Jane Zhang of the Wall Street Journal reports that a public-health officer in Sydney, Australia, had an urgent question: A consumer found a black, shiny, 1.3-centimeter-long beetle with fine, short antennas and hairy legs in a sandwich. The plastic bag the bread came in “had no holes in it, and I could see the imprint of the beetle within the slice of bread. Would it be possible for the beetle to live through the baking process?”
The official in question knew just where to get the answer: an email network called Foodsafe that posts the correspondence of an elite lineup of microbiologists, chefs, restaurateurs, industry consultants and regulators from about 30 countries, including the U.S., Japan, Mexico, New Zealand and even Iraq. With its debates, battles and mini-celebrities, Foodsafe (www.foodsafetyweb.info) puts on display world experts as they grapple with the increasingly complex and strange world of food and disease.
A couple of years ago, a Washington state restaurant inspector wanted to know how to cook alligator. Long enough so a meat thermometer registers 165 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds, “same as for fowl to which alligator is most closely related,” replied a regulator from Florida. What about eating leftover pizza?
Beware mozzarella cheese, which can be a hotbed for potentially dangerous bacteria, said O. Peter Snyder Jr., a St. Paul, Minn., food-safety consultant.
And, of course, there’s the avian flu. If it leaps from fowl to humans, duck hunters are likely to be the first U.S. victims, Dr. Snyder wrote.
In debates that last for days, months and, occasionally, years, there’s talk about bugs, toilets, spoilage and pathogens. Sometimes discussions turn ugly, with clashes among scientists, regulators and corporate health managers.
A Florida bill that would allow dogs on the patios of outdoor eateries stirred intense debate. A New Jersey food consultant, George DeMirjian, who opposes the idea, suggested sarcastically that people should put restaurants in pet stores.
Marcel Hofman, an adviser to Belgium’s federal food agency, countered that humans actually carry more pathogens and parasites than dogs.
A food-service dietitian asked if document shredders should be used in restaurants to tear up tortillas, egg rolls and wanton skins for use in dishes.
On Foodsafe, the practice was likened to cleaning potatoes in dishwashers — wrong use for the equipment — and sparked an argument about regulation.
“Let this be a good example of one of the truly odd things local health departments come across,” wrote Mark S. Ohlmann, a Louisville, Ky., consultant, who used the shredding debate to argue that food retailers should be regulated by the government. “My point? Self-regulation=No regulation.”
Christopher L. Argento, a dietitian at Nassau Community College in New York, said the industry already looks after itself because official inspections are worthless. “Once a year check-ups (= no regulation!),” he responded. “Studies clearly show inspections don’t change a thing.”
For small restaurants and companies without food-safety experts, Foodsafe “is incredibly valuable,” says Mark Newman, director of food and beverage revenue management for a Denver restaurant chain called Rock Bottom Restaurants. A year ago, he had an idea for a new menu item: homemade croutons, made from bread crumbs tossed with melted garlic butter and baked until golden. But how long, he wondered, could he safely store the crumbs?
About a dozen emails later, a consensus emerged. The croutons’ moisture would keep them free of harmful bacteria but only for a couple of days. To keep the butter fresh, the croutons must be refrigerated. Mr. Newman said in an interview he decided to keep them no more than two days.
Even big restaurants sometimes need a second opinion. Gayle Femminella, manager for food safety and training at the posh Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., wondered: “How long can we safely hold sushi grade tuna before using?” The advice, from Yukifumi Konagaya, a fish expert at Japan’s Niigata University of Pharmacy and Applied Sciences: “Freezing (less than 20 degrees Centigrade if possible) is most important for safety. I think we can keep tuna for several weeks (or more?) in a freezer. But quality will suffer due to the formation of relatively large ice crystals at this temperature. Better quality will result at -40 C or lower.”
Foodsafe in the technical jargon is known as a listserv. Members send emails that are distributed to everyone on the list and then automatically appear on Foodsafe’s Web site. It used to be run by the Foodborne Illness Education Information Center, a joint project of the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department. When the government closed the center last July to save money, it dropped the 10-year-old listserv and laid off its coordinator, Cindy Roberts.
Ms. Roberts, 44 years old, has managed to keep it running with money from other government agencies such as the New Zealand Food Safety Authority and the U.S.’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The food industry has also chipped in, including Seattle law firm Marler Clark LLP, which represents plaintiffs in food-safety cases. But the operation isn’t breaking even, Ms. Roberts says, and she isn’t sure how long she can keep it going.
Meanwhile, the listserv is creating its own celebrities. Roy E. Costa, 55, quit his job as a Florida state food-safety regulator after 21 years to open a consulting business after rising to prominence on Foodsafe. “I become a noteworthy person in the field and my opinion gets listened to, which was not always the case in the state,” he says.
Ms. Roberts has met Foodsafe fans while traveling in Hong Kong and Costa Rica.
Foodsafers, as they call themselves, often wear green ribbons when they attend food-safety summits. “Sometimes I get people who just want to see what I look like,” Ms. Roberts says.
Then there’s Dr. Snyder, the St. Paul consultant who, among other things, believes that all children under 6 should eat a teaspoon of dirt every day to fend off lurking germs in “the real world.” Dr. Snyder dictates daily comments into a tape recorder, usually around midnight, which his secretary sends to the listserv the next day.
“I look at it as a way to have a dialogue with these hard-nosed regulatory [people] who come out [from] behind the iron door, inspect the restaurant, go back to the iron door, and they don’t listen,” he says. “I go too far sometimes. I say, ‘You are stupid.’ I try not to.”
And what about the bread beetle? Within hours, answers poured forth. “In no way a beetle survives a baking process,” said Marcel den Hertog, a Dutch food-safety expert.
“Beetles seldom work alone,” added Phillip Shadoin, owner of a Crete, Neb., food-service company called TFG Inc. “If you can’t find any brethren, you’re looking at a good possibility of a hoax.”