Saturday, September 17, 2011

Cidre with that extra fizz could be a nasty surprise

The UK Standards Agency announced on the 18th September that InBev was recalling three batch codes of Stella Artois Cidre in bottles.  Fruit juices and alcoholic beverages make few appearances in lists of hazardous foods and drinks, and this is the first time they feature in Safe Food.

The problem with these batches is yeast.  Yeast is used in bread making, beer fermentation and, of course, Vegemite, the breakfast spread many New Zealanders were brought up on.  So why is yeast dangerous?

Yeasts convert sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide.  They put the fizz in beers and sparkling wines.  If this occurs in a controlled fermentation process, there is no problem.  However, if yeasts get into finished products containing sugar, such as bottled fruit juices or alcoholic beverages with residual sugar (not fermented to "dryness"), they can produce carbon dioxide in the bottle.  The cells can generate pressures up to 10 atmospheres - sufficient to burst the bottle.

The recall notice says:
  • handle the bottles carefully, wearing gloves and protective eyewear, to determine if the product is from the affected batch
  • on an individual bottle, the batch code is printed on the bottle’s neck
  • on a 12-pack the batch code can be located on the long side of the pack, to the right of the barcode
If you do have a product from an affected batch, please call InBev as soon as possible on 0800 0731736 between 8am and 8pm. Do not consume or handle the product further.

I once saw a similar recall notice that effectively invited anyone having the affected product not to touch it, but to call the bomb squad!

This may sound a bit melodramatic, but think about this:
One of my winemaking colleagues wanted to produce sparkling wine from a batch of still wine.  He calculated the amount of carbon dioxide to dissolve in the wine and added this to the bottles as small pellets of carbon dioxide ice.  He put corks in the bottles and wired them on and then stored the bottles in a cupboard.

A few hours later, there was a tremendous bang from the cupboard.  He found only the necks and bases of the bottles; the rest was fragments, many of them embedded in the wooden walls of the cupboard.  We could only assume that the carbon dioxide had been slow to dissolve in the wine and the pressure had built up too fast.  This could have been very nasty had he been holding a bottle at the time.

As they say in the extreme sports programmes, "Don't try this at home".

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Big One becomes Big Seven

Escherichia coli O157:H7 has now been joined on the FSIS most unwanted list by the "Big Six" - other strains of E. coli capable of producing Shigatoxin.

As we saw in May and June 2011 in the German outbreak, Shigatoxin-producing E. coli can cause a potentially deadly food borne infection that can leave survivors damaged for life.  The outbreak also resulted in huge economic loss in several European countries as fresh produce was either banned by authorities or shunned by consumers.

As of the 13th September 2011, these seven strains - O157:H7, O26, O11, O103, O121, O45 and O145 - will not be permitted in non-intact raw beef in USA.  If they are found to be present, the meat must either be destroyed or cooked before sale.

It has been a long road to get to this point. In October 2009, Bill Marler, a US attorney, filed a petition with USDA/FSIS for an Interpretive Rule declaring all enterohaemorrhagic Shigatoxin-producing serotypes of E. coli, including non-O157 serotypes, to be Adulterants within the meaning of the Federal Meat Inspection Act.

Not much has been heard since, though there has been a certain amount of correspondence.  Even the regulatory authorities didn't seem to have a united view.  On the 3rd June 2011, the Deputy Director of CFSAN, Donald Kraemer, stated on the FDA website "FDA considers any disease-causing strain of E. coli in food to be illegal”.  The FSIS deems only O157:H7 to be an adulterant.  Tellingly, Kraemer’s comment was removed from FDA website on 5th July 2011.

The new declaration is being hailed as a victory.  Elisabeth Hagen, head of food safety at the Department of Agriculture, said that this was "one of the biggest steps forward in the protection of the beef supply in some time.  We’re doing this to prevent illness and to save lives.”  A worthy cause.

However, I have some concerns about this optimism.  Will the reclassification of the Big Six make meat safer?  I'm not so sure.  Certainly, if these bacteria are detected in meat, the product will not be allowed on the market unless it is diverted to cooked products.  This may be a challenge for the meat processors - since 1994, O157:H7 in raw ground beef has been declared an adulterant with zero tolerance by FSIS.  In October 2007, the Topps Meat Company recalled 21.7 million pounds of ground beef, bringing the total recalls in the US between April and October 2007 to over 30 million pounds of red meat, mostly hamburger.  A company manufacturing frozen hamburger patties is unlikely to have the capacity to redirect this much meat to a cooking process and there may be difficulties in finding a buyer for the product, so it may have to be destroyed.

Secondly, as far as I am aware, there is no requirement for processors to test for these bacteria.  If this situation doesn't change, the first indication that something is wrong may still be when people start showing up at the hospital with gastrointestinal disease.

Thirdly, the cost of testing is currently very high and the testing may take up to 5 days, even when things go well.  I have already written about the impossibility of guaranteeing safe food by testing.

Finally, testing for the Big Seven will miss any Shigatoxin-producing non-members, as was the case with the German outbreak of O104:H4

The FSIS move is a good start and is motivated by good reasons.  However, the only way that safety of food can be improved is by development of risk management plans and rigorous application of critical control points throughout the food chain, including food service outlets, i.e. farm to fork.  Consumers should not receive contaminated food, but they too must play their part by prevention of cross contamination in the home and proper cooking of foods.  Future posts will deal with some of these approaches.

Where does that leave us with foods like sprouts?  Food for thought.

Since I wrote this article, Shawn Stevens has written an article "Big six declared Adulterants: Is it a good thing?" in, a blog for the meat industry in the US.  It seems that he too has some concerns. You may have to register to read the article, but registration is free.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Safe Food" makes the top 50

I recently received an e-mail from Paul Hench, who writes for, a website dedicated to providing students with the information and tools needed in order to pursue their Masters in Public Health. 

Paul has included Safe Food in his top 50 list of food safety blogs.  Though unofficial, this list puts Safe Food alongside blogs that I regard as important sources of information and opinion and it's gratifying to see this recognition.  The list will be a valuable resource, not just for PH students, but for all those interested in food safety.

I have not yet searched the whole list and therefore cannot endorse these blogs, but you may care to check them out for yourself.  Goto: