John was on tour with his band, they had a rule to never get Sushi in a state that doesn’t touch the ocean, even though they knew it was in a lot of cases flown in from somewhere, but don’t bother to go to a Sushi restaurant in Oklahoma or don’t get Thai food in Minneapolis. In Seattle, the home of the Alaska fishing fleet, they get a lot of fish that purports to never have been frozen. John is very interested in fish parasites: How prevalent are they in which fish? How do you prevent them? and is John being fooled and all fish has been frozen at one point or another?

The FDA who would regulate the businesses who sell Sushi and require that fish that is destined to be eaten raw would be frozen first for parasite reasons. There is lots of fish that has never been frozen that would not be destined to be eaten raw. It could also have been flash frozen for parasite management and not been stored and transported frozen. Like with beef tartare or rare hamburgers, as long as the restaurants provide a consumer advisory and tell the consumer that if they eat something that is raw or undercooked there is a risk of food poisoning and you are taking that risk decision, then you go ahead and they have done their job of informing.

You probably can find never-been-frozen fish in Sushi with a consumer advisory and that is Sushi that might have worms in it. There have been outbreaks linked to Sushi, like back-scraped tuna that has been processed into low-grade Sushi meat has been linked to Salmonella outbreak. There is also Vibrio that could be present in Sushi. Both Vibrio and Salmonella could survive freezing. If you are going to go to a Sushi restaurant, you want to go to a good Sushi restaurant that sources good-quality tuna and doesn’t use back-scraped tuna in their Sushi.

FDA (FS108)

Don and Ben have both expressed a huge confidence in the FDA and John was surprised because it is one of the few times he heard somebody say that the FDA is a government agency and if this was a problem they would know.

When you talk to real scientists who know what those organizations are actually doing and don’t just think of them politically, but practically, it is true that big agencies like the FDA are responsive and effective. The FDA is not a monolithic entity, but there are a lot of components. When Ben and Don say FDA, they refer to the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) that is charged with the safety of food supply. They have some good friends and colleges who work for that agency.

That is different from the people who are actually going out and doing inspections, which is the Office for Regulatory Affairs (ORA). Don has previously expressed his extreme annoyance and displeasure with the FDA Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER), because they have recently banned anti-bacterial soaps and said that these products do not have a benefit in hand-washing, while Don’s research shows that there is a benefit. Part of that is a cultural thing because they are a drug-regulatory agency, so their gold-standard for approving something is a clinical trial, which is fine for Viagra and Cancer Medicine, but Dan does not necessarily think that we need anti-bacterial soap to be tested in clinical trials.

It is a difference in opinion and because they have the power, they do what they want, but if you make a soap manufacturer demonstrate a benefit of an antibacterial soap through a clinical trial, they are not making that much money off of that product and they can’t afford to prove that this product is effective, which is essentially a ban of this product. Don’s love of the FDA is a selective and focused love, because parts of it are great while parts of it are not so great.

Antibiotics vs antibacterial (FS108)

We have to differentiate between antibiotic resistance and antibacterial soap. The antibiotics that we take in our bodies to fight infection are not the same kind of chemicals as the ones in antibacterial soaps. Don understands FDA CDERs point of view on the ecological consequences and the potential development of antibacterial resistance from these products. That is a well and good argument and Don is not qualified to judge that argument, but his specific problem with what FDA CDER did is that they said there is no benefit to these soap and Don disagrees with that premise. If you do the cost/benefit analysis and come to that conclusion, that is fine, but they didn’t do that, but basically said that those compounds don’t have any benefits.

Don is concerned about the development of antibiotic resistant organisms and there is certainly a great difference of opinion on the part of scientists what is causing that. Part of it is overuse of antibiotics in humans, but also in animals on sub-therapeutic levels. For some reason that scientists don’t completely understand, if you give low levels of antibiotics to a food animal it gains weight faster and puts on more sellable meat with the potential of creating antibiotic resistance and that is something people are concerned about. The industry is coming to realize that they need to do a better job and certainly if our animals get sick we want drugs to be able to treat them, and using drugs at these sub-therapeutic levels with potential consequences to the human health is a concern.

