The not-so-clean kitchen

If you changed your food preparation habits after a recent salmonella-related recall of frozen turkey burgers, raise your hand.

Now raise your hand if you’re still following those good habits two weeks later.

Uh huh, I thought so.

Anytime there’s news of salmonella in the turkey or E. coli in the alfalfa sprouts, there’s a flurry of advice and tips on what the public can do to reduce the likelihood of food poisoning. And for awhile, many people are probably heeding the advice. But once the latest food scare has faded from the headlines, folks often revert to their old ways.

Although it’s often assumed that careless handling by food processors or restaurant workers is to blame for the majority of food poisoning cases in the U.S., what we do at home in the familiarity of our own kitchen matters too.

Sometimes the picture ain’t pretty. A few years ago, researchers at Utah State University brought surveillance cameras into the homes of 100 middle-class families to observe their kitchen habits firsthand. To ensure that people would behave as they would in their natural habitat, the cooks didn’t know it was a study about food safety. Instead, they were told they were participating in a study about a new recipe.

The researchers then sat down to watch and analyze the footage and document their findings.

To be blunt about it, people were slobs. For starters, they weren’t careful about washing their hands. Two of the cooks didn’t wash their hands at all during the entire time they were preparing the food. Of those who did take the time to scrub in, one-third didn’t bother to use soap. One person dripped raw chicken juice onto a salad. Someone else gave her baby a bottle with unwashed hands after handling raw chicken. Many of the cooks used the dishcloth to wipe up spills or clean off countertops – and then dried their freshly washed hands with the same soiled cloth.

There was more. Although a meat thermometer is the best and most accurate way to gauge whether meat has been adequately cooked, only 5 percent of the study participants actually used one. More alarmingly, 82 percent of those who prepared a chicken recipe didn’t cook the chicken thoroughly enough to kill possible microbes. Nearly half of those who made a meatloaf recipe didn’t cook the meat long enough.

I’m guessing many of the study participants were shocked at the results. Most people, I suspect, aren’t deliberately trying to be careless. They simply aren’t mindful, or perhaps don’t have as much information as they should about safe food preparation.

In some ways, this isn’t surprising. After all, there’s a lot to keep in mind: clean hands, clean countertops, avoiding cross-contamination, cooking food thoroughly, thawing and cooling for the appropriate amount of time – the list goes on and on.

One important recommendation from food safety experts: Keep raw meat, poultry and fish and their juices away from other food, and wash your hands, the countertop, your cutting board and knife with hot soapy water after handling meat and fish. Raw meat and fish that’s stored in the refrigerator should be carefully wrapped so juices don’t come into contact with other food items.

Another important tip: Temperature matters. Perishable food and cooked leftovers should be refrigerated within two hours (or one hour if the room temperature is hotter than 90 degrees). Hot foods should be served hot and cold foods should be kept cold.

Although much of the food safety emphasis is on meat, other foods such as eggs, fruits and vegetables can be unsafe as well, especially if they’re not carefully washed or aren’t cooked thoroughly.

You can read many more details online from the USDA and Foodsafety.gov, including the answer to one of the questions I’ve always wondered about: Which type of cutting board is safer, wood or plastic? (Both are OK, as long as they’re kept clean. Food safety experts recommend having a cutting board that’s used for meat and nothing else.)

It shouldn’t have to take a food recall to jolt us into being more careful. Safe food handling and preparation is something we should all be doing anyway, 365 days a year.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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