Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mould, the consumer and the retailer

Many searchers of this blog have asked "Will spoiled food make you sick?"  I have commented on this before.

Over the last few weeks, I have purchased two blocks of cheddar cheese from a large supermarket chain in New Zealand.  When they were opened, both blocks were found to have a few mould colonies growing along the edges and at the corners.  This became apparent when the plastic film was peeled back.

Do these mould colonies represent a health hazard?  According to Dr. John Pitt, Aspergillus flavus is unable to produce aflatoxin at refrigerator conditions, so it is unlikely that there is a health hazard if the cheese is eaten.  I just cut the mould off, together with a bit extra to avoid eating cheese with changed flavour resulting from the mould growth. 

My wife, who is obsessed with "food going out of it's date stamp" suggested that the cheese might be old,  ("Well, that's why you buy mature cheese, dear"), but the best-before date stamp was mid-2013.

I wrote, complaining to the supermarket chain and pointing out that there were probably only two reasons  that these blocks of cheese could have had mould growth inside the pack - the cheese was packed under poor hygiene conditions in which mould spores were able to contaminate the block, and maybe the film had been pulled too tightly at the edges and corners, increasing the gas permeability and allowing air to penetrate the pack to allow the strictly aerobic moulds to grow.

No harm, no foul you might say.  But the consumer is entitled to buy safe, wholesome food and to have mouldy cheese only when mould is part of the normally accepted description of the cheese, such as Brie, Camembert and Roquefort.  Cheddar is not mould-ripened.

What I found interesting about this, besides the technical issue, was that the supermarket chain completely ignored my complaint, not even sending some sort of "We are looking into it" brush-off.  Do they not care about consumer perceptions of their stores, or does this happen so often that they feel it is 'normal'?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Eat at your own risk?

I just spent a week in Miami attending the 6th American Society for Microbiology Biofilms Conference.  Over 400 biofilm microbiologists met to discuss all aspects of biofilm research.

Of course, nobody can sit in a darkened room and listen to heavy duty research papers all day for a week, and food microbiologists always have to investigate the local food and beverage outlets!

A couple of menus caught my eye.  One was on the waterfront in Downtown, where raw food seemed to be the major offering.  Another was in one of the glorious sidewalk restaurants on Ocean Drive.  Both had almost identical wording:
"Consuming raw or undercooked hamburgers, meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness, especially if you have certain medical conditions".

All good, and if you want to eat such delicacies, you need to be informed of the risks.  Consumption of any of these foods can potentially lead to illness.  Consumers are totally dependent on the purity of the raw materials and the water from which they are sourced, as well as the hygiene of preparation; a range of bacteria and viruses can be found in raw foods.

I wonder what Bill Marler would have to say about such a disclaimer - is the restaurant owner absolved of responsibility, assuming they take reasonable care in preparation, if a customer can show that they became ill as a result of eating the raw or rare-cooked food?