Shoppers may want to be more mindful of what they touch after handling packages of raw poultry at the grocery store, according to a new study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on consumer safety behavior when shopping for poultry.
Researchers in the study found that few people used either the plastic bags intended to carry raw meat products nor the sanitizing solution intended to mitigate the spread of harmful bacteria when provided by stores.
As a result, customers were repeatedly shown to spread poultry juices — potentially contaminated with pathogens such as Salmonella and Campylobacter — to numerous other objects, including their shopping cart, other food items, and even their children. After customers handled raw chicken or turkey packaged in sealed plastic, researchers were still able to find traces of poultry protein from juices using swab tests, suggesting that any pathogens on the meat would likely hitch a ride in the juices.
Kansas State University professor Dr. Edgar Chambers presented these findings last week at the International Association of Food Protection (IAFP) conference in Indianapolis. The study involved shadowing 96 grocery shoppers in three U.S. cities to monitor how they handled raw poultry both in the market and back at home.
As Chambers explained, the shoppers only knew they were part of a shopping study and weren’t told that the researchers were specifically interested in how they handled poultry. The study took place in grocery chains of various sizes, from large national chains down to local family-owned stores.
The researchers found that, while 85 percent of stores supplied meat bags to customers, fewer than 20 percent of customers used them.
After customers handled poultry, researchers watched to see what else they would touch next, counting the first three objects or places they touched.
Within the first three touches after handling poultry, the study found that consumers had contact with the following:
- Cart (85 percent)
- Dry goods (49 percent)
- Other meat or poultry (33 percent)
- Refrigerated goods (31 percent)
- Personal item (grocery list, purse, etc.) or a child (31 percent)
- Frozen goods (16 percent)
- Fresh produce (9 percent)
At the checkout counter, baggers or cashiers placed 82 percent of raw poultry products in separate bags, a percentage much higher than Chambers admitted to expecting.
“I was surprised,” he told the audience. “I was actually thrilled by that.”
Researchers also followed shoppers home to see how they treated poultry packages in their kitchens. Once taking the poultry out of the bag, 55 percent of shoppers stuck it directly into the refrigerator or freezer, while others first placed it on another surface:
- Counter (33 percent)
- Kitchen table (4 percent)
- Sink (4 percent)
When storing the poultry, most consumers placed packages directly into the fridge or freezer without keeping them in a bag, as recommended by food safety experts. Here’s how storage practices turned out:
- Placed directly in fridge without bag (35 percent)
- Placed directly in freezer without bag (24 percent)
- Placed in bag in fridge (19 percent)
- Place in bag in freezer (14 percent)
Finally, throughout the study, researchers would swab anything that came into contact with the poultry packages to see if chicken or turkey proteins transferred from the packages. That included hands, any food items that touched the package in the shopping cart, any surface the package touched at home, the inside of reusable shopping bags, and the outside of the package itself.
“What we learned is that transfer does occur,” Chambers said.
While the researchers did not swab for bacteria such as Salmonella or Campylobacter, Chambers said that the presence of proteins suggests that any harmful bacteria on the package could also make its way to the outside.
Last year, Consumer Reports released a study that found 43 percent of retail raw chicken products contained Campylobacter, while 11 percent contained Salmonella.
As a takeaway, Chambers listed a number of recommendations for both grocery stores and consumers to help minimize the chance of anyone getting sick simply from handling packages of raw poultry:
- Stores should provide bags and hand sanitizer in the meat department.
- Customers should be educated on using bags and hand sanitizer when handling packages in the meat department.
- At home, customers should put meat packages in bags when placing them in the fridge or freezer.