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Archive for Monday, March 19, 2007

To combat food contamination, wash your hands

March 19, 2007

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— E. coli in the spinach. Salmonella in the peanut butter. Listeria in the hot dogs.

Seven major food recalls since July.

The Food Safety Network, which has a new home at Kansas State University, is dedicated to stopping the epidemic of food contamination that sickens 76 million people - one out of every four Americans - and kills 5,000 each year.

The network combines public awareness with an Internet-based information service and research projects in an effort to educate growers, consumers and workers.

Microbiologist Doug Powell started the organization more than a decade ago at the University of Guelph in Canada.

Now an associate professor of food safety in K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine, Powell is outspoken on good farming practices and good worker hygiene and blunt about what needs to be done.

"It boils down to three words," he said. "Don't eat poop."

Simple as Powell's advice sounds, food safety is far more complicated, he admits.

Different sources

Microbial contamination - such as E. coli or salmonella - is not visible, and has no taste and no smell. It can come from any number of sources along a chain of growing, harvesting, processing, packaging and selling.

It can come from water that drains from a livestock operation and runs through a field after a rain. It can come from irrigation water drawn from a contaminated pond.

It can come from processing vats, storage bags, tools, or workers' hair, skin or saliva.

While food scientists agree that proper cooking will kill most kinds of harmful bacteria, nobody is convinced that the bulk of consumers know what proper cooking is.

"Most people just open the package and stick it in the microwave for a couple of minutes," Powell said. "If it's steaming, it's done.

"The only way to be sure of the internal temperature of food is to measure it with a thermometer. But how often do people really do that? And even if they do use a thermometer, do they know the right way to insert it to get an accurate reading?"

Project planned

The Food Safety Network will soon begin a research project to try to answer some of those questions.

The two-year effort, funded by a grant from the American Meat Institute, will study consumer behavior using uncooked, frozen, breaded poultry products. However, the knowledge gained will be relevant to all types of food processors, said Randy Phebus, a food microbiologist and professor of food safety who is Powell's partner on the project.

"We will bring people into a test kitchen, hand them the products and tell them to cook it like they would at home," Powell said. "We'll have a video camera in the room to document what they do for later study."

After an Indiana company's recall of a frozen, uncooked poultry product last year, the federal government issued guidelines requiring companies to clearly label uncooked products and include a statement such as "must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F as measured by use of a thermometer" in a prominent spot on the package.

"What we want to see is whether or not people read that - and if they do, how closely they follow the instructions," Powell said.

Phebus said many consumers rely on time rather than temperature when microwaving frozen food products.

He said most are also unaware of their microwave's power level or how it might affect whether their food is adequately cooked.

Education important

Public education is another of the Food Safety Network's goals.

The organization's Web site at Kansas State can be found at www.foodsafety.ksu.edu. The network also has a sister site, www.donteatpoop.com.

The network sells T-shirts that say "Don't Eat Poop" on the front and "Wash Your Hands, Food Safety Network" on the back.

It also has printed and distributed fliers to restaurants, using catchy art and humor to reinforce the simple message of "Wash Your Hands," and has put videos on popular entertainment sites, including YouTube and MySpace.

The idea, Powell said, is to make people think and ask about safe food.

The network also provides listserve memberships for students, producers, researchers and media, sending out food safety articles gleaned from the Internet, newspapers and magazines.

"What needs to happen is that people need to stop the pretty talk about 'natural, locally grown, fresh, organic produce' and get serious about microbes," Powell said. "Forget about wholesome whatever and farm sunshine. What we need is bacteria-free produce."

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