As we expose microorganisms to lots of different chemicals, antibiotics and drugs, they will always find a way to become resistant to them over time, that is just the beauty of microbes. Sub-therapeutic use in animals, environmental water antibiotics in treatment plants and how that moves into our food system and back into humans are really important questions and there is nothing in this conversation that is really black and white. The more data we have, the better analysis we can do and the better decisions we can make. Ben is just as concerned about antibiotic resistance as Don and John are.

There is a lot of hyperbole in this area, just as there was a lot of hyperbole about peak oil and killer bees. Hyperbole and fire ants! Hyperbole about the coming day when antibiotics will no longer be effective. What John has never completely understood is why it is not possible to continue to develop new iterations of antibiotic chemistry and why is there some kind of ceiling on the effectiveness of new antibiotics that will keep pace with the antibiotic resistant bugs.

Some antibiotics are not used anymore because they are no longer effective, for example to treat Salmonella infections in chickens or other pathogens that we might want to address in animal production. We have moved away from those because they lost their effectiveness against those bacterial populations at the exact same time where others are coming with better chemistry or more targeted chemistry that are replacing them.

Ben doesn’t have the bleak outlook that we will run out of antibiotics. If we only used the antibiotics that we had on hand today, at some point we would loose effectiveness, but we are constantly looking for better tools and better use of the current tools to reduce resistance and more targeted management practices. The hyperbole is often a snapshot and we think that everything is going to end, but we are missing the caveat that we the only were going to use the things we have on hand right now.

When John was a kid in the 1970s, it was prognosticated that we were going to reach peak population in 1979 because we couldn’t supply the world with food, but then there were new food innovations and nobody talked about it anymore because we are producing a lot more food from the land.

This conversation is still relevant and many people in food production are looking at increasingly less wasteful and better ways to produce food as our population grows. That conversation maybe doesn’t happen as much in the media, but their colleagues are working on that question every day so that we don’t hit peak population food issues. Part of the problem that it is becoming harder and harder to develop effective antibiotics might be policy or cost or the level of required proof, but it is dangerous to think that there is a technological solution for everything.

"Let’s just keep having babies and we will figure out how to make more food and it is okay and global warming is great! Let’s just keep throwing carbon dioxide into the air because scientists are going to figure it out!" That is a really dangerous road to go down! We need to get antibiotics out of the food supply where we think they are contributing to resistance. We need to only use them to treat bacterial infections. That means if your kid has a viral ear ache you should not be getting antibiotics from the doctor, etc. It is ultimately exciting and equally terrifying to live in the future.

GMO food (FS108)

Scientists don’t have the same reservations than a German grocery consumer has against GMOs. Don is not necessarily pro-GMO, but it is a trade-off situation and it is a really powerful technology that in certain situation makes a lot of sense. He is not of the ilk that thinks that inserting some genes specifically into a set of DNA will somehow inherently increase the risk of him growing some horns. The technology has been through many safety assessments and environmental assessments by lots of government agencies worldwide, but that doesn’t mean that every GMO concept that we can think of has a place in our food production just for the sake of it being GMO. It is definitely a powerful tool that can reduce the use of pesticides and the amount of Diesel that is used in soy bean production. It makes for less waste or loss in potato crops, but overall it is hard to be pro or anti anything. Ben would characterize himself not as pro-GMO, but as not anti-GMO.

Vegetarianism (FS108)

Vegetarians should be able to eat healthy pathogen-free food, the same as non-vegetarians. Don went through a hippie phase and was a vegetarian at one point. He is a confirmed dedicated meat-eater today because he doesn’t want that choice taken away from him. There is evidence that animal agriculture does have ecological consequences, not just food safety, but overall. Ben says that 15-20 years ago we linked all the pathogens to meat, eggs, dairy and fish, but over the last 20 years more than half of the food-born illnesses that we estimate happen in the US are linked to fresh fruits and vegetables. Ben shares Don’s comment that we want to keep pathogens out of our food, but switching to a purely vegetarian lifestyle isn’t a pathogen-free lifestyle.

