Over the last decade food safety has become a hot button issue in Washington, resulting in the recently-passed Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), giving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more power to regulate food production.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that food-related disease and illness make millions of people sick each year and kill thousands. CDC spends a lot of resources tracking single cases of foodborne illness and investigating outbreaks.
While many outbreaks have been traced to stops along the food production chain, the biggest food safety threat to the average U.S. consumer may be lurking in their own kitchen. Researchers at Kansas State University have documented it.
They videotaped people in a kitchen, preparing a meal containing raw meat and a ready-to-eat fruit salad. The raw meat contained a nonpathogenic organism so researchers could trace contamination in the kitchen.
The result? Researchers found that 90% of the participants had prepared the meal in such a way that the tracer organism in the meat found its way to the salad.
"Almost all of the fruit salads we analyzed contained levels of the tracer organism, which we were representing as being salmonella," said Randy Phebus, professor of food safety at Kansas State University and one of the authors of the study.
The purpose of the study was to test which of the government's food safety messages and campaigns directed at consumers were most effective. It turned out that almost none of them were very effective.
In the past, researchers have relied on consumer surveys to rate food safety. They asked groups of consumers about their methods of food preparation and caution exercised in the kitchen.
What the consumers said and what they did turned out to be very different, making the previous studies, in Phebus' words, unreliable.
Pictures don't lie
"When you actually videotape it and observe it, most consumers are doing a really bad job in terms of preventing food contamination," he said.
In fact, the study found that all the consumers made mistakes in the kitchen that could lead to potential foodborne illnesses. The kitchen was wiped down after each participant prepared a meal, making it pristine for each new cook.
Afterward, the team looked for contamination. It found it on handles of pots and pans, on countertops and faucets. It was especially prevalent on hand towels, suggesting the participants were at least trying to be careful. They just fell short.
"We found that most people tried to wash their hands, but did it very ineffectively — either only using water or not washing for long enough," Phebus said. "By not washing their hands correctly, they spread contamination to the hand towels.”
The hand towels get used over and over, and each time they recontaminate things in the kitchen.
“It ultimately leads to contamination in the food product," Phebus said.
The U.S. government's food safety experts say one way to reduce kitchen contamination is to use paper towels for drying hands, not the dish towel. It offers other safety tips in the short video below.