Friday, December 18, 2009

It’s not quite about food safety…

Recently I was asked by a reporter to test magazines found in doctors’ waiting rooms for presence of pathogens. She wanted to do a story about the risks of going to the GP. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but asked her to collect a range of magazines from various waiting rooms. She brought me ten glossy or super glossy magazines covering popular women’s and men’s titles.

Each magazine was opened randomly and two pieces of the right hand page were cut aseptically, using sterile scissors. Each piece was 100mm x 100mm; one piece was cut from the top right, the other from the bottom right. This was to increase the chance of sampling the area most handled by readers.

The pieces of paper were transferred to a sterile bag with sterile diluent and massaged thoroughly by hand and then for two minutes in a machine called a Stomacher. I transferred samples onto agar plates that would enable me to assess general microbial contamination, faecal bacteria and Staphylococcus.

After incubation, I examined the plates, looking for typical bacterial colonies. The levels of contamination on all media were low. The limit of detection in this analysis was 3.7 colony forming units/10 cm2. In the food industry, a count of less than about 100 cfu/cm2 is considered acceptable, though the count on food contact surfaces at the start of food processing should be close to zero. Thus, the analysis I used was sufficiently sensitive to indicate whether the magazines were microbiologically hazardous with respect to Staphylococcus and faecal bacteria.

Staphylococcus is typically found on the skin and can be transferred to food and there produce enterotoxin, which causes food poisoning when we eat the contaminated food. It is unlikely that the low levels of S. aureus detected in this work would lead to significant transfer between readers. No typical colonies of faecal coliforms were detected, suggesting that there were no, or very low numbers of faecal bacteria on the magazines and hence that the likelihood of faecal contamination of the pages was also low.

All of the samples were printed on glossy paper, which doesn’t absorb water, a fact I confirmed by measuring the water activity* of the samples. There was thus no opportunity for bacteria to grow on the pages and in fact, they may have died off reasonably quickly.

One thing I should point out is that it is not possible by any simple analysis to detect viruses, so the work done here doesn’t completely rule out contamination by viruses of upper respiratory tract or gastrointestinal tract origin. Some, such as the Norwalk virus that causes gastroenteritis, can survive on surfaces for long periods.

I conclude from this cursory examination that, with the possible exception of viruses, the pages of the magazines were relatively free of pathogens. Handling the magazines is therefore relatively hazard free. However, as always, it would be advisable to wash or sanitise hands before consuming foods, snacks or sweets after visiting the surgery.

Have a happy and safe Christmas, everyone. Make sure your Christmas fare and BBQs are safe.

* For a description of water activity see:

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