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Food Safety Network Blog

Friday, June 23, 2006

My memories of turtles -- and salmonella

My first warm-blooded pets were two kittens a girl gave me near the end of university.

But growing up in late-1960s suburbia, my parents thought dogs should run on farms like their dogs had, and cats were a nuisance.

So I had a turtle.

Turtles were inexpensive, popular, and low maintenance, with an array of groovy pre-molded plastic housing designs to choose from. Invariably they would escape, only to be found days later behind the couch along with the skeleton of the class bunny my younger sister brought home from kindergarten for the weekend.

But eventually, replacement turtles became harder to come by. Reports started surfacing that people with pet turtles were getting sick. In 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned commercial distribution of turtles less than 4 inches in length and it has been estimated that the FDA ban prevents some 100,000 cases of salmonellosis among children each year.

Maybe I got sick from my turtle.

Maybe I picked up my turtle, rolled around on the carpet with it, pet it a bit, and then stuck my finger in my mouth. Maybe in my emotionally vacant adolescence I kissed my turtle. Who can remember?

The parents of 11 fifth-graders at Jefferson Elementary School in Milford, Mass. now confirmed with salmonella might be asking the same questions. The State Department of Public Health is looking at the water in the turtle's aquarium as a possible contaminator, while still exploring a link to a fifth-grade science experiment involving the dissection of owl pellets.

Despite the FDA ban, those small turtles are still allowed for educational purposes.

And apparently I wasn't the only pet-deprived child getting cuddly with a turtle. Josh Kiefer of Du Quoin, Ill. is tapping into yet another form of baby-boomer nostalgia and selling hundreds of supposedly salmonella-free red-eared slider turtles each month at his Sea Creatures shop.

"I can’t keep them in stock," said Kiefer recently in a local paper. "They’re very popular. I think it’s really kind of a retro thing for a lot of people."

The demand is certainly there -- legal or not.

In 2005, a Tampa newspaper reported that the number of businesses selling turtles illegally had surged in Florida, which a local epidemiologist said was responsible for an increase in human salmonella cases in the area. Breeding turtle couples are advertized for purchase on the Internet so tweens can spawn their own under 4-inch reptiles. And investigations of previous turtle-related outbreaks found that while many retailers were aware of the FDA ban, they attempted to circumvent it by giving away turtles with purchase of a turtle habitat -- groovy molding -- or by claiming that turtles were being distributed for educational purposes only.

And it's not just the turtles.

Australian researchers recently reported that a multidrug-resistant strain of Salmonella paratyphi B sent some children to the hospital with high fever and bloody diarrhea. Investigators used DNA fingerprinting to trace the source to fish tanks in the patients' homes.

Each spring, some children become infected with salmonella after receiving a baby chick or duckling for Easter -- probably like their parents before them.

Pocket pets, including rats, mice, rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs and ferrets, as well as rodents that are bought to feed other animals (such as snakes), can also carry potentially dangerous bacteria.

Contact with reptiles and amphibians accounts for an estimated 74,000 (6 percent) of approximately 1.2 million sporadic human Salmonella infections that occur annually in the United States.

Perhaps it is possible to raise and live with salmonella-free turtles. But, remember the first rule of public health: keep poop out of your mouth. Nostalgia is nice, but it's not a cure for salmonella.

Douglas Powell is an associate professor and scientific director of the Food Safety Network at Kansas State University.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Raw deal

Georgia Frankenberg, registered sanitarian, milk producer and former connoisseur, asks, "We won’t allow our children to eat raw meat, raw eggs or -- heaven forbid -- raw poultry. Why would we allow them to drink raw milk?"

Frankenberg ended the raw milk flow to herself and her young son following the infamous Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak in 1993.

Today, 28 states permit the sale of raw milk and a number of consumers are willing to pay between $4.50 and $20 a gallon for what they perceive as the creamier taste and finer flavor of raw milk -- some reportedly spending as much as $30 to $50 a week to ensure a steady supply for their families.

On December 10, 2005, the Clark County Combined Health Unit and the Ohio State Department of Agriculture were alerted about two hospitalized children infected with Salmonella having consumed raw, unpasteurized milk purchased at a dairy-restaurant.
Selling raw, unpasteurized milk in Ohio is illegal. But that doesn’t stop enterprising folks from selling the illicit product under the guise of pet food. A good rule of thumb: do not feed your children pet food.

Earlier this year in Tennessee, the House Agriculture Committee defeated a bill that would have made raw, unpasteurized milk sales legal in a 7-5 vote.
Department of Agriculture general counsel Patricia Clark stated, “Other states that allow raw milk sales have had problems. An unknowing population could make very bad choices.”
In response to the bill that was “bottled up” in Tennessee in April, its sponsor, Rep. Glen Casada said, “It’s just interesting that we allow unhealthy habits like smoking, but we don’t allow for the sales of raw milk, which is healthy.”

Except we don't really allow little kids to smoke; and raw milk can be dangerous.

In January, the Washington State Department of Agriculture released the results of its investigation into an outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 that sickened 18 people, all of whom had consumed raw milk from an unlicensed dairy. Two kids almost died. Milk and environmental swaps taken from the milking area of the farm in question tested positive for E. coli O157:H7 -- the same strain found in the human illness case samples.
While most people recover from E.coli O157:H7, up to 10 per cent of cases go on to develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which is characterized by kidney failure. It's not fun.

