TIME public health

Here’s What Foods Are Most Likely To Have E. Coli or Salmonella

'For more than a decade, our fragmented federal food safety system has been in need of dramatic reform'

More than 80% of the reported E. Coli illnesses were traced to beef and vegetables, according to a new report on foodborne illness. Salmonella, meanwhile, is transmitted in many different kinds of foods, including seeded vegetables, eggs, fruits, chicken, sprouts, beef and pork.

The report, the result of collaboration between three federal agencies that handle food safety, examined nearly 1,000 instances of patient infection with foodborne illness to provide a reliable understanding of how pathogens spread. Researchers hope the findings will “enhance efforts to inform and engage stakeholders, including industry and consumers, about food safety strategies,” the report says.

The news comes as members of Congress push for new federal laws to strengthen food safety. More than 9 million people are infected with foodborne illness every year, and more 50,000 people are hospitalized, according to the report.

“For more than a decade, our fragmented federal food safety system has been in need of dramatic reform,” wrote Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro of Connecticut in an op-ed in The Hill last month. “This leaves millions of Americans vulnerable to foodborne illness and contamination, whether intentional or unintentional.”

The pair noted that 15 federal agencies are responsible for monitoring the food supply, diminishing their effectiveness. (Among them are the three organizations behind the report—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service).

DeLauro and Durbin have proposed legislation to consolidate the food safety organizations into one agency. Senator Kristen Gillibrand of New York has proposed requiring grocery stores to contact customers individually who have purchased recalled items.

TIME Research

IBM Thinks it Can Make Your Food Safer: Will it Work?

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IBM plans to sequence the microbiomes of food ingredients to prevent outbreaks earlier

Our food system is by no means bulletproof when it comes to pathogens. In just the past year, the United States saw major outbreaks of listeria in caramel apples and salmonella in nut butters, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million Americans suffer from some kind of food-borne diseases annually. Meanwhile, food-borne illness results in $9 billion in medical costs and another $75 billion in contaminated food that’s recalled and tossed out every year. Regulatory agencies have acknowledged that more needs to be done.

One strategy comes from IBM, which announced on Thursday that it’s partnering with Mars on a project called the Sequencing the Food Supply Chain Consortium. Their goal, which will likely take at least three years to accomplish, is to sequence the makeup of various foods and then enter that information into a database. The thinking is that if they can establish, at the molecular level, what a given ingredient is supposed to look like, systems can be put into place to catch brewing problems before contaminated foods make it to your table.

“The hypothesis is that [this process] offers you a microscope into what’s happening in that [food] environment,” says Jeff Welser, vice president of IBM Research. “Any deviation from that might indicate there’s a problem.” IBM says it will take into account variations that could occur in ingredients based on where in the world the product is coming from, and what time of year it is.

“A key challenge for food safety experts today is that typically when they test food they only really have a chance of finding what they set out to look for,” says David Crean, global head of technical food safety development at Mars. “If they are testing for Salmonella, they won’t find Listeria.”

The process is highly time- and data-intensive, and not necessarily something companies will want to put their foods and ingredients through constantly, but IBM thinks the science could be developed into a simple test. “You ought to be able to do this when you’re doing normal testing during the day, like for E.coli. The goal is to find the markers that give you a safety-check barcode, if you will, and if you see a change then it lets you know we need to do further testing,” says Welser.

Within three to five years the consortium estimates it will have more companies involved as well as some version of the testing process available for commercial use. They plan to engage with regulatory agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when it’s determined the process works well.

The FDA says it is prioritizing food safety, and in 2011 the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law by President Obama. The FDA says it’s the most sweeping reform of food safety laws in over 70 years and the goal is to shift focus from responding to contamination to prevention. The FDA is supportive of whole genome sequencing as a way to find bacteria in food.

“Overall this seems to be a great basic science project,” says Jonathan A. Eisen, a professor at University of California, Davis. “Personally I believe we need major efforts in characterizing the communities found in and on food, and that a full characterization of the microbes in the facilities where food is produced would be great. This is the first I have heard of a company planning to do this on a large scale.” Eisen is not involved in the consortium, but has researched the suite of microbes in food.

The concept is ambitious, but could be a new way to keep our foods safer than they are currently.

Read next: Most Americans and Scientists Tend to Disagree, Survey Finds

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

How Much Arsenic Is In Your Rice?

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Why you might want to lay off the rice milk

All rice and rice products are not created equal, according to a new study released today by Consumer Reports. Some types of rice, and some rice grown in specific regions, contain much higher levels of inorganic arsenic (IA) than others.

