Sunday, 29 June 2014

Foodborne diseases: The case of the innocent-looking berries

'Berries' by Jeremy Cherfas
under a CC license
It's been about two-and-a-half years now that cases of hepatitis A have been appearing in Europe. Further analysis, as quoted by the European Food Safety Authority, has shown similarities in the viral genome across the majority of those cases. That is an indication for a common source of infection, which - currently - is believed to be frozen berries. So far, 11 countries in Europe are known to have been affected. (A similar-sounding story that appeared in the US seemed to be coincidental and it was attributed to imported pomegranate seeds.)

Technically, the term "berries" covers a wide variety of fruits although it is normally used to describe small, juicy, bright-coloured fruits, such as blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, blackcurrant, etc. They can be eaten raw but they are also extensively used as ingredients either raw or as preserves in other foodstuffs, such as creamy desserts, parties, flavoured ice-creams, various alcoholic beverages, etc.

In some of those products the berries find themselves in having had minimal - and sometimes non-thermal - treatment. That provides ground for pathogens and, in the case of hepatitis A, the hepatitis virus that may lie on the surface to survive.

Locations of the hepatitis A outbreaks attributed
to a common, continuous source in the EU/EEA,
possibly frozen berries; Compiled from Source:
European Centre for Disease Prevention and
Control and the European Food Safety
Authority,  2014; Outbreak of hepatitis A in
EU/EEA countries - Second update. EFSA
supporting publication 2014:EN-581. 14 pp.

Hepatitis A is a disease usually transmitted via the consumption of food or water contaminated by infected fecal matter. It has a very long incubation period that can reach up to 50 days and, in some cases, it is asymptomatic, i.e., the people infected do not display any symptoms of illness (but they can transmit the virus).

While the food law in Europe requires food businesses to keep traceability records when receiving or providing food products or ingredients to other food business operators, including retailers, linking the hepatitis A outbreaks to a particular contaminated ingredient and tracing it back to a single source has proven to be very challenging.

The main reasons for that are the long incubation period of the disease and the complexity of the food chain, especially when dealing with multi-ingredients food products. Thus, when a case of hepatitis A is confirmed, pinpointing the source of the infection would require the patient to identify foodstuffs he/ she had consumed over a very long time (up to 50 days before the onset of symptoms), an exercise that is nearly impossible to execute in a fully accurate way. Then the ingredients and the processing of the individual foods needs to be considered in order to select the ones likely to have been vehicles for the virus. Then those should be traced back the food chain. With luck, superimposing the trace-back routes of different cases infected by the same virus strain could, at some point, help identify the starting point of the contamination.

Although hepatitis A is not normally a deadly disease (for reasonably healthy adults), it can be a rather "unpleasant" experience. Thankfully, consumers can minimise the risk by boiling frozen berries for about one minute; this will destroy the virus if present on the berries. Simply rinsing the berries with tap water may not be enough; depending on the type of the berries, they may have a large total surface with lots of niches where water cannot really reach (not to mention that fruits tend to have a hydrophobic surface... which reminds me of an older - yet irrelevant - post).

Moral line of the story - if there needs to be one: Risk communication, i.e., telling consumers (and businesses) what the hazard, the risk and the reasonable mitigation measures are, preferably in plain language, can be very effective when everything else fails.

Sunday, 22 June 2014


'Beers' by Evil Sivan
under a CC license
Today's post is just a quick tribute to beer. No tricks, no puns, no deep thoughts and comments. Just a few words to the drink that may be a major reason to follow the World Cup (possibly second to watching the football games themselves).

They say it's the oldest fermented beverage and it's the third most consumed drink after water and tea.

The bare basics of beer production are dead simple:

1. Germinate cereal grains and then dry them to make malt
2. Extract the sugars from the malt using warm water
3. Put aside the solids, add hops to taste and boil the liquid to increase sugar concentration, destroy the enzymes extracted, extract the bitterness from the hops and sterilize the solution
4. Let the mix cool down (and add more hops to adjust the flavour if desired)
5. Add yeast and let it ferment (for about a week up to about a month, depending on the yeast and the fermentation conditions)
6. Filter the output if desired
7. Add carbon dioxide if needed
8. Bottle the beer
9. (Chill to taste, open and enjoy)

As with many drinks, a main factor defining beer's sensory profile is water. That is despite the fact that hops' bitterness and flavour may be the most profound component in the overall profile of beer. Then, of course, there are all the flavour compounds produced during the malting process (that were then passed on the water during the extraction phase) and those produced by the yeast during the fermentation.

With such variety available beer tasting has been a fact for a while (e.g., Belgium Beer Lovers) and beer connoisseurs (and their services, e.g. Beerology) have become increasingly popular figures in the beer world.

Beer is also a major exported good; in 2011 the total beer exports reached a value of about $11.6B (source

And the corresponding map for beer imports (from the same source -

With such figures in mind it comes as little surprise that Brazil had to introduce a beer law specifically for the 2014 World Cup (lifting a horizontal ban on the sale of beer at matches that was enforced for more than 10 years).

Ah, well, nothing is ever 100% pure, is it?


Let's all enjoy a pint then.... under the sound of the obligatory Charlie Mopps song (the lyrics are in the description space of youtube)...

Sunday, 15 June 2014


'Tetris' by Matteo
under a CC license
People play games. All people do. Kids play, with friends or alone, with toys or without. Adults play games, maybe involving sports maybe not, with others or alone. Playing games is one of the elements that helps children evolve into adults. For adults, games are considered to be a leisure thing, sometimes a kind of social function and some others a tool to isolate from other external stimuli.

For some reason, though, video games (or computer games, if that term suits you best) are often looked down on. They have been considered a nerd thing and/or, sometimes, a 'geek thing'. They have often been referred to as "a waste of time".

Video games are a thing of our times. The corresponding industry has rapidly grown over the last few decades (and its statistics are always fun to read) together (or helped by) the introduction of the PC to the wide consumer audience, the dedicated game consoles and - more recently - the myriads of game-capable mobile devices. To day, a huge variety of genres, titles, etc. have emerged, some managing to become iconic. Pacman, Nethack, Arkanoid, Tetris, Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego, Neverwinter nights, Doom, Sid Meier's Civilization, etc. Really, the list is endless.

[Full disclosure: I 've spent quite some time immersed in various computer games myself, ranging from Pacman, Tetris and Civilization to DotT and Beneath a Steel Sky, to TF2, the Neverwinter series, indie games such as World of Goo, Braid, FEZ, etc. And so far, I'm not sure I 've regretted it :-)]

So why something so popular is heavily criticised? I agree that popularity on its own isn't a measure of usefulness or value. Tobacco, unhealthy snacks and -even- drugs may be popular and desirable, to the level of lethal addiction. But are video games in such class?

Many opinions have been voiced - at different strengths. But I tend to agree with the one that says that games can have an impact on our real lives.


Conventional mechanisms include helping us let steam, helping us focus on something else (so as to return to reality with a clear mind) and, in online games, socialise. Yes, socialise. In a digital way. Perhaps not-so-equivalent to the face-to-face contact but not far from exchanging e-mails or Facebook posts.

Video games, both normal and serious ones, have been put forward as a learning and skills honing platform

Jane McGonigal gave a TED talk on 2010 supporting that video games, being so engaging, can serve as the means for us to reach goals in real life. Part of that rationale is supported by a variety of modern apps offering to "gamify" our lives in the personal and the professional environment. Those are tools that will help people self-commit to an activity or an objective and reward them accordingly. Give a try to HabitRPG or Fitocracy. Neither got me engaged but many others seem to disagree.

Rewards in video games - a copycat of the rewarding system in real life, which is itself based on reward processes in the brain - is something that all gamers understand and it is indeed the driving force in every successful game.

So what do we need to do to harness the potential of video games? The obvious answer is that we need to ensure that game developers integrate "the right messages" in their games. However, I'm not sure that this is likely to happen and I'm not even sure that I would like it to happen. After all, games are selling the fantasy element. In fact, they don't need to change. It is the other things of our lives that can use make use of the interfaces that games have created.

But there is a limit to the applicability of games. There is always a lurking danger when dealing with real life consequences bearing game-like attitudes. If that has to do with things such as college exams, getting to know new people,etc., it may be OK. But if that has to do with actions associated with serious risks of any kind, then things are completely different. There is little real-life protection one can offer in a game universe.That universe is something others may not be able to perceive the same way. The gaming world is a world that our laws don't necessarily apply (both the natural and the ones of the legal system).

Thus, we need to make absolutely sure that the borderline between gaming in real life remains clear!

After all, we only get one real life...

Monday, 2 June 2014

Legal compliance: A battle facing complexity?

'Winter Simplicity' by
Doug Brown under a CC license
Some say the food sector is one of the most regulated areas of economic activity. Although a bit counter-intuitive, since making food seems easy to most people and that would not seem to justify having a lot of regulations, the statement is not far from true, at least in Europe.

Under more careful thinking, the argument in favour of such a tight regulatory framework is easy to see: there is a great deal of things that can go wrong in food production and that can cause trouble to consumers, economic losses, etc. The type and severity of that "trouble" depends on the type of the problem, the size and the distribution of the product batch. And, yes, food-borne "trouble" continues to occur even today from time to time (e.g., there seems to be an ongoing incident with Hepatitis A, possibly from contaminated frozen berries) and it is always associated with a corresponding cost.

Even if having a tight regulatory framework is inevitable, at least for the time being, there is no need for that to be unreasonably complex. Of course, here, the word "unreasonably" would be interpreted in a very different way by the different stakeholders of the food industry. Most probably some lawyer would even go as far as to claim that the set of laws for food production is really simple and straightforward (!).

Interestingly, two guys from the Michigan State University attempted to measure the complexity of the Law (in the US Code)  - the research paper and a corresponding presentation are also available. In brief, the two researchers tried to quantify "complexity" by using metrics that would apply to people trying to read the law and comprehend its requirements. One of the approaches was to count the references of a piece of text to other pieces of legislation. (Yes, certain Titles of the Code were rather complex indeed).

I would find it extremely interesting if a similar approach would be routinely implemented to other bodies of law, e.g. the food law in the EU or in its Member States. Or. possibly, to run benchmarks among similarly-oriented bodies of law across countries. That could be a novell way to drive the various legislative bodies to produce regulations that, as a whole, are easier to find, comprehend and apply.

In my humble opinion, clearer regulations would lead to higher compliance, possibly with a lower associated cost. That would mean more money for business to pursue other goals (e.g., environmental performance) or invest elsewhere. In the food sector, higher compliance usually translates to better protection of the consumer and, in turn, higher confidence of the consumer to the food production and distribution chain.

To be fair, there is an increasing trend for authorities to provide consolidated versions of the legislation or - at least - to group all legislation relevant to a topic and provide it to the public as such. That 's very good news but, again, we are nowhere near to claim that we have achieved simplicity and clarity in the legal texts, yet...