Friday, March 28, 2008

The news just keeps on getting worse!

After so many years of living with a food microbiologist, my wife has become a valuable food retail spy. Today she told me two more horror stories:

In our local supermarket there is a display stand for unwrapped bakery goods that extends from about chest height down to the floor. The store manager has supplied tongs for customers to use and there are signs asking customers to use the tongs.

Today she arrived at the bakery counter in time to see a mother wrestling the tongs from her toddler. If this were not bad enough, the mother then said to the toddler “I thought you said you were going to eat that”. Grabbing a bun from the child’s other hand, she stuck it back in the cabinet. Now both of them had handled the bun.

Now, I realise that bread buns are not a particularly good growth medium for food poisoning bacteria, but this is unacceptable. Some food borne pathogens have a very low infecting dose. The display cabinet should be arranged so that products and tongs are inaccessible to toddlers. Owners of self-service food displays need to be aware that simply providing tongs does not guarantee the safety of the food they sell. Needless to say, we will not purchase unwrapped goods from that store again.

The second incident was observed on TVNZ’s Good Morning show. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it and have not been able to locate a replay on their website. It appears that The Mad Butcher was on the show and demonstrating the preparation of chicken. After handling the raw chicken, he put his fingers into some spices and tasted a pinch. The bowl of spices was thus contaminated with whatever bacteria were on the raw chicken. A short while later, he put a cooked chicken onto the same chopping board, contaminating it with raw poultry juices.

OK – the Mad Butcher is not a professional chef and neither is Steve Grey, the host for that segment. The poultry industry in New Zealand has had a bad press recently over Campylobacter food poisoning, allegedly transmitted largely via chicken (though in fact we have seen a significant and sustained reduction over the last year in the incidence of the disease in the human population). This sort of example on daytime television, which is probably watched by many young mothers, is perhaps one of the reasons that we see such a high incidence of campylobacteriosis in New Zealand. Young adults are not getting the food safety message and we need to have good kitchen habits shown on our national television channels. We can’t rely on the food suppliers to take total responsibility for control of food poisoning.

This type of poor kitchen practice is not confined to New Zealand; Doug Powell at Kansas State University, who runs the Food Safety Net and writes the Barfblog has castigated some TV chefs in the USA for similar indiscretions (see for example:

Pigeon pie, anyone?

Monday, March 10, 2008

What does it take to make us clean up our act?

Having lived in Hong Kong for a while, I am perhaps more aware of the potential for the spread of diseases than the average Kiwi. The Chinese have suffered SARS and bird flu and are very keen to avoid more outbreaks of either. If you sneeze in public, people will stare accusingly at you; people who have a cold will voluntarily wear a face mask out of consideration for others; there are hand sanitizing stations around public buildings and patrons are warned not to feed birds in outdoor eating areas.

With these thoughts in mind, I have been surprised to see the couldn’t care less attitude of some businesses here at home. When a fly crawling over the goods in a bakery was pointed out to the assistant, she shrugged her shoulders and said that it was impossible to keep them out. There is a coffee and cake shop on the podium level of the apartment block where I live. They have a resident population of flies there too. But in addition, they have birds. Not in cages as decoration, but possibly as employees. These birds hop around on the floor and pick up crumbs. They also hop onto the tables on the terrace and finish off the meals left by the patrons – the plates stay on the tables long after the diners have left. This is just not acceptable in any food service premises.

New Zealand has been lucky and so far avoided bird flu scares. However, bird flu is not the only concern. When birds hop around on floors or tables and perch on chairs, they are inclined to leave droppings behind. If eventually an assistant comes to remove the plates, the table will be wiped with a cloth, spreading a thin film of droppings around and probably contaminating the whole surface with faecal bacteria and viruses. Of course, we don’t eat off the table, but it would be hard not to touch it and so there is a risk of ingesting these organisms, particularly if we eat cakes or breads with our fingers.

I would have expected these failings to be brought to the attention of the shop owners by the authorities. Perhaps we also put too much faith in antibacterial sprays. Are they an extension of the plastic glove = bullet-proof syndrome? We need to see safety in practice, not just in a manual on the manager’s shelf. I hope it will not take a SARS epidemic or outbreak of bird flu to convince these businesses to clean up their act.