Mike Hornick, Staff Writer After seeing typical food handling practices caught on video by researchers at the University of California-Davis, you’d expect cross contamination of raw meat and fresh produce by home cooks to be routine.
What’s surprising is that foodborne illness doesn’t happen more often.
“A heck of a lot more people would get sick if our food supply wasn’t as good as it is,” said Christine Bruhn, director of the university’s Center for Consumer Research.
“That supply is handled with such care that consumers can make grievous errors without getting sick.”
Bruhn and colleague Ho Phang videotaped 199 consumers as they prepared hamburgers and salads, interviewing them afterward. Results were published in Food Protection Trends and the Journal of Food Protection.
So how grievous was their behavior?
Only 43% washed hands before food preparation, and less than half who washed used soap.
Only 32% washed after handling raw ground beef. Typical wash time was two seconds; 20 is recommended.
They did a bit better on lettuce — 47% hand-rubbed leaves under running water as food safety experts prescribe.
More were open to buying irradiated burgers (49%) than to using meat thermometers (24%) as a means to assure pathogen-free dining.
Good news for retailers like Wegmans that offer irradiated fresh ground beef.
Most judged readiness to eat by color, but were wrong about a quarter of the time.
Perhaps the biggest lessons are for food safety educators. The research suggests that merely spreading information won’t solve the problem.
Bruhn and Phang screened out healthcare professionals, among others, during group selection.
But about half who participated reported receiving food safety training in a classroom, restaurant or other setting.
It didn’t help.
“There was no statistical difference for hand washing and other practices between those who had food safety training and those who hadn’t,” Bruhn said.
“These people knew what to do and weren’t doing it.”
Consumer and foodservice researchers in Davis and elsewhere will use a fraction of a five-year, $25 million U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to figure out how to fill that motivation gap.
The grant primarily benefits the meat industry.
The motivational strategies to be tried out could range from enlisting celebrity chefs to creating shock value.
“What if you’re graphic about what happens to people who get sick?” Bruhn said.
“Will that motivate people or turn them off? Grossing people out seems to work for teens and 20s. I personally don’t think it works with an older audience, but we don’t have the answer.”
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