Washington is one of the 28 states that permits the sale of raw milk, so long as producers and processors are licensed to ensure that it’s safe from potentially lethal bacteria; in other words, monthly testing of milk and inspection of the farm and milk bottling room. The implicated farm was never licensed. In its defense the farm’s owners contend that food safety rules didn’t apply to them because they sold “cow-shares” to customers who bought a share in the farm -- not milk.

To date the owners of Dee Creek Farm, the Woodland dairy that caused the E. coli outbreak swear that they were not selling milk, and therefore not subject to license and testing.

New legislation was enacted in Washington State in February to safeguard public health by closing the loophole that allows people to purchase one or more shares in a milk cow, goat or sheep from an unlicensed dairy in return for a portion of the milk produced. Cow-shares must be licensed by the state. A first violation is a misdemeanor and a subsequent violation a gross misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $5,000 and up to a year in prison.

Washington state health officials note there was an E. coli outbreak in 2004 involving three people in Whatcom County tied to illegal raw milk, and in 2003, three people in Yakima County and eight in Skagit County became ill from tainted milk.

In 2005, four people including two children in Canada were hospitalized with bloody diarrhea and severe abdominal cramps caused by E. coli O157:H7 after drinking raw milk purchased from the back of a vehicle.

Earlier last year the New York State health department warned against consumption of some imported Mexican cheeses made from unpasteurized milk after identifying 35 cases from 2001 to 2004, including one infant death in 2004, attributed to Mycobacterium bovis, a form of TB found in cattle.

There are too many other such cases to mention.

Regardless, raw, unpasteurized milk has been gaining in popularity as part of the growing organic and natural foods movement. Proponents say raw milk is healthier and better tasting than pasteurized milk.

Raw milk drinkers believe the pasteurized milk found on grocery store shelves lacks the essential enzymes and nutrients necessary to absorb calcium -- yet evidence-based research shows this is simply not the case. The only things lacking in pasteurized milk are the bacteria that make people -- especially kids -- seriously ill.
While the premiums people pay for raw milk does little to ensure a safe product, with regulations that establish standards for the proper testing of milk and inspection of the farm and milk bottling room, it may be possible to offer a safe, unpasteurized product to the consuming public. But the onus is on producers to show the rest of us that data.

Adults, do whatever you think works, but please, don't impose your dietary regimes on your kids. Flowery words don't do much for kids in the hospital.
Dr. Doug Powell

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Farmers' Markets and Community Dinners

Doug, Brae and I put together this commentary over the weekend in response to an annoucement by the Ontario Minister of Health to exclude farmers' markets and community dinners from inspection. The regulation isn't a big deal -- what is that there seems to be an optomistic bias within the communities that they haven't had problems before and that the government should leave them alone. We think the message should be that there are risks that need to be managed around food preparation in general -- no matter who is doing it.

Here's a taste of the article:

On September 24, 2005, at least 50 people fell ill after eating a barbeque chicken dinner in rural Nova Scotia. The outbreak investigation revealed that well-intentioned organizers had erred when preparing the potato salad. Sloppy food handling and a lack of timely refrigeration at a safe temperature provided the ideal conditions for Staphylococcus aureus intoxication. Community volunteers at the event were so shaken up that they requested therapeutic debriefing and counseling.
In September 2004, near Buffalo, New York, 28 confirmed cases of Salmonella infection were reported to the Erie County Department of Health following an annual community roast-beef dinner. Outbreak investigators found that volunteers were not trained in foodservice and "didn’t quite understand the importance of maintaining a hot or cold temperature." The beef was roasted on spits and the juices, collecting in a 5-gallon bucket at room temperature over the course of the day, was poured over the surface of ready-to-eat beef sandwiches. Unfortunately, the sandwiches were being drenched with both flavorful juices and Salmonella bacteria that had multiplied throughout the day at room temperature. Interviews with attendees indicated that approximately 1,500 of the 3,000 who attended the event were ill.
In 1994, 82 people contracted salmonellosis after eating a local Mennonite specialty, cook cheese, prepared in a traditional manner and sold at a farmers’ market in Waterloo, Ontario.
A Nov. 2, 1997, church dinner at Our Lady of the Wayside Parish in Chaptico, Maryland, a town of only 100 residents, left two elderly people dead and more than 100 in the emergency room after partaking of stuffed ham, turkey and fried oysters. Salmonella in the ham likely caused the illnesses.
There have been at least 30 other outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with homecooked products, community dinners and farmers' markets in North America (see http://www.foodsafetynetwork.ca/en/article-details.php?a=3&c=32&sc=419&id=890).
And those are just the ones we know about.
Yet Ontario Health Minister George Smitherman announced last week that those very institutions would be exempt from rules that apply to restaurants and other commercial establishments through amendments to existing legislation.
"We know Ontarians grow, sell and enjoy eating locally produced foods," said Smitherman. "The exemption we're creating allows them the freedom to continue their proud tradition of providing a wide range of high quality goods to the public."
In May the Minister stated, "There are genuine risks that need to be well-managed."

The rest can be found at here.

Slides from AFDO 2006

Ben and Doug's slides from the AFDO 2006 meeting in Albany can be found here: