Monday, July 29, 2013


Today, in at least seven US cities, fast food workers walked out of McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and other fast food chains, demanding higher wages and the right to form unions. I feel like joining the picket lines.

The average front-line fast food employee in the US reportedly makes $8.94 an hour. Given the increasing cost of living, that can hardly be considered a “living wage.” Adjusting for inflation, fast-food wages have fallen 36 cents an hour since 2010. Saying they can't live on such meager pay, the workers are demanding $15 an hour.

And don't think that these workers are just teenagers, living at home. The median age of today’s fast-food worker is estimated to be close to 30. Unemployed adults are increasingly taking fast food jobs. Many are trying to support families.

Among other things, these low wages affect the safety of fast food. Underpaid and uninsured fast food workers, cannot afford to take sick leave when they are ill. So what happens? The work while ill and the germs can get into the food. I don't just mean flu viruses, but also Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, Norovirus, parasites, and more. There's a whole menu of contaminant options.

McDonalds, Wendy's, Burger King, KFC, and so on, make the profit. The underpaid fast food workers, and we, the consumers, pay the price.

To your good health,


Saturday, July 27, 2013


Everyone knows what mold is, and we have all seen moldy food. But very few people know much about mold toxins. So just how dangerous are they?

In my opinion, mold toxins such as aflatoxin are a much more serious threat than we realize. And not just to people who are allergic to mold. To all of us, wherever we live and whatever diet we are on.

Aflatoxin, and especially aflatoxin B1 is a very carcinogenic (Level 1) mold toxin. It is, in fact, the most potent microbial carcinogen we know of. Aflatoxin is produced by the Apergillus family of fungi, particularly Aspergillus flavus and Apergillus parasiticus - very ordinary kinds of mold. But before you get too nervous, let me stress that not every mold you see on your food is one of these, and even if it is, these molds only produce toxins some of the time.

The molds, and the toxin, is most likely to be found in foods such as grains (especially maize, millet and sorghum), peanuts, seeds, and legumes. It is everywhere in the soil and air and can enter the plants in the field or even post-harvest, especially when such foods are badly stored in warm and moist conditions. But, the toxin can also be present in meat, poultry, eggs and dairy, because of contaminated animal feed. And it has turned up at high levels in dog food as well (including in the United States).

Globally, the people at biggest risk for aflatoxin and aflatoxicosis, are the poor of developing nations - especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia, and the Western Pacific (which includes countries such as China), who live on a diet which relies heavily on food such as maize and peanuts. People in these countries suffer various health problems as a result: acute and chronic aflatoxicosis, liver cancer, liver cirrhosis, and nutrition-related problems in children.

Those of us living in other parts of the world, even in countries where governments have strict standards for how much of this toxin is allowed in food, are likely to only be getting low levels of the toxin. But the chances are that we do get some every single day. Unfortunately, studies have shown that even relatively small amounts of the toxin, over a period of time can weaken your immune system. In turn, this has been found to compound other health problems you may have ( as well as make you more susceptible to all kinds of illnesses, including food poisoning). For instance, researchers have now found that high levels of aflatoxin in your body can increase the harm that H.I.V. and hepatitis B virus do to your body.

So what can we do at a personal level? First, we should check products such as peanuts, grains, coffee beans and corn yourself for presence of mold before you eat them, and, of course they should be carefully stored in the home. It is also important to take care when you are buying food. I have found corn sold in very reputable stores to have Aspergillus mold (and I know what it looks like). And - yes, I hate to say this, and I know some of you will hate me for it - but you need to be especially careful with any "Free Trade" products coming in from Sub-Saharan Africa. Sometimes packages are not properly sealed, which could lead to mold contamination. Believe me, I have seen it. And, you should check your peanuts before eating and not eat any that have broken shells.

I have actually given quite a lot of attention to mold toxins in The Safe Food Handbook (the book, not the blog). Why? Because I like to be ahead of the issues, not behind.

To your good health,

Sunday, July 21, 2013


School lunch has been in the news this past week. The food poisoning in a school in Bihar, India, has horrified the world. It resulted in the death of at least 23 children who had eaten the school lunch. Many more were hospitalized, including one of the cooks. This was followed by another incident of school lunch-linked food poisoning in Goa State in India. So is eating school lunch dangerous for children? Sometimes, yes.

Don't get me wrong: I think school lunch is a good idea. I remember how much I personally appreciated it when I was a poor, malnourished and hungry war refugee. And, although I did not work exclusively on the issue during my years with the United Nations, I did visit and evaluate several good school lunch programs in a number of countries - yes, including in India, and yes, in Bihar State. Though it is true that there were safety risks in some, and also incidents of corruption (such as stealing of food, dilution of milk and so on).

