Richard North, 13/07/2021  

I sometimes think that modern newspapers are a bit like the Orwellian version of The Times, after Winston Smith and his co-workers have sanitised the copies by removing any historical reference that might offend, or conflict with the current narratives.

It maybe, though, that this doesn't adequately define the nature of what we see, where an issue is raised, without context and without any reference to the past, in such a manner that the thinking appears to be of recent origin, invented or discovered by its authors.

What brings this thought to mind is a piece in the Guardian which introduces us to the concept of "Hygiene theatre" and declares knowingly that "excessive cleaning gives us a false sense of security".

The piece is written in the context of Covid-19, which has Sirin Kale - a London-based journalist specialising in women's rights, politics, music, lifestyle and culture – telling us that the disease "is a mainly airborne", whence she poses the rhetorical question: "does our endless disinfecting and hand sanitising serve any purpose – or could it be worse than useless?"

I suppose here I could resort to my usual response when issues are raised, some time after they have been discussed on this blog, with the comment "they get there eventually". In respect of hand-washing, I could thus point out that I was writing in precise terms about hand washing giving a "false sense of security" in March 2020, while I wrote several pieces about that time suggesting that the disease was airborne.

The emphasis on hand-washing, of course, came from the application of the wrong control model, based on influenza - where transmission via fomites is a significant factor - rather than a SARS-like disease. Thus, the dreary government mantra of "hands, face, space" was and is utterly wrong in its primary emphasis.

But while the Guardian article is focussed entirely on Covid-19 – entertaining issues of relatively recent provenance - the theme raised brought to mind a controversy of much more distant origin – going back to the early 1970s - over the role of cleanliness (and appearance of cleanliness) in the promotion of food safety.

It was then that a group of avant-garde health inspectors (based mainly, but not entirely in London) started challenging the traditional food safety regulation, which was almost entirely focused on the physical structure of premises and their cleanliness. This, we dismissively called the "walls, floors and ceilings" approach to food hygiene.

As regards the pursuit of cleanliness – the subject of today's Guardian piece, I was writing in the early 1980s that, far from being the answer to food safety, it could actually be a contributory factor in food poisoning outbreaks.

About that time, I had been particularly interested in following up the role of slicing machines in the spread of disease, as such a machine had been implicated in prolonging the Aberdeen typhoid outbreak. To that effect, I prevailed on my local public health laboratory to allow me to do a series of swab samples on machines in commercial use, before and after cleaning.

Contrary to expectations, we found it was very difficult to recover any bacteria at all from heavily soiled machines, which had been in continuous use, while machines after cleaning were often heavily contaminated with a wide range of bacteria.

The explanation for this was fairly simple. The machines I had been sampling had been used for slicing cooked ham. This product, high in salt and nitrates, left fatty deposits on the machines, which in the warm atmospheres of working kitchens, quickly dried off.

The residues, therefore, were high in salt and other bactericidal chemicals, and low in water content. Then, as the fat residues oxidised, they became slightly acidic. The soiling had thus become an extremely hostile environment for bacteria. But, once it was washed off, with a cloth that had picked up environmental contamination, the process amounted to removing the biocidal film and implanting on the "clean" surfaces a fresh dose of bacteria.

As to the treatment of cleaning cloths, I once conducted an experiment in a large commercial kitchen, where I placed a number of cloths in strategic locations and spent the day watching what happened to them. One cloth which I had placed in a toilet cubical had, by the end of the day, gravitated to a workbench in the kitchen and was about to be used to clean a slicing machine before I intervened.

It was more than a decade later, however, before I came across a real-life example of the cleaning process as a major factor in the cause of a food poisoning outbreak. This occurred in an old-people's home, where the residents were given a baked Alaska which poisoned several dozen of them and killed an elderly man.

On investigation, it turned out that the chef had layered the meringue onto the filling with a piping bag. This, after its previous use, had been washed in a sink in which the trays used for defrosting raw chicken had also been washed, and then left damp in a drawer for some days. When I got the bag to the lab, the technician reported that it was "hooching" with salmonella.

What would never occur to the likes of the Guardian though, is the regulatory implications, where visual appearance and cleanliness dominated early EEC food safety law – which the newspaper so favoured that it actively campaigned for the application of "European" standards.

The impact, I refer to tangentially in yesterday's piece and the prohibition in Directive 71/118/EEC of New York (gut-in) Dressing – and the moronic insistence that vets or their assistants should peer down the arses of every freshly eviscerated turkey before they could be declared fit for sale.

What had not been appreciated was that, owing to post-mortem chemical changes in the gut of an intact, slaughtered chicken, the environment had an inhibitory effect on the growth of salmonella. Should some survive the delay between slaughter and evisceration, the mesenteric fat had hardened around the intestinal bolus, allowing it to be removed cleanly, with minimum contest spread.

This contrasted with immediate evisceration, where tearing was commonplace and spread of intestinal contamination to other birds almost inevitable. From some plants we were getting contamination rates as high as 60 percent.

In practice, therefore, the "hygiene" directive created in artisan turkey production, the very problem the legislation was intended to prevent, then imposing expensive cosmetic measures such as stainless steel cladding in the processing rooms, to allow easy cleaning after the salmonella-laden birds had been despatched to their innocent consumers.

Just as we were moving away from the "walls, floors and ceilings" dogma, therefore, we were being catapulted back into the dark ages by idiot vets, fortified by EEC legislation, who were obsessed with having nice, shiny slaughterhalls, where they could "supervise" the spread of salmonella to their heart's content.

As a corollary to this, when the fresh meat hygiene directive was finally implemented, in the form of Directive 91/497/EC, the vets were similarly obsessed with shutting off natural ventilation in slaughterhouses, and insisting on chilled rooms.

Combined with an almost paranoid obsession with cleanliness (I had a vet mark down a slaughterhouse for "blood on the floor" during slaughtering), with constant enforced, the humidity in these "EU approved" slaughterhouses soared to near 100 percent.

As any experienced food technologist will tell you, high humidity promotes airborne mould and fungal growth – massively shortening carcass shelf-life. Hence, to cope with the EU-mandated "improvements", meat has to be rapidly chilled, butchered and then stored in modified atmosphere vacuum packs - which is why it is so difficult to get good (traditionally hung) meat these days.

This, though, it what happens when amateur are allowed to make law, and we neglect basic science in favour of their rituals – or "hygiene theatre", as the Guardian puts it – creating, as we subsequently found out, perfect conditions for the spread of Covid-19.

Back in the 70s and early 80s, we found it offensive to have to discard hard-won knowledge and step back in time to adopt primitive, ritualistic EEC law, and more so since this was sold as improving our standards.

In the Guardian piece, we see cited security expert Bruce Schneier, who coined in 2003 the term "security theatre" to describe the safety measures implemented at airports after the 9/11 terror attacks, such as banning nail scissors and cigarette lighters.

In reality, he says, these measures were pointless: a complicated charade to reassure nervous passengers rather than anything grounded in reality. They also came at a huge cost to taxpayers – the US has spent more than $100 billion on aviation security since 9/11.

Schneier now agrees that Covid-19 has ushered in an era of hygiene theatre. "Like security theatre", he says, "hygiene theatre comes from bad risk analysis – really, from ignorance". What he doesn't appreciate is that the EEC, the EC and then the EU got there first. "Hygiene theatre" is – even to this day – embodied in much of community law, and we are still paying through the nose for it.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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