Presence of fecal coliforms does not mean “there’s poop here”, but for aspiring poop-hunters is there an alternative?

Image created by Austin Bouck. Dear god let there be no egregious mistakes…

Recently a podcast I often listen to has discussed several articles with a similar note in their conclusions.

Nearly half of the 90 beverages from soda fountain machines in one area in Virginia tested positive for coliform bacteria — which could indicate possible fecal contamination

The study, conducted over six months at six licensed day-care centers in California, found high levels of coliform contamination, particularly in kitchen areas and on the hands of day-care workers. Coliform bacteria are transmitted through feces.

But recent reports reveal that the coffee or tea you’re sipping  – and even the cash you used to pay for it –  also carry bacteria found in feces.

Seven out of 10 samples of Costa ice were found to be contaminated with bacteria found in faeces.

40 percent of office coffee mugs contain coliform bacteria, which can be found in feces.

I don’t need to rehash arguments that have already been made here. Fecal coliform is a group of organisms historically used to identify whether drinking water could be contaminated with sewage or fecal material. Because it’s still a valid test to determine if water has been contaminated (they don’t survive forever in clean water, so if they’re present it’s because there’s a likely a failure in the system), the CDC and tons of state regulations still falsely state that these organisms are only found in fecal material.

Part of the issue is that coliforms as an indicator in general were extrapolated to environmental samples and food. NACMCF summarized the most recent scientific conclusion:

…whether coliforms, fecal coliforms, Enterobacteriaceae or E. coli. Kornacki and others (Kornacki et al., 2013) provide an historical evaluation of these criteria for foods and their utility based on current knowledge. None of these criteria accurately and consistently reflect fecal contamination of raw and processed foods nor are they useful or reliable as index organisms predicting the presence of pathogens.

The Kornacki reference is from the Compendium of methods for the Microbiological Examination of foods, which while expensive is an excellent reference for any food micro lab:

The debunking of the coliform=feces absolute conclusion was well covered by Doyle and Erickson in 2006, and more recently some thoughts were posted by barfblog.

But I’m writing this post today because I have a follow up question,

How exactly would someone actually test for fecal material?

Apparently, this is actually a problem in forensics, as an article published as recently as 2013 stated”no sensitive and simple fecal identification method using molecular biological techniques has been reported.” (Nakanishi et al., 2013). Here were the methods I was able to find with a cursory review of the literature.

1. Direct (macro) observation

A.k.a, the stain on the tighty-whities. Feces can be identified from it’s characteristic green-brown color from bile digestion and characteristic odor…this detection method isn’t really worth going into and I apologize for the mental image/odor.

2. Microscopy

Now we’re getting sciencey. Fecal material is a hodgepodge of various microscopic indicators. An experienced eye would be able to find bacteria (the bulk of the dry weight), but also undigested food particles and cellulose cell walls from plant material. Some epithelial and mucousal cells from the GI tract would also be visible. Interestingly, one way to determine if the fecal material was from a person or animal would be to look for excess hair in the sample, either from digesting prey or from grooming. The hair has to go somewhere, and I’m really curious if you would see a difference in hair mass between bearded and clean shaven men…

3. Chemical Indicators

Urobilinogen is a byproduct of bilirubin metabolism, and will be found in animals which consume meat and/or are otherwise digesting blood.  This appears to be a fairly classic test to discriminate fecal material from other bodily fluids like sweat or saliva and can be performed on site using a fluorescence indicator solution. Unfortunately, urobilinogen can also be found in urine since it is also returned to the kidneys for excretion.

4. Microbiological Profile

Well, crap. Here we come full circle. The most recent research on this subject seems to be using newer sequencing techniques to identify the unique organisms in the microbiome of feces. The goal is to find specific organisms or genes that would allow forensic scientists to discriminate between fecal material and other bodily fluids.

Here’s the thing though, none of the research identifies coliforms as a group of interest. It’s too broad and unhelpful! Rather than traditional “fecal bacteria”, the Bacteriodes genus has been identified as the predominant organism group in feces. Specific organisms identified were B. uniformis, B. vulgatus, and B. thetaiotaomicron. However, the state of California has specifically identified these organisms thriving in marshlands, yet still attribute them directly to feces. It would seem that again we can infer that fecal material is likely to contain these organisms, but it seems improper to assume that the presence of the organisms means that fecal material was the source.

I’d love to hear from some forensic scientists on what I got right and wrong here. From what I can tell from the literature it seems like there isn’t as much forensic interest in fecal material. The authors referenced how it is hard to isolate DNA due to interference from bile enzymes and microorganisms, which would reduce its value as evidence.

It seems like at this time a definitive test for “there is poop on this plate/ice/food/hand” doesn’t exist.

Much to the chagrin of PCRM, who would like us to declare the invisible feces on our meat.

Maybe we can just stop making the correlation between feces and food hygiene and instead focus on pathogen detection/prevention/pervasiveness as a means to evaluate foods on the market. While we talk about the fecal-oral route a lot, we’ve known for a long time that pathogens can be found almost anywhere if you start looking, so let’s look for them instead of fecal coliform clickbait (which this post totally is).



Resources for fecal identification forensics:

Drexler, Judith Z., et al. “Marsh Soils as Potential Sinks for Bacteroides Fecal Indicator Bacteria, Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, Georgetown, SC, USA.” Water, Air, & Soil Pollution 225.2 (2014): 1861.

Forensic Resources.Serology – Blood and other Bodily Fluids.

James, Stuart H., Jon J. Nordby, and Suzanne Bell, eds. Forensic science: an introduction to scientific and investigative techniques. CRC press, 2002.

Li, Richard. Forensic biology. CRC Press, 2015.

Nakanishi, Hiroaki, et al. “Identification of feces by detection of Bacteroides genes.” Forensic Science International: Genetics7.1 (2013): 176-179.

Virkler, Kelly, and Igor K. Lednev. “Analysis of body fluids for forensic purposes: from laboratory testing to non-destructive rapid confirmatory identification at a crime scene.” Forensic Science International 188.1 (2009): 1-17.

Zou, Kai-Nan, et al. “Identification of vaginal fluid, saliva, and feces using microbial signatures in a Han Chinese population.” Journal of forensic and legal medicine 43 (2016): 126-131.

4th grade presentation: water treatment on the Oregon trail

Austin Bouck classroom presentation
Apparently I have T-Rex arms here…I was excited!

I had the honor once again to make a presentation to two 4th grade classes at a local elementary school during their Oregon Trail unit. The question posed to the students was:

Your wagon train has broken down, and you need to find water for your entire group. What can you do to make sure the water is safe?

I came in to cover the topic of water treatment. The presentation was based on several key points:

  1. What kinds of hazards/dangers do you need to address with water (or food in general)?
  2. What did pioneers on the Oregon trail know about these hazards in 1811-1840? (hint: no germ theory yet)
  3. Which hazards do different treatments address, and which ones would have been available at the time?

The presentation consists of me blabbering and motioning wildly, a powerpoint, and a visual aid. The visual is a set of configurable pegboards to represent different filtration “pore” sizes, and demonstrate how effective they might be depending on the situation.

4th grade Oregon Trail unit on water filtration
Steeper slope=more water pressure. Bill Nye, whenever you’re ready to have me on…

I can’t post the ppt here because I’m certain I used a number of copyright images. However I was able to record the presentation this year, so I can make the audio available. It’s about 25 minutes long including the questions. But if you’re into this kind of thing, or want to learn about different water treatments, enjoy!

3 focus points when working with poor food safety culture

“It’s not like they won’t find something anyway”

“We don’t have time”

“It’s never going to be perfect”

“That’s not my job.”

“We’ve done it this way for years…it’s never caused a problem”

Anyone who has worked in food at restaurants, manufacturers, or at home has run into folks who don’t hold food safety as the first priority when making food. This is hard at every level, but gets exponentially worse when executives and managers aren’t on board.

Here are some recommendations to think about for folks who are working in quality roles everywhere. These are most relevant to a dedicated quality person (like a QA manager at a manufacturer), but could also be implemented by anyone who wants to make a dent in moving food safety up the priority list for your fellow staff.

1. Make sure you are respected first.

“Dude, you’ve been here one day. It’s fine.”

No one is going to take quality culture, preventative food safety, etc. seriously if they don’t take the person leading it seriously. This is true for personal safety, lean ideas, or any other culture change. Make sure you’re not on any kind of high horse (because I’m right!), and make contributions that are relevant and help the production staff and supervisors, rather than impose burdens. Examples could be streamlining quality checkpoints or finding opportunities that improve both production efficiency and food safety.

Recommend little, but ask the questions that lead in the direction of food safety.

“If the equipment was already clean and ready to go when the operators arrive, do you think we would start-up faster or run better?”

QA direction: dedicated sanitation personnel, less conflict at startup between production goals and pre-op QA”

“Would it be easier for them to hop back-and-forth if there’s a problem if there was more space?”

QA direction: De-clutter workspace to make auditing tools and sanitation easier/more effective.

“Would it be better if they didn’t have to stop to measure and write down all this stuff?”

QA direction: installation of dataloggers, sanitizer dilution pumps, alarm-based checks

Common QA mistake: When working in an environment where a “compliant” culture isn’t in place, don’t cite regulations to make your point. No one wants to make change because the government says so (especially if they aren’t enforcing it), and no one wants to do it to make your annual audit easier. As far as the staff is concerned, audits and inspections are your problem once a year and because it’s hard for you, you’d rather make it their problem every day. Demonstrate the need for change based on risk to products, people, and business.

2. Prioritize, and let it go

The beard snood not covering my mustache isn’t the food safety risk you should be correcting in this situation.

In tandem with #1, unless you have an obviously high-risk product that is susceptible to contamination from hair or loose threads in clothing, let some of that stuff go. We know all of the basic personnel practices are important, but things like sanitation, cross-contact, and temperature control are the big ones that you need to use your “good will” currency on.

Don’t spend all your patience and points on forcing bangs under hairnets, immediately breaking down that extra (clean) cardboard, etc. And if these things need to be addressed, find allies within your organization to help enforce the small stuff so it isn’t all coming from the “quality police”. Including other staff/departments to set a good example or encourage these smaller, non-critical changes can help you save up all of your points for the big stuff.

With limited resources and limited “buy-in” your hard-line stances need to be on items that make food safer, rather than making audits easier.

3. Data, data, data

“I’m just saying that the correlation is unsettling, and we should look into it.”

Start getting quantitative verification of how you’re doing as a company, examples could be: complaints, defective products, production paperwork errors, sensory failures, mispicks, # of rags left on the floor at the end of the day, disposal costs, time cost for equipment breakdowns, time cost for rework, etc.

Lack of quality culture is many times driven by a lack of observed cost-benefit. Without data, everyone flies by the seat of their pants and can dismiss your concerns with “It’s not that much product, we produce a ton of okay product”, “it just happens sometimes”, or “it wouldn’t be worth the extra time to fix it for how often it actually happens”. Half the time “new” quality issues don’t go away, we just get complacent with them. As a new employee you didn’t bring in any of that complacency with sub-par products or food safety risk, and you have to bust some chops with data.

Data also provides a tool to those people in the company who do want to support a quality culture, but haven’t had any compelling evidence to disagree with their peers.

There are a number of resources out there for working with immature food safety cultures, and even more for immature personnel safety cultures, many of the same principals apply. I’m a big fan of the ADKAR model for change.

Here’s a limited piece of what you can directly do as a quality officer to support an ADKAR mode:.

Awareness of the need for change: Data, data, data

Desire to participate and support the change: respect, focusing only on one problem at a time (I know, it’s hard when it feels like an imminent food safety threat)

Knowledge on how to change: Come with multiple solutions or a goal oriented request (What could we change that would get the dirty mop bucket out of the room during production?), demonstrate that changes work with: data, data, data

Ability to implement required skills and behaviors: Volunteer to train employees on new procedures, and change your quality program to make it easier. Maybe you can replace that chlorine titration kit for a rapid test method? Maybe you can make a checklist? A fast reading digital thermometer could replace that old dial thermometer and make it feel like less of a chore.

Reinforcement to sustain the change: Persistence is key on your ONE issue you’re fixing. You may have changed the procedure, but your quality items are just one instruction of hundreds every employee receives every day. Even your best coworkers will need to have the entire ADKAR explained more than once. Until they’re doing it without help for at least 60 days, you don’t get to move on to your next project. If you throw it out there, move onto the next shiny change and hope it will stick, it won’t.

Ultimately you’ll need to decide if your company can embrace and make the transition, because food safety is hard and it’s only harder if your efforts aren’t recognized as beneficial to the business (did I mention data?). Make sure you can do the job ethically and legally and see what change you can effect, but know your personal lines and be ready to walk away from a bad situation.

Some of my favorite resources for reaching personnel on food safety: is a great resources for personal stories of the impact of foodborne illness on individuals. Their “Why of food safety” video is a great refresher to regain momentum.

Behavioral Based Food Safety is a great IFSQN webinar talking about why people choose not to do the right thing, and how to create targeted strategies to get them on board.

ADKAR model for change mentioned above.

Here’s an ROI template I made you can use to make cost driven changes to QA practices.

The above were some thoughts I had while helping out another member at the International Food Safety and Quality Network who was struggling with a new company that was missing “management commitment” to a culture of food safety. Let me know what you think, or if you’ve ever run into a fellow employee, restaurant owner, or anyone who didn’t appreciate food safety and how you worked with that person.