Reading, writing, arithmetic and...hand washing? Personal hygiene might seem like an odd addition to the academic canon, but a new study found that a significant portion of home cooks may not have mastered the basics of kitchen cleanliness. This can have some pretty serious impact on the health of the people they feed.
As we’ve noted many, many times before, if it seems like foodborne illness is on the rise, that’s because it is. About 48 million people contract some form of food poisoning each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and salmonella is often the culprit. The bacterial infection causes an estimated 1.3 million illnesses each year in the United States.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service hopes to tackle that toll with the help of a “Salmonella Action Plan," only part of the effort is centered around creating best practices for food inspectors and farmers. The rest will be focused on teaching consumers about food safety.
For Dr. Christine Bruhn, a plan for public education can’t come quickly enough. As director of the Center for Consumer Research and a professor and researcher with the UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology, Bruhn has spent her career advocating for better public awareness of the risks consumers face from food, and the role they play in their own well-being.
Participants in the 120-person study were given $120 and asked to prepare their favorite chicken and salad recipes on camera in their own kitchens. They were not informed until afterward that they weren’t being assessed for the deliciousness of their dishes or sparkling presentation skills. Rather, they were being grilled on their sanitary practices, including hand washing before and throughout their cooking, the temperature of their refrigerator and the placement of the raw chicken within it, the temperature to which they cooked the chicken and the measures they took to prevent cross-contamination between the raw chicken and the salad ingredients.
Bruhn's takeaway: The public has a lot to learn.
Bruhn and her team studied the tapes, temperature readings and participants' food safety questions and found a few disturbing trends among the participants' methods, namely that 65% didn't wash their hands at the outset, 38% failed to wash their hands after handling raw chicken, 40% undercooked the chicken and only 5% voluntarily used a thermometer to check the meat's temperature, while most relied solely on appearance to assess the chicken's doneness.
At the same time, 85% of participants said they serve chicken dishes weekly, 48% indicated they had a food handler certificate or had previously worked in a restaurant and only 21% believed their family could become ill from chicken prepared in their home. While 36% of respondents believe they bear primary responsibility for their own food safety, another 36% believes that is the job of the food producers.
There's a deep disconnect between what people think they know about their role in the food safety chain, and what they're actually cooking up in their kitchens. Bruhn believes that a public education campaign is what's needed to bridge that gap.
"Half of the people said that they had food safety training, but they were busy doing other things. Some of them even washed their hands at the beginning, but then you get involved in something," explained Bruhn. "You get a phone call, and you've just been touching the chicken, so you pick up your phone and you didn't wash your hands yet. The cell phone was actually one of the sources of contamination pretty frequently."
It only spreads out from there, Bruhn explained. "You forgot the spices, so you open a cupboard door, reach for the spices, all of that without washing your hands! And the incredible thing is that if you have a moist hand, salmonella sticks here. Then it gets spread - to the spice container, to the cabinet handle, to the door of your refrigerator, everything you touch."
Her suggestion is to think of salmonella like honey. "You know how you touch honey and then you touch something else and there's honey residue left there? Consider your chicken as if it's covered in honey, and when you don't wash your hands, you're spreading it everywhere - you just can't see it."
To take food safety into your (sufficiently washed) hands, Bruhn recommends the following safety protocols:
- Wash your hands with soap for a minimum of 20 seconds, and dry them - ideally with a single-use paper towel - both before starting the cooking process, and throughout, especially after touching raw chicken.
- Store meat at the bottom of the refrigerator, in a refrigerator drawer or on a tray to prevent juices dripping onto other foods and potentially contaminating them. Set your refrigerator at 40°F to inhibit bacterial growth.
- Don't wash raw chicken, as that can lead to cross-contamination in the kitchen.
- Cook poultry to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F, beef, pork veal and lamb to 145°F and ground meat to 160°F measured with a calibrated thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat, without touching a bone.