Saturday, May 23, 2009

Don’t read this if you have a weak stomach

The reason for the title will become apparent later on!

People who have an opportunity to influence the public have a duty to make sure they know what they are talking about and to think about the consequences of their comments.

Last week, popular TVNZ breakfast show host Paul Henry was talking about the state of cleanliness in public toilets. The breakfast show is a mixture of news, views and entertainment and Paul made a meal (if you’ll pardon the pun) of the issue, drawing out as much toilet humour as possible. Unfortunately, he also claimed that washing your hands in a public convenience would result in your hands being more contaminated than if you had not bothered.

This is hard to stomach. Certainly, taps and door handles may be contaminated, often with faecal bacteria and it may be that soap and soap dispensers are also contaminated. However, I find it difficult to accept that not washing hands is better than washing.

If you didn’t take the earlier warning, now is the time to quit reading.

If you have wiped your backside with toilet tissue, then the chances are that your fingers are contaminated with faecal bacteria and viruses. Way back when I started teaching food microbiology, I used to run an exercise with my students. They took various numbers of sheets of toilet tissue and placed them over a finger end, which they then gently wiped across a Petri dish of indicator bacteria. These, as it happens, were Escherichia coli, the bacteria always present in the gut. These bacteria have the ability to produce a green metallic sheen when they grow on an agar called Eosine Methylene Blue. Since they occur only in the gut, we should not normally expect to find them on our hands, except for the obvious reason. After the wiping phase of the experiment, the tissue was discarded and the same finger pressed onto the EMB agar, which was then incubated overnight. The students then washed their hands and dried them before making a further agar impression.

The students were usually horrified to discover that even when using 6 sheets of 2-ply toilet tissue, their finger impressions often grew bacterial colonies with a green metallic sheen. Now, not to put too fine a point on it, 6 sheets is an almost unmanageable wad of paper! Washing usually removed all the bacteria, but only if soap and warm water were used.

There are several messages here.
• No matter how much tissue you use, you can’t be sure that you won’t have faecal bacteria and viruses on your fingers.
• Washing your hands with soap and then drying them will remove most of the bacteria

Unfortunately, when you turn on the tap with contaminated hands, they will transfer bacteria and viruses to the tap. After you have washed, you recontaminate your hands when you turn the tap off. That’s why in hospitals and laboratories the taps have long handles that can be operated with wrists or forearms, or are operated by foot pedals or infra-red sensors. These days, many washroom taps have press buttons that allow the water to run for only 30 seconds or so and don’t need to be turned off.

So what can you do?
• Turn the tap on with your wrist
• Wash your hands thoroughly with soap (sing “Happy birthday" to yourself twice to ensure you wash for long enough)
• Thoroughly dry your hands on a paper towel and then use it to turn the tap off
• If the washroom has blower hand dryers, be careful not to touch the machine (if it has an on button, push it with your knuckle)

Watch a microbiologist in a washroom. When I go in there, I do all the above and then open the door with the crook of my little finger. It’s not foolproof, but a lot better than not washing. If you are still paranoid, buy a small spray bottle of hand sanitizer and carry it in your bag for use after you have left the washroom and before you eat.

I hope you read this far, Paul.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Can legislation control Salmonella?

Obviously, some very intelligent people think so. Unfortunately many of them misunderstand the control of food safety.

Food safety legislation is similar to the laws governing road traffic. There are lots of requirements for the design and maintenance of vehicles and prescribed behaviours for their operation. Maximum speeds for each piece of road are set by traffic authorities and advised by signs on the roads. If you exceed the speed limit, you might get away with it most of the time, but speed cameras may catch you. Then you get a ticket and a fine. That’s just money and perhaps demerit points on your licence. Do the speed signs and threat of punishment make us better or more responsible drivers?

Suppose we have an accident and injure or kill another motorist or pedestrian. If we are shown to be at fault, perhaps because of ignoring the speed limit, does the fact that we receive a stiff fine make it any better for the injured party or their family? No way.

The recent outbreak of salmonellosis in the US, carried in peanuts, was almost certainly the result of the flouting of many food safety regulations – the factory was dirty and infested and in-process peanuts were not protected from recontamination. Yet the factory had been inspected and the overall level of food safety was pronounced “superior”. It must be pointed out that the inspector was given only one day to inspect a factory processing several million pounds of peanuts each month and was not an expert in this type of operation. A federal investigation team later discovered that company testing records showed that Salmonella had been found in its products on at least 12 occasions since June 2007. Those products were apparently retested until negative results were obtained and then released to the market.

At least nine people have died from salmonellosis associated with the peanut products and 22,500 were sickened. The existing legislation clearly did not protect them. Some products containing the affected peanuts are apparently still on retail outlet shelves.

In a radio and television address to the American people on 14th March*, President Obama offered his “top ten” ideas for improving food safety. He noted that only about 5% of the 150,000 food production premises were inspected last year, so one billion dollars would be invested in the FDA to increase its ability to inspect premises. Penalties for selling unsafe food would be increased. Unfortunately, he then went on to state that only government can ensure that foods are safe to eat. Wrong, Mr. President!

Food safety is a partnership of trust between government, food producers and suppliers and the consumer. Sure, regulations are required and must be enforced, but no inspection force can guarantee the production and supply of safe food; the manufacturers must be committed to doing so on every day of the year, whether the inspector is due or not.