Most consumers wash hands incorrectly, USDA study finds

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Researchers found that study participants failed to wash their hands correctly 97 percent of the time

A study conducted recently by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that consumers don’t wash their hands correctly 97 percent of the time.

The most common mistakes made by participants in the study were not washing hands long enough (20 seconds is recommended), not using soap, and not drying hands afterwards with a clean towel.

For the study, the USDA team had 383 participants handle turkey meat laden with a harmless virus that is often used to substitute for norovirus in lab tests. A mere 3 percent of participants followed all the necessary steps to wash their hands the right way.

When the researchers tested the surfaces in the test kitchens, they found the virus everywhere. Five percent of the time, salad lettuce had become contaminated; 48 percent of the time, participants contaminated spice containers that they had used while preparing burgers.

Spreads dangerous bacteria

“The basic safety practice you can employ in your kitchen, which is washing your hands, is not something our participants did,” said Carmen Rottenberg, a top food safety official at the USDA.

“There were many, many times in the course of the study that people had the opportunity to wash their hands — nearly 1,200 opportunities,” Rottenberg told NBC News.

Insufficient hand washing, especially after handling raw meat, can lead to the spread of germs that can cause foodborne illnesses. Approximately 48 million Americans get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"You can’t see, smell or feel bacteria," Rottenberg said. "By simply washing your hands properly, you can protect your family and prevent that bacteria from contaminating your food and key areas in your kitchen."

The USDA recommends washing hands thoroughly with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds, especially after handling raw meat, poultry, or eggs. It’s also important to dry hands afterward with a clean towel, the agency says.

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