Tag Archives: food safety

Raw Eggs: Are they safe in your cocktails?

In continuing the food safety theme I seem to have chosen for the end of the week, I offer a note of caution with regard to cocktails.

As mixological wizardry increases and bartenders delve into flavors of olde, the raw egg white has come back into fashion. Shaking a drink with an egg white imparts a delightful frothiness and foamy mouthfeel reminiscent of an Orange Julius.

Ramos Fizz

photo by StuartWebster on Flickr.

Earlier this year a New York bar received a health citation for serving a drink that contained raw whites. No it’s not illegal to serve them, but it is illegal to serve them without telling the customer. Some drink-enthusiasts got pretty upset over the infraction but I personally think that customers have a right to know if they are consuming something potentially dangerous.

What is more interesting is the potential for cross-contamination behind the bar. Anything that touches raw egg (like the counter or the edge of a cocktail shaker when you crack it) needs to be cleaned and sanitized to prevent salmonella from infecting someone else’s beverage.

Moreover, many bartenders claim that alcohol kills Salmonella and removes risk from the equation. I was so curious (excited) about this possibility that I followed up with Doug Powell, the subject of today’s food feature for the scientific perspective.

He indicates that alcohol does not kill salmonella. It does retard its growth but not nearly enough to remove risk.

So health departments do have the right to check out what is happening behind the bar. Once everyone is up to speed we can sit back and enjoy our drinks, with or without eggs.

Hats off to Bull E. Vard for directing me to the video.

Don’t Make me Barf: A conversation with Food Safety Professor Doug Powell

Last month, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms initiated a recall of more than 500 million eggs due to the presence of salmonella bacteria. The subsequent media environment was rife with information of varying degrees of usefulness and veracity. I had been wanting to talk with Dr. Douglas Powell, author of food safety website Barfblog for a while, so we spoke a couple of weeks ago about the egg recall and other issues related to foodborne illness.

Dr. Powell is an associate professor of Food Safety at Kansas State University where he has spearheaded the Barfblog for more than five years. He brings a uniquely scientific and rational voice to the act of purchasing, eating and preparing food. His views on food safety have little place for politics, rather they are framed by biological training, which has little room for the feel-good assertions of the organic and local food movements.

***

Dave LaCrone: What do you think the point of the egg recall issue is? I’ve heard people decrying factory farming and mass distribution, some people say “I’m glad I eat organic eggs.” What is your perspective?

Douglas Powell: That has nothing to do with food safety and things that make people barf. Your backyard eggs are going to have salmonella just as much as your factory farm does. All I’ve seen is political and legal opportunism at this point. People take whatever they see and use it to fit their political lens, whether it’s “I want federal legislation passed,” or “I want organic food,” and there’s really not a whole lot of discussion of biology.

DL: In other words these kinds of risks are inherent pretty much in any kind of egg all the time.

DP: Yeah, and they always have been. Since the recall you have all these consumer warnings that say you should always eat fully cooked eggs. But you look at the egg people’s literature and they have loving pictures of hollandaise sauce and poached eggs that are barely cooked. They come out now and say “no we’ve always said that” and I’m like “bullshit, you did!”

DL: Is there anything we or the government can do?

DP: I have low expectations of government. I find it amusing that people want to give government more authority, the same people who screwed up Katrina, screwed up the oil well. Why is that a solution? I don’t get it.

DL: Well then do you think corporate self-regulation is a solution?

DP: No, it’s not an either/or. My solution would be the buying power of individual consumers. What I would like to see is these egg companies or spinach producers, whoever…advertise their microbial food safety record right there on the package. I don’t care if it’s natural, if there’s a picture of a farm or if it was lovingly raised. I want to know if it’s gonna make me barf.

There have been so many outbreaks over the last few years that I think a lot of soccer moms and other parents who go to the grocery store might be interested in eggs that have lower levels of salmonella, or spinach that is e-coli free.

There are billions of meals served every year where people don’t get sick, so obviously they are doing something right. Why not market it? But they won’t because that would imply that other food is unsafe. Well guess what? Other food is unsafe! The best way the consumers can act is through their buying power. Right now they are doing it through the B.S. organic stuff. They are being held hostage by people who don’t make direct claims about food safety but hint at it. Why else do you think they buy natural or local?

DL:  Well I think there are a lot of reasons but I do think it’s a burgeoning thing with parents of young children, especially upper middle-class parents that think that it’s more healthy and safer to eat organic.

DP: Yeah, I have a 20 month old, does that mean I’m a bad parent for shopping at a grocery store?

