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Most people don’t wash their hands properly when preparing food, report warns

Photo by Alyson McPhee on Unsplash
At least 128,000 people are hospitalized — and 3,000 die — from foodborne illnesses in the U.S. annually.

Most of us do not handle food properly while preparing meals in our kitchens, especially when it comes to washing our hands, according to a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

As a result, we’re putting ourselves and our families and guests at risk of contracting potentially serious food-borne illness, such as salmonellanorovirus and E. coli, the report warns.

Each year, those illnesses sicken at least 48 million people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Mild cases have symptoms — fever, chills, abdominal pain, diarrhea — that mimic those associated with the flu, so most people fail to connect their illness with how they (or other people) have prepared their food. Instead, they mistakenly attribute their symptoms to a “stomach flu.”

Only when there’s a widespread outbreak — and deaths are reported in the media — do foodborne illnesses tend to get acknowledged by the public. At least 128,000 people are hospitalized — and 3,000 die — from foodborne illnesses in the U.S. annually. Young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are at greatest risk. 

The most common errors

The new FSIS report is based on a study it recently completed in partnership with RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, and North Carolina State University. For the study, researchers invited 383 people into six test kitchens located in both urban and rural areas of North Carolina. The participants were asked to prepare and cook turkey burgers and a chef’s salad. Unknown to the participants, the turkey had been “spiked” with harmless tracer microorganisms. Those microorganisms thus served as a stand-in for bacteria during the study.

Before they started preparing the foods, 182 of the participants were shown a three-minute USDA video on the importance of using a thermometer to cook raw poultry safely. As the video points out, the only way to verify that poultry is safe to eat is by measuring its internal temperature with a food thermometer. 

Each of the participants was videotaped in the test kitchen. An analysis of those tapes — plus a microscopic examination of where the tracer microorganisms spread during the preparation of the meals — revealed several major food-safety concerns: 

  • The participants failed to wash their hands properly 97 percent of the time. Their most common error was not rubbing their hands with soap for at least 20 seconds, followed by not washing their hands at all.
  • Because they failed to properly wash their hands, 48 percent of the participants ended up contaminating (with the tracer microorganisms) the salt and pepper containers that were used to prepare the turkey burgers, while 11 percent contaminated the refrigerator handle and the faucet handle. In addition, 6 percent of the participants contaminated their mobile device. As the FSIS officials point out, the tracer microorganisms could have been two disease-causing bacteria found in poultry products: campylobacter and salmonella. Campylobactercan survive on surfaces for up to four hours, and salmonella can survive even longer — up to 32 hours.
  • Five percent of the participants transferred the tracer microorganisms to the lettuce in the salads they prepared.
  • Two thirds of the participants — 66 percent — did not use a food thermometer while preparing their turkey burgers. Instead, they relied on the burger’s color and “feel” to judge whether it was safe to eat — methods that have been shown to be unreliable. 
  • People who had watched the video were twice as likely to use the food thermometer as those who didn’t. But 45 percent of the participants who did use a thermometer did not cook the turkey burger to the minimum safe internal temperature of 165 degrees Farhenheit. Campylobacter and salmonella can survive in poultry that is not cooked to that temperature.

How to wash your hands

So, how should you wash your hands to reduce the risk of contaminating the meals you serve in your kitchen with bacteria? Here are the CDC’s recommendations:

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

That clean towel is important. At the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology last month, researchers reported that kitchen towels are common conveyers of bacteria, including potentially dangerous ones such as staphylococcus (also known as “staph”) and E. coli.

FMI: You can read the FSIS report online. For more information about when and how to wash your hands, go to the CDC’s website. For information how to cook poultry and other foods to the right temperature (and how to use a food thermometer), see the Department of Health and Human Services’ website. 

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 07/03/2018 - 11:28 am.

    Might seem silly …

    but this is a very informative and helpful article.


    B Gleason
    retired U of M faculty

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/04/2018 - 12:21 pm.


    Our local health departments have a much easier system for teaching hand washing to restaurant workers. They use a dye that workers put on their hands and check it with a black light after washing. If you wash properly for at least 20 seconds no dye will light up. That would seem to be a lot easier than using microscopes and microorganisms. But yes, improper hand washing is a pernicious problem.

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