The reported cases of food poisoning in schools in India seems to have been chemical poisoning, caused by a very toxic agricultural pesticide. It is believed that the cooking oil used was the source of the one in Bihar. In Third World countries such as India, oil is often sold in bulk, and people bring their own containers. Due to lack of knowledge, these may be recycled pesticide containers. Or, the oil may have been contaminated at the store. Investigation is ongoing.

In developed nations such as the United States, Canada and Europe, the safety issues in school lunch tend to be different. Chemical poisoning very rarely occurs. But, other kinds of food poisoning are more of a risk than in home cooked meals. The reason is that institutional food, prepared and served in bulk, is always more risky. This increased food safety risk also applies to hospitals, nursing homes, catered food at conventions, and so on.

While the National School Lunch Program in the United States is carefully supervised, not just for nutritional value but also for safety, there have still been food poisoning outbreaks in a number of schools. I do not recall any due to agricultural chemicals, but there have been ones caused by bacteria and viruses. The most far-reaching one on record sickened some 1,200 children in seven states, and was probably caused by mold toxins in the frozen burritos served to children, all of which originated in a plant in Chicago.

Several bad outbreaks have also been narrowly avoided thanks to good monitoring. These include the one I blogged in September, 2011. In this instance, an Amarillo, Texas, firm, sent frozen ground meat to Georgia warehouses for distribution to schools. The meat was subsequently found to be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. Fortunately, the problem was discovered and most of the meat caught before it actually arrived at the schools.

But just because there are safety risks in school lunch programs does not argue for abandoning them. It does argue for careful supervision.

To your good health,

Monday, July 15, 2013


It is very embarrassing when the author of a book (and blog) on food safety comes down with food poisoning - which is what happened to me last week. And no, I did not die. But in the midst of my misery, I kept making up titles for my obituary in the New York Times. Assuming of course, that they would bother running it. "Food Safety Author Dies of Food Poisoning" came out the winner.

So what food was the culprit? Frankly, I don't know. I am pretty careful. But I suspect chives. What happened is that I had a sudden craving for chives, and the only jar (yes, opened) that I could find was in the refrigerator, but had no "best by" date on it. I did look. So I pretended to myself that it would be fine. But in all honesty, those chives might have been years old - and maybe contaminated with Listeria bacteria which can survive in very well in cold conditions and even multiply.

Anyway, let me tell you again, food poisoning is no fun. The only comfort I had was that at least 10 of my friends have come down with food poisoning of one kind or another in the last 12 months, some of them more than once. In many cases it was from restaurant food or deli take-out. Others thought that the cause was fresh fruit or vegetables. Some blamed meat or seafood. But none had real proof, any more than I did. The tendency is to suspect the last food you ate, but that may not be true. Some kinds of food poisoning have a long lead time between ingestion and feeling sick.

Listeria monocytogenes - so common in our food these days, actually has one of the longest lead times. It can take from 3 to 70 days to make you ill; occasionally even longer. The fastest one I can think of is a mold toxin that can take just minutes. Salmonella bacteria, one of the most common causes of food poisoning, usually take 12-72 hours from the time you ingested them. The different E.coli vary in toxicity, but let's think in terms of 1-10 days. In all cases, a lot will depend on how vulnerable you are, and how big a dose you got, and of course, exactly which kind you got.

Off to recover from my food poisoning..(By the way, I tossed out the chives, just in case).

To your good health,


Saturday, July 13, 2013


Did you think that herbs could not be contaminated? Not true. Even organic ones.

Over the past few years, American and Canadian food processing companies, restaurants and consumers, have begun to use more and more herbs in food.

Now there is a recall for oregano - that popular herb that we love to put in our pasta sauce, on our pizza, and in other foods. I have a couple of wonderful types of oregano growing in my garden, so I no longer buy it. But, if you do, Olde Thompson Inc. located in Oxnard, California, has just recalled certain lots of Earth’s Pride Organics: Organic Oregano that was packaged in a 2.2 oz. glass jars with a cork closure. The reason - possible contamination by Salmonella - a bacterium that can give you a bad case of food poisoning.

According to the recall, these items were sold exclusively at BJ’s Wholesale Club in CT, DE, FL, GA, ME, MD, MA, NH, NJ, NY, NC, OH, PA, RI, and VA, between January 1, 2013 and July 10, 2013. In other words, for almost six months. If you shop there and use herbs in cooking, you had better check your shelves. But, I also found these herbs for sale on Amazon. I don't know if they may also be contaminated or not, but if you have bought them on line, you may want to call customer service.

