A new peer-reviewed article by Jeannie Sneed, et al, entitled “Consumer Food Handling Practices Lead to Cross-Contamination” published recently in Food Protection Trends says that consumers engage in food handling practices that can contribute to foodborne illness.

The article indicated that about 9 percent of all reported foodborne illness outbreaks occur in private homes.  Because research strongly indicates that there is an interest in improving consumers’ food handling behaviors, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and the AdCouncil developed a campaign called “Food Safe Families” based on four key concepts — clean, separate, cook, and chill.

The article in Food Protection Trends reports the results of a study done to determine the impact of two of the “Food Safe Families” four key messages — the clean and separate messages.

One hundred-twenty-three parents, who were between 20 and 45 years of age and prepared four or more meals at home each week, and had at least one child less than 13 years old in the home were studied. Two experimental groups were educated about safe food handling; one through traditional food safety messages, the other through Ad Council public service announcements. A control group was not given any education.

They groups were then videotaped preparing a meal with raw chicken or ground beef inoculated with a tracer bacteria and a ready-to-eat fruit salad. The researchers found that, after preparation, about 90 percent of the salads were contaminated, and 24 percent were highly contaminated. Bacterial levels were lower for the food safety messages group.

The study found that hand washing behaviors and techniques were inadequate, resulting in cross contamination.  The largest source of cross-contamination during meal preparation was the small dishcloth and large cloth towels.   Oven handles, salt shakers, refrigerator, sink handles, and trash cabinet handles were also areas of contamination in the kitchen.   The article also pointed out that cell phones should be studied as a source of cross-contamination, especially since the phones were not washed or disinfected when used in the kitchen for looking at recipes.

The researchers conclude that educational methods have some impact on reducing cross-contamination in consumer kitchens, but the impact is inconsistent. The question is “how to best impact food handling behaviors to reduce cross-contamination?  The article pointed out that further research is needed to analysis what motivates consumers to change behavior to reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses and what messages have been or could be effective.