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By: Aaron Beczkiewicz
Given that food is such an integral part of daily life, it is not surprising that concepts related to food are often represented in childhood rhymes like “This little piggy went to the market…” While I am pretty confident none of us really understood what “went to the market” meant the first time we were introduced to that rhyme, our understanding evolved as we grew and developed. But how much does our understanding of where foods come from and how they are produced actually matter?
Coming from a family that makes homemade Polish sausage every year, I do not like the saying that hotdogs contain “everything but the oink” because it oversimplifies sausage making. Sure, my family has followed the same sausage recipe for years without a second thought. However, I have come to understand over the course of my food science Ph.D. program that sausage making is actually a pretty technical process with some ingredients like spices and salt helping to prevent microbial growth which makes the food safer in addition to adding flavor.
While the food science side of me enjoys sharing these random tidbits of knowledge with my family, the public health side of me always questions “Does it matter what the ingredients are if you do not know where they came from?” Take for instance the Salmonella Newport outbreak this past summer which was linked to red onions (CDC 2020). The outbreak of illness was identified in early July, but it took about a month to link the illnesses to a food item and initiate recalls. This is likely due, in part, to fresh produce being difficult to track. Since fresh produce is typically shipped in bulk quantities by packinghouses combining produce from multiple farms, finding the source of a contaminated item of produce is very challenging.. Even when there is a label such as the PLU stickers attached to individual pieces of produce, the data associated with it rarely if ever includes all the facilities that handled that piece of fruit before it ended up on your table.
Efforts to address this issue are currently underway with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently announcing a proposed Traceability Rule (FDA 2020) under the Food Safety and Modernization Act; however, meat and poultry products – which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – are already required to indicate the production establishment on the package. This is helpful during traceback investigations of foodborne illness, and also great for curious consumers who want to know where their food is being produced. See below for instructions on how to do that.
Next time you are at the grocery store, consider checking out how far those bacon slices or your Thanksgiving turkey traveled to get to your table – you might be surprised!
To figure out where meat you have purchased came from: 1. Confirm the product is regulated by USDA (see left photo) 2. Find establishment number which is often printed with the “Use By” date (see right photo) 3. Search for establishment within the USDA Meat and Poultry Inspection Directory
Graduate Research Associate
CFAES Department of Food Science and Technology
By: Drew Barkley
Last year, I was chatting with a friend about different foods we liked to prepare at home. Having grown up in the south, I mentioned that some staples of my cooking were various casseroles, fried chicken, and homemade biscuits. My friend, having been raised in an Asian-American household, was used to preparing different stir-fries, dumplings, and ramen. While all of that sounded delicious and got me thinking about dinner prematurely, the next food she mentioned caught me off guard. She told me that she and her sister love making homemade sushi together.
I was initially taken aback. The idea that anyone was making sushi at home on their own seemed risky to me. Yet, here was someone I knew that was preparing sushi regularly in their own home. I immediately became curious asking for all the details of how she and her sister made their own sushi. She said that they went to the store and bought whatever fish looked good to them that day. To make the rolls, they would lay a bed of sticky white rice over seaweed and top with the fish, cucumber, avocado, cream cheese, and whatever else sounded good to them that day. Then they would roll it up, slice it up into individual rolls and enjoy. Sensing that I was nervous about her homemade sushi, she reassured me that neither she nor her sister had ever gotten sick and they always use what she referred to as “fresh” fish. While I wanted to mention that “fresh” fish is not the same thing as “safe” fish, I let the conversation end there as I went to go do some research on my own.
First, I want to make the disclaimer that I have never made homemade sushi. While I do enjoy eating sushi, I will leave its preparation to skilled, trained professionals working in fully inspected restaurants. However, I wanted to highlight specific actions you can take to insure your sushi is safe if you are making it at home (or even if you are eating it at a restaurant).
Perhaps the most important element to making safe sushi is using sushi-grade fish. Reputable commercial retailers will only give this grading to their highest quality fish that they feel confident can be eaten raw. Further, well-educated fishmongers (people that sell raw fish and seafood) will know what fish is sushi-grade and safe to consume raw, but it is possible to encounter fishmongers that do not know what sushi grade fish is. While there is no official standard for using this label, the only federal regulation that must be met is that parasitic fish, such as salmon, should be frozen to kill any parasites before being consumed raw (2017 FDA Food Code 3-402.11)1. However, parasites are just one of the hazards that may be associated with eating raw fish. The hazards may also include chemical hazards like mercury or other heavy metals, pathogenic bacteria such as Vibrio spp., or physical hazards such as bone fragments or pieces of metal. Here, it is also important to note that freezing will only stop the growth of pathogenic bacteria, it will not kill them. Sushi grade fish will be more expensive, but you can be assured that you have received a higher quality product that is safer to consume raw, as it does not contain any parasites. To read more about safe sushi preparation, please consult the websites below that I found helpful when conducting my background on this topic. The first is the FDA Food code section on parasitic destruction, the second is a Canadian guideline for safe sushi preparation, and the third is an article from Food Safety Magazine back in 2015.
Another important point is to keep the fish refrigerated as long as possible. This will prevent the growth of any pathogens and keep the fish safer until it is ready to be prepared and eaten. In the same vein, preparing sushi rice properly with vinegar can also help prevent pathogens from growing. By preparing the rice in vinegar, the rice becomes acidic and will drop to a pH below 4.6. This is beyond the point most pathogens are able to grow. Thus, acidifying the rice helps prevent any bacteria present on the fish from cross-contaminating the rice and vice versa.
The last important point to mention is to make sure you are using clean utensils. Avoid using any wooden utensils as they can be harder to clean and can harbor more bacteria. Given that most people eat sushi with disposable wooden chopsticks, be sure to only use the chopsticks once and do not try to reuse the disposable chopsticks. When preparing the sushi, using clean stainless-steel knives and utensils can ensure that you are reducing the risks of cross-contaminating your sushi.
Graduate Research Associate
CFAES Department of Food Science and Technology
We would like to welcome our new TARTARE Project Manager Nasandra Wright M.P.H., R.S. Nasandra is a dedicated and experienced environmental health professional who is committed to developing and improving the delivery of food safety initiatives at the state, county, and local levels. After spending nearly two decades working in the private sector and in public health, including stints as a Public Health Commissioner, Environmental Health Director, Project Manager, and Food Safety Specialist, Wright forged alliances and built support among various stakeholders in order to maximize the health and wellness of all persons within their communities. She seeks to strengthen food safety awareness and best practices within underserved communities. Wright understands that inspiring teams to provide exemplary service requires a passion for helping individuals. She also believes that entities become empowered by collaborative ideals and focusing on reaching shared targets.
As the Director of Environmental Health at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, Wright spearheaded the leadership team responsible for resolving the West Virginia water crisis of 2014. She partnered with media, local businesses, individuals, and the West Virginia National Guard during the unprecedented event. She worked with her internal team to develop the overall food safety policy for conditionally re-opening foodservice facilities and other permitted establishments during the crisis. She also designed new approaches for implementing community-wide food safety programs and standards including a unique smart phone food application (App) for managing obesity. Further, she developed and implemented a county-wide food safety alert system capable of alerting permitted establishments of potential threats to customers within 60 seconds.
She brings a wealth of experience, expertise, and dedication to the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention team as the Program Manager for TARTARE: The Assessment and Management of Risk from Non-typhoidal Salmonella, Diarrheagenic Escherichia coli and Campylobacter in Raw Beef and Dairy in Ethiopia.