Nor is this the first herb recall in the U.S. There have been several recalls of contaminated basil due to Salmonella bacteria being found. There are also frequent recalls of Chinese medicinal herbs. Herbal supplements and herbal teas have also been recalled, in some cases these too were found to be contaminated by Salmonella bacteria. Salmonella is a survivor and can live in very dry conditions - like your herb container - for several months.

The Safe Food Handbook has a whole chapter on Herbs and Spices. Among other things, it notes that often herbs, and especially, spices, are imported from countries which have questionable food safety standards. Of course, the FDA tries to keep them safe. So does the American Spice Trade Association (ASTA). But nothing is 100%. Sometimes that nasty Salmonella slips through... And, in case you were wondering, yes, it is possible to get enough of the bacteria from herbs to make you ill. However, thorough cooking will solve the problem.

To your good health,

Thursday, July 11, 2013


If you are pregnant, or ever have been pregnant, you have probably heard of Listeria bacteria as something to really avoid in food. Actually, it is just one of the Listeria family that is deadly - Listeria monocytogenes. This tiny bacterium is not just very dangerous to pregnant women, but to newborn babies, people over age 60, and anyone with reduced immunity.

L. monocytogenes is most likely to be found in ready-to-eat foods, such as deli meats, cheeses, hot dogs, smoked seafood and store-prepared deli-salads and sandwiches. It causes food contamination not just in the U.S. - but all over the world. Often the source of the problem is food plant workers carrying the bacterium, or contaminated equipment or facilities.

But it can turn up almost anywhere - including in some unexpected places. For instance, in November, 2012, Listeria turned up in chocolate cake, leading to a recall by the big supermarket Publix of chocolate cake. A month earlier, it turned up in flavored snacks such as popcorn, leading to a recall by Dale and Thomas Popcorn of Englewood, N.J. In February of 2013, the bacterium turned up in sprouted seeds. The recall by Sprouters Northwest of Kent, Washington, included broccoli, clover, spicy sprouts, 3-Bean Munchies, Brocco Sandwich Sprouts, Alfalfa Sprouts, Bean Sprouts, Broccoli Sprouts, Clover Sprouts, Deli Sprouts, Spicy Sprouts, Wheatgrass and Pea Shoots.

More recently, Listeria turned up in the U.S. in snacks again. Lipari Foods of Warren, Michigan recalled some 52 different snack foods such as Raw Sunflower Seeds, Roasted Sunflower Seeds and Snack Mixes because they might be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. The company investigation concluded that the culprit was bulk raw sunflower seeds. These sunflower seeds had not only been used in a variety of snack mixes but might also have lead to cross contamination to a large range of snack mix products (such as banana chips, crystallized ginger, chocolate almonds and many more) during production.

So if you are in a high risk group, how can you avoid Listeriosis? It is almost impossible to avoid the "odd" places, such as snacks and cakes. But, you certainly would be wise to avoid deli meats and seafood - unless you cook them until they are steaming hot, make sure any barbecued hot dogs you eat are very well cooked, don't eat sprouted seeds, and take it easy on cheese. Remember too that Listeria bacteria can survive and multiply in your refrigerator, contaminate it and spread from one food to another.

Listeria monocytogenes is no joke. It can cause miscarriages and stillbirths, can make vulnerable people very ill and can even be fatal to adults. If you are at high risk - be careful.

To your good health,


Monday, July 1, 2013


Actually, it's true. Your tea can die from drinking tea - not because you drink too much of it, or because it is particularly unhealthy, but because it is contaminated.

We were reminded of that this week when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a recall by Harmony Chai of Eastsound, WA of their Concentrated Black Spiced Chai and Decaffeinated Roobios Chai. Both come in bottles. The tea is made with sugar and spices, many of them from India and sounds delicious. The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) discovered while testing the teas, that they had not been properly processed as required. This was accidental - not conscious cheating on safety. The company is trying to find out how it happened.

Unfortunately, such improperly processed tea beverages can be contaminated with the deadly bacterium, Clostridium Botulinum. If you ingest enough of this bacterium it can make you critically ill or even lead to death. (In the old days, it used to turn up a lot in badly done canning).

So how do you know if your tea can harm you? You can't tell that it is bad from either the taste or the smell. But if you suddenly find you have trouble with speaking or swallowing (and it's not nervousness) you may want to make sure you don't have the other symptoms of botulism. These often include double-vision, general weakness and dizziness. You may also have difficulty in breathing, weakness of muscles, abdominal distension and constipation (not because you didn't eat enough fiber).

By the way, concentrated Black Spiced Chai and Decaffeinated Rooibos Chai were distributed through farmers markets, grocery stores and cafes in Western Washington. They are also sold through the internet. If you live in that area, or know someone who lives there, or someone who drinks this tea, let them know.

To your good health,