How can a consumer avoid pathogens? (FS108)

Don and Ben are doing work to prevent contaminated food from reaching the consumer by whatever means. What choices does the consumer have to avoid receiving contaminated food? Are you surveying the restaurants in your neighborhood or are you going to Whole Foods to spend an enormous amount of money to get food of normal quality, how do you protect yourself from pathogens?

The industry has changed on that. for many years, the meat and poultry industry said that they can’t make pathogen-free meat and poultry, but consumers need to cook their meat and if they don’t, they are going to get sick. Today the industry realized that they do have a role to play and they try to minimize pathogens. Consumers need to properly cook things, but you don't necessarily cook fresh fruits and vegetables unless you have a wilted spinach salad. They have talked a lot about social media and restaurant reviews and we are starting to be able to connect restaurant review websites like Google and Yelp to restaurant inspections.

That is not a perfect guarantee of safety, but it has a role to play. The same thing is true for supermarkets. Don doesn’t shop at Whole Foods, but there is a chain in the Northeast called Wegmans and he knows the food safety people there and he knows through work about the audits the New Jersey farms that sell to Wegmans have to go through. There is no such thing as risk-free fruit and vegetables, but he knows that while he is maybe paying more at Wegmans, he is getting some additional food safety bang for that buck. There are things that people an do: You may think of Shoppers club cards at supermarkets as an evil way to track you, but buying a food product that has been recalled with one of those cards gives the supermarket a way to reach out to you in the event of an outbreak.

Ben is cynical on this and has a food-safety bent on a lot of his decisions. He asks a lot of questions and he goes to the farmer’s market because he can often talk to the person who grew the food. He will ask them about what they are doing to make sure that deer are not running through their field and they might say ”Not much”, but if they say that if they see deer poop they make a circle around that and make sure they don’t harvest around that, that is the type of answer he wants to hear. He doesn’t want to hear that they don’t do anything about it or can’t do anything about it.

That kind of dickish question puts pressure back on the industry, because if many people ask that question, they might realize that people are concerned about it. Law suits and social media have done a fantastic job on changing behaviors into doing things better. Chipotle had six outbreaks in six months last year and they really had to change how they manage things. Public perception and uncomfortable questions do have the potential to impact how the industry works as a whole.

Ben and his students go into restaurants as ”secret shoppers” and ask about the beef they are about to get. The FDA set a national guideline about consumer advisories and every state has adopted some version of it in one form or another. The food code says you have to put some written information on your menu saying that if you eat undercooked meat that you are on an increased risk for food-born illness.

When you engage in conversation with servers as they did in 235 restaurants and ask if there is any risk to ordering an undercooked hamburger, they hear a totally different story to what the FDA has, things like that the USDA has outlawed E.Coli in beef in 2008, so you can eat all the undercooked beef you want, which is not true, or things like their chefs know the right temperature to cook it to and they will keep you safe and it is guaranteed every time, which is not a complete answer, or you don’t have to worry about it at all, which is a bunch of garbage.

About 80% of the answers contradicted what the restaurant had on its menu and what the FDA had stipulated. Asking questions is a start, but you have to ask the right people the right questions. Asking a server vs asking the manager vs an owner or corporate person about it might get you some different answers. Ultimately, all Ben wants is to eat and don’t get sick and trust that someone is doing what they can. That is what the restaurant industry says about consumer advisories on menus: People don’t want to hear that they are going to get sick from food so why are they making them put those advisories on menus?

Hand hygiene (FS108)

How much of food sickness is just a result of people not washing their hands?

For multi-state outbreaks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention get involved. If you look at contributing factors related to hand hygiene, it is probably a number one or number two cause. In many cases it is multiple factors and you will get more than 100% if you add it up, because sometimes you have multiple causes, but based on our best available data it is certainly the number one or two cause of food poisoning.

What is John’s risk to himself of eating food when he has not adequately washed his own hands?

If he is not ill with vomiting or diarrhea that risk is probably pretty low, but it depends on what is going on in the household. If he has a sick child and that child has vomiting and/or diarrhea and you are charged with both cleaning up after that child as well as preparing a meal for the family, then hand-washing is going to be paramount. Even with adequate hand-washing you still may not be able to mitigate that risk, but if you are in a house by yourself and you weren’t ever going to wash your hands, the risk is probably pretty small. There are lots and lots of bacteria in poop, but most of those bacteria don’t make us sick and while it is disgusting to think about them getting in food, unless it is an organism that causes illness, the chances are pretty minimal.

There is some interesting epidemiology that shows that while people who are sick with food poisoning continue to shed the organism in their feces for a long period of time, but the time when they are most at risk of making other people sick is when they still have diarrhea. If you have a firm bowel you are much less in risk of spreading illness than if you have diarrhea, because if you have diarrhea, the stuff is going everywhere and there is risk even with good hand-washing. It all depends of what you are doing with your hands. If you were making a bunch of sausage and handling a bunch of ground pork and beef, hand-washing has a protective value.

You get into the habit of thinking that all poop is poison, but it is also horrifying that every time John had food poisoning it was the result of somebody vomiting and diarrhea-ing and then not washing up properly.

It might not be that, because it might have been the Salmonella from the inside of the cow that got into the burger. The Jack in the Box E.Coli outbreak was certainly not the result of somebody not washing their hands, but E.Coli getting from the intestine of the cow into the burger and the restaurant not having adequate cooking practices in place to ensure that those E.Coli in the burger were killed. The Clostridium Perfringens in John’s beef stew they talked about at the beginning of the show is not a hand-washing thing, but it is an organism that is going to be in some meat from time to time. The CDC tracks a lot of illness that is unattributable. We don’t know from what, what they ate and what made them sick.

Jack in the box case (FS108)

They have mentioned the Jack in the Box case several times during this episode because it represents a tentpole in their world. It was definitely one of the "cyanide in the Tylenol"-moments and Don is not sure if you can point to a taler tentpole. It was big because of when it happened, where it happened and what it happened with. It was the pathogen E.Coli O157:H7 that was relatively newly connected to illness. The outbreak happened right before president Clinton’s inauguration and it made it into the inauguration speech about food safety, so it was a big deal politically and they would probably not be having this podcast without that outbreak.

Don didn’t enter university until 1997 and he didn’t know anything about food safety until he was working for professor Dough. Another outbreak happened in Canada where a bunch of people in a small town called Walkerton got sick from a water supply. Don literally had no concept of all of that and it was only after the fact that he learned about Jack in the Box and the fallout and how that changed regulations and focus. Ben was already at the faculty at Rutgers in 1993 and he was already a food microbiologist. While that incident might have triggered resources and shaped his career, it wasn’t a defining moment.

Outro (FS108)

Don was aware of John’s world of eating questionable food for a long time and John wonders if there is anything he wanted forever to say to him or ask about John’s world as a person who eats everything. John eats across a wide spectrum of food quality, except when it comes to Sushi which he only takes the very finest into himself, but he will stop at any Greasy Spoon, any weird Philly Cheesesteak restaurant, and he will eat almost anything, except potatoes because they are disgusting dirt-balls covered with butter and salt.

There was nothing, except Thank you so much! John had so many good questions for them that Dan really appreciates him being on the podcast. Their show normally doesn’t involve their guests just interviewing them about food science. They had guests in the past, but most episodes are just Ben and Don talking about food safety in the news or what beverages they had before the podcast. John has been an outstanding guest and raised the bar for future guests, which is always true when John appears on a podcast.

After the outro music: Awesome! That was amazing! He is so good, my God, what a guy!

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