DL: Yes, well I think that is a supposition for many people, but you’re a biologist and they are not, so you have a different perspective

DP: [Organic producers] don’t’ say “we have lower levels” but they hint at it and the language you used is exactly the language they use in all of these advertisements like “if you care about the environment” or “if you care about the health of your children.” It’s a guilt factor and it’s crazy, there’s nothing to back it up. And they charge more for it!

DL: I have to ask if your knowledge bleeds over into your choice of where you eat and what to  eat? Are there foods you won’t buy or you won’t eat when you go out?

DP: Not much. I have five kids so I have been doing this for a while. I go to the biggest supermarket I can find because they usually have the quality assurance programs that are demanding of their suppliers: “If you’re gonna sell food in my Wal-Mart you have to meet these microbial standards.” But I have a PhD in food science so most other shoppers don’t know about that, and I think that’s a shame. I know the head of food safety at Wal-Mart, they have a very good program. Does anyone who goes to Wal-Mart know that? No.

This egg recall is getting nuts

As of this week the egg recall by Wright County Egg surpassed the 500 million mark due to the presence of salmonella on the shells. The recall affects eggs sold under the brands Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph’s, Boomsma’s, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms and Kemps.

Family  *  Egg Set #2/3

Photo by Gabriel Lima on Flickr.

Before you go crazy and swear off eggs altogether know this: fully cooking eggs virtually eliminates the risk of getting salmonella poisoning. So if you are using store-bought, mass-market eggs, avoid homemade Caesar salads, raw cookie dough and Rocky Balboa protein shakes.

The recall has also been cause for a number of people to smugly declare the superiority of locally produced eggs. While undoubtedly superior for a number of reasons, local eggs are not risk-free. There is always a potential for salmonella even in organic, small-batch eggs and chicken.

What the recall does illustrate is our scary dependence on a relatively small number of providers in this era of factory farming. When food is distributed to heavily over such a large geographic area, it becomes much more difficult to mitigate the negative effects of poisoning when it occurs. We saw this happen with tomatoes and ground beef in recent times. In other words, by the time word gets out about a food safety issue, you may already have consumed the stuff. That’s a real reason for eating local.

Can the use of disposable gloves increase risk of foodbourne illness?

Most health departments, including that of Kansas City, forbid restaurant employees from touching ready-to-eat foods with their bare hands.

FOOD EMPLOYEES may not contact exposed, READY-TO-EAT FOOD with their bare hands and shall use suitable UTENSILS such as deli tissue, spatulas, tongs, single-use gloves, or dispensing EQUIPMENT. (Kansas City, Missouri Food Code, p.59.)

No doubt, it is also comforting to see an employee put on gloves prior to making a sandwich, but there are guidelines to the proper use of gloves. First, an employee must wash his/her hands before putting the gloves on. Bacteria actually multiply inside the warm, moist interior, which can create a worse situation than the gloves are meant to prevent. (http://www.co.marathon.wi.us/is/hld/pdf/gloves.pdf). I can totally picture someone overlooking proper handwashing because he thinks the gloves will insulate the customer from harm.

Balloon Face

Photo by Mat Culpepper on Flickr.

Anecdotally, I have seen the way that gloves create a false sense of security among employees who aren’t trained in their proper use. I’ll never forget seeing a guy take out the trash with his single-use gloves on, wondering if he was going to handle food when he was done. And yes, they are single-use gloves, which of course means that they should be removed and discarded as soon as the employee finishes one task and moves on to another.

Customers should not put too much stock in gloves either. It is perfectly acceptable for an employee to work with food barehanded that is not going directly into your mouth. So don’t freak out if you see someone shredding cheese or slicing onions with bare hands. As long as those hands are well-washed, everything should be fine.

Frankly I would much rather a restaurant foster a culture of consistent, thorough hand-washing than a culture of obsessive glove use.

Stop what you’re doing and put your reusable bags in the wash

Revenge of the Hippies

Photo by John Verive via Flickr

Avoiding paper and plastic grocery sacks is the right thing to do. Many people just leave a pile of cloth bags in their trunk so they are always on hand. I leave mine hanging from the handle of the front door. But they don’t often make it into the laundry pile. In fact, a recent study conducted by researchers at University of Arizona and Loma Linda University revealed that 97% of study participants had never washed their reusable grocery bags.

Why is this a big deal? Well, they also found that these bags are a veritable breeding ground for bacteria, including e. coli and a number of other nasties that can cause serious illness. Go ahead, read the study for yourself (PDF). As some municipalities move toward banning the use of plastic bags, they should undoubtedly stress the importance of washing reusable bags while they are at it.

As for the rest of us, we should probably plan on putting grocery bags on a regular washing rotation. Since the bags out there are getting flimsier by the day, I’ll warrant that heavy duty and nylon bags are a good bet.

–Dave LaCrone