The report, available online and in the January 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine, offers new information to consumers who were left with questions after a 2012 report revealed measurable levels of arsenic in more than 60 rice samples. Arsenic exposure, especially long-term and at high levels, can lead to higher rates of skin, bladder and lung cancer, and heart disease.

For the latest findings, scientists at the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center tested 128 samples of white, basmati, and jasmine rice for arsenic levels. They combined these results with tests and data from the original 2012 study, along with data from tests done by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The total number of samples tested was 697.

The results show a clear connection between geography and toxicity. Basmati rice from California has the lowest arsenic levels. Rice from Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana tend to contain the highest levels of IA. White basmati rice from California, India and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S., on average, have half the IA of other types.

In a surprising twist, brown rice has 80 percent more arsenic than white rice of the same type since arsenic accumulates in the grain’s outer layers. Brown rice from California, India, or Pakistan are the best choices in this category, according to the report. Contrary to what one might think, organic, in this particular case, doesn’t mean safer; organic rice sucks up arsenic at the same levels as conventional rice of the same type.

The report also establishes a point system for consumers, which serves to guide people towards understanding what rice products have the highest amounts of arsenic and how to limit intake through serving size and consumption frequency.

In one example, it’s suggested that children consume rice pasta and hot rice cereal only once every two weeks as these products have higher point values.

Dr. Michael Crupain, a board-certified physician and associate director of the Consumer Safety and Sustainability Group, said that children are the most vulnerable population and should either consume certain products rarely, or, in the case of rice milk, never.

“Children younger than five should not drink rice drinks as a substitute for milk,” he explained, echoing the report’s findings.

Rice holds higher levels of arsenic than other grains and acts as one of nature’s “great scavengers of metallic compounds.” Unlike, millet or polenta, rice planted in arsenic-contaminated fields acts as a vacuum for the toxin. Inorganic arsenic, as opposed to the less toxic organic arsenic, which comes from minerals in the earth’s crust, was introduced into the water and soil through pesticides and drugs injected into animal feeds. The FDA rescinded approval for three of these drugs in 2013 after connections were found between poultry feces used as fertilizer on fields and elevated arsenic levels.

“Some parts of the country just have more arsenic in their soil than others,” Crupain explained. “Rice happens to be a plant that tends to take up arsenic when it’s present. It’s probably based on variety, different types of plants take on different amounts.”

Currently, the FDA does not have safety levels for arsenic in rice. The governmental organization has cautioned against making state-by-state or country-by country comparisons in IA levels for rice, citing the varying factors that can influence arsenic concentrations, such as soil composition, fertilizers, seasonal variability, and water-use practices.

In a statement to Civil Eats, FDA press officer Lauren Sucher said that the organization’s assessment of arsenic in rice remains a priority.

“Last year, the FDA released what we believe to be the largest set of test results to date on the presence of arsenic in rice and rice products, and we are planning to release a draft assessment of the potential health risks associated with the consumption of arsenic in these same foods,” she added.

Until then, the FDA and Consumer Reports have similar recommendations: Consumers should strive to maintain a balanced diet and eat a variety of grains. Parents should consider options other than rice cereal as a first solid food for their baby. Cooking rice in volumes of water five to six times that of the rice, and then draining the water, can reduce arsenic content, though this may also reduce the nutritional value of the rice.

The Consumer Reports study also analyzed arsenic levels in other grains. The data shows that quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, and polenta all contain lower IA levels, making them good alternatives. Bulgur, barley, and farro also contain negligible amounts of arsenic.

At the same time, food safety advocates like Dr. Crupain ultimately believe the government should set stronger standards.

“Consumers won’t have to make such difficult decisions about rice intake levels if we ensure that there is less arsenic in rice to begin with,” he said.

This post originally appeared on Civil Eats

TIME Food

USDA Approves Genetically Engineered Super Potato

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Stuart Minzey&—Getty Images

But some food-safety experts aren't psyched about the spud

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday approved a genetically engineered potato that is resistant to bruising and cuts down on a possible cancer-causing substance, though some food-safety experts aren’t so excited about the super spud.

The Innate Potato, trademarked by Simplot, contains the DNA of other kinds of potatoes mixed in through a process known as RNA interference technology, The Guardian reports.

“If this is an attempt to give crop biotechnology a more benign face, all it has really done is expose the inadequacies of the US regulation of GE crops,” Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at Center for Food Safety, said in a statement. “We simply don’t know enough about RNA interference technology to determine whether GE crops developed with it are safe for people and the environment.”

Simplot says the new potato minimizes the creation of an amino acid that at high temperatures reacts with certain chemicals to become acrylamide, a substance the International Agency for Research on Cancer has called a “probably human carcinogen.”

The company has reportedly worked on the potato for more than a decade, but activists are already asking one of the company’s biggest customers, McDonald’s, not to buy it.

[The Guardian]

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 21

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. After another war, it seems more clear that the Israeli siege of Gaza continues through “inertia.”

By Itamar Sha’altiel in +972

2. A new project looks to inspire a generation to bold new scientific innovation by stimulating creative storytelling.

By Michael White in Pacific Standard

3. Attempts to combat voter fraud should be balanced against a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote.

By Matthew Yglesias in Vox

4. More than meets the eye: Visual inspection is far from sufficient for guaranteeing the safety of meat and poultry. It’s time to reform USDA food safety systems.

By the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Center for Science in the Public Interest

5. Lifting teachers into leadership roles could help achieve the big gains for students we’ve been seeking.

By Ross Wiener in the Aspen Idea

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Taiwan

‘Gutter Oil’ Scandal Raises Food-Safety Fears Once Again in Greater China

Travel Trip Hong Kong on a Budget
Kin Cheung—AP A man buys a cake from Maxim's Cakes in Mongkok, Hong Kong, in this file photo from Dec. 18, 2008

Potentially harmful oil may have been used in pastries sold by popular bakery chain and also 7-Eleven

A Taiwanese food-safety scare has spread to Hong Kong with the revelation that the city’s biggest bakery chain, as well as branches of 7-Eleven and Starbucks, may have been selling pastries made with so-called gutter oil.

The Hong Kong–based South China Morning Post reports that the popular breakfast staple known as pineapple buns, offered in branches of Maxim’s Cakes and 7-Eleven, as well two specialty Starbucks outlets, could have been made with gutter oil — a potentially harmful blend of oil extracted from food waste, offal and the byproducts of tanneries.

The news once again puts the issue of food safety under the spotlight in a part of the world that has been bedeviled by everything from adulterated baby milk formula to exploding watermelons and even fake eggs.

The Post said that since August 2011 Maxim’s Cakes had bought 34 tons of oil from a Hong Kong importer, who in turn purchased it from Chang Guann, a major lard supplier based in Taiwan. The oil was used to make the bakery chain’s iconic pineapple buns — so called not because they contain pineapple but because of the distinctive shape of the sugar and biscuit crust baked onto the buns’ surface. All the items have now been recalled.

Police in Taiwan last week said that Chang Guann had purchased 243 tons of oil from a gutter oil ring in southern Taiwan since March. The Taiwanese lard giant — which says it was unaware that the oil was gutter oil — in turn sold 51,981 cartons of oil to hundreds of food companies around Asia, according to Taiwan’s Food and Drug Administration.

Authorities in Taiwan say that over a thousand Taiwanese companies have used oil supplied by Chang Guann to make a total of 139 different products. Local groceries across China pulled several Taiwanese brands of dumplings, sauces and noodles from their shelves over the weekend.

Many regional food suppliers and restaurants harbor reservations about the quality of food from China, where a series of recent scandals — including chicken feet marinated in hydrogen peroxide and the use of expired meat by one of the country’s top food suppliers — continues to unsettle consumers.

Still, Taiwan had boasted a better reputation.

“Bakeries from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore have done particularly well in China because of worries about locally produced food,” wrote the New York Times, in a Sept. 6 article about the Mid-Autumn Festival pastries known as moon cakes.

But in the wake of the Chang Guann scandal, revelers could be shunning Taiwanese moon cakes this year. Hong Kong health officials told Agence France-Presse that moon cakes sold around the city are undergoing checks.

Maxim’s has told the Hong Kong authorities its moon cakes were not made with contaminated oil, but lab tests are being carried out, the Post reports.

[SCMP]

TIME Research

Study: Pesticides Could Cause Unexpected Allergic Reactions

New regulations could stem the risk

Traces of antibiotic pesticides in fruits and vegetables may trigger unexpected allergic reactions for people with food allergies, according to a new study published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

“As far as we know, this is the first report that links an allergic reaction to fruits treated with antibiotic pesticides,” said lead study author Anne Des Roches in a press release.

The study looked at a patient who suffered from anaphylactic shock after eating a blueberry pie, despite not being allergic to any of the ingredients. After weeks of testing with both the patient and a sample of the pie, researchers concluded that the pesticide streptomycin, which is used in orchards, had triggered the reaction.

The use of such pesticides remains legal in the United States, though new Food and Drug Administration regulations may help address the issue, according to the study. The pesticides are illegal in some European countries, Roches said.

TIME China

In China, McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut Probe Expired-Meat Supply

Controversies over food safety are a fact of life in China

Health officials have temporarily closed a Shanghai-based meat supplier after it was learned that the firm, which supplies products to major American fast-food restaurants throughout China, may have been selling expired chicken and beef.

Both McDonald’s and Yum! Brands — owner of KFC and Pizza Hut, with over 6,200 Chinese stores collectively — asked their restaurants on Sunday to abstain from selling meat provided by Shanghai Husi Food Co. after Dragon Television, a local news outfit, reported that the meat company’s employees were repackaging meat and extending its shelf life by a year. McDonald’s and Yum! have launched their own investigations.

Yum!’s sales have rebounded in recent months after a fit of bad publicity early last year, when a state television agency alleged that KFC — the largest restaurant chain in China — was selling chicken containing excessive amounts of antibiotics. Yum! insisted on the safety of its food and said it was working to improve its supply chain.

TIME Germs

You Asked: Is the 5-Second Rule Legit?

The Five Second Rule
Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

When food hits the floor, some say you have 5 seconds to retrieve it before filth hitches a ride. Here’s what germ experts have to say about that

Donut down! You quickly grab your grub, certain you’ve satisfied the 5-second rule with time to spare. But is your fallen food safe to eat?

Past research shows roughly 70% of women would say yes, along with 56% of men, says Paul Dawson, a food scientist at Clemson University who has lab-tested the legitimacy of the 5-second rule. Unfortunately, snacking on stuff that has touched the ground is always a risky proposition, he says.

“I compare picking up dropped food and eating it to not wearing a seat belt,” Dawson says. You could drive a lifetime without wearing a safety belt and never have an accident, but that doesn’t mean you’re safe not wearing one, he explains.

Dawson and his team tested the time it takes harmful bacteria like salmonella to transfer from various surfaces—wood, tile, carpet—to either dry foods (bread) or moist ones (bologna).

Here’s what they found: The length of time food spends on the floor does increase the amount of bacteria that latches on. Also, specific food-floor combinations (especially moist food on tile) result in a greater transfer of germs. But regardless of the snack-surface specifics, a significant amount of unhealthful gunk jumps from the ground to your food pretty much instantaneously, Dawson explains.

“I stand by the zero-second rule,” he says. “If bacteria is present on the ground, it will be transferred to your food.”

Recently, biomedical scientist Anthony Hilton and colleagues at Aston University in the UK repeated Dawson’s experiment with different sickness-causing bacteria like E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus. The results didn’t change.

“The majority of bacteria transfer to the food immediately on impact,” Hilton says. “The quicker you pick up your food, the fewer bacteria will transfer.” But that doesn’t mean a speedy recovery of your fallen treat will keep you safe from germs, he adds.

What about food falling on other surfaces—like your desk at work? It all depends on whether illness-causing bacteria are present, Dawson says. According to a University of Arizona study, the average office desk harbors hundreds of times more germs than the average office toilet seat.

Consider yourself warned.

TIME Food Safety

Study: Food Trucks May Be Safer Than Restaurants

Food trucks gather at Nathan Phillips Square
Andrew Francis —Toronto Star/Getty Images Food trucks gather at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on April 2, 2014.

Food trucks in 7 cities performed better than or the same as restaurants on food safety inspection reports

Grabbing your lunch from a food truck may be a safer option than sitting down at a restaurant, according to a new study.

After examining over 260,000 food inspection reports, researchers from a public law interest firm in Virginia found that in each of the seven examined cities—Boston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louisville, Miami, Seattle and Washington, D.C.—food trucks performed better than or as well as restaurants.

In every city except Seattle, food trucks averaged fewer sanitation violations than restaurants. In Seattle, the number of violations for food trucks was also lower but was not statistically significant, which means that food trucks and restaurants performed approximately the same. The study, called “Street Eats, Safe Eats,” looked at cities where food trucks and restaurants are obliged to follow the same health guidelines.

“Street Eats, Safe Eats finds that in every city examined … food trucks and carts did as well as or better than restaurants,” the study says. “The results suggest that the notion that street food is unsafe is a myth.”

According to the firm, called Institute for Justice, routine inspections have been key in limiting the number of health violations among food trucks. The study discourages an implementation of stricter regulations for mobile vendors, such as limiting the time and places where food trucks may work, arguing that such rules do not make street food safer.

Vox suggests that the reason for the researchers’ findings may be that food trucks run smaller, more easily manageable kitchens than restaurants. In addition, the growing popularity of food trucks may be causing increased scrutiny of the way they make food, which in turn would lead to a favorable outcome for them, Vox says.

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