The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 76 million cases of foodborne illness occur each year in the United States. Many studies have found that a majority of these cases can be traced back to poor food handling practices in the home.  As a result, several agencies and researchers have sought to identify practices that most often lead to food sickness.

eating-chicken.jpgA study, published by researchers at Kansas State University in the November 2009 issue of the British Food Journal, found that despite consumers’ intentions, safe handling and cooking of frozen chicken is rarely observed. The study also determined that adolescents are much less likely than adults to engage in proper food safety practices while cooking, especially in regards to hand-washing and cross-contamination.

The purpose of the study, according to researchers at Kansas State, was to “observe the preparation practices of both adult and young consumers using frozen, uncooked, breaded chicken products.” The study also sought to observe behavior of adolescents as food preparers. “The use of breaded chicken and adolescents was deliberately chosen in the study,” said Ben Chapman, a Consumer Sciences Professor at North Carolina State University and one of the directing researchers in the study. “The products (breaded chicken strips) are marketed towards the youth and this was the group that had been linked to illnesses in the recorded outbreaks.”  

In order to address this, Chapman developed a novel video surveillance experiment that recorded and observed the cooking preparations of 41 consumers inside a model kitchen. Unlike Chapman’s method, past studies on consumer food safety have primarily observed consumer behavior through surveys and self-reports. The introduction of live video feed provided the researchers with rare, practical insight into the true cooking practices of consumers. In their analysis, the research team applied an observational checklist designed to identify risk factors in the participants’ behavior.  The checklist included: handwashing, avoiding cross-contamination, determining doneness of the chicken product, food thermometer use, and reading and applying product label instructions.

Following the cooking evaluation, each participant was given a 24-question self-report survey that was intended to evaluate each participant’s awareness of proper food preparation practices. The survey results and the video observations were then used to compare consumer intent with actual food handling behavior.

In the post-preparation surveys, 90 percent of adults reported washing hands before beginning food preparation and after handling raw poultry.  In actuality, only half of the adults properly washed their hands after handling raw poultry, and none of the adolescents did. “The non-existent hand-washing rate, combined with certain age-specific behaviors like hair flipping and scratching in a variety of areas, could lead directly to instances of cross-contamination,” said Casey Jacob, a researcher and co-author.   

In addition, despite the 73.2 percent of participants who reported owning a digital or dial read food thermometer, only 3 out of 41 participants were observed using it correctly. What’s more, less than half of participants reported even knowing the suggested end temperature for poultry to ensure doneness (the responses ranged from 140°F to 450°F with a mean of 214°F – the correct internal temperature of poultry is 165°F).

Finally, 90 percent of participants reported reading label instructions during product preparation, but only 7 percent of participants were observed adhering to all product label instructions. This was evidenced in the mistakes made by the participants. Those who used the microwave to cook the chicken often failed to use a safe cover and/or turn the entrée half way through cooking. Furthermore, two participants (both adolescents) used a microwave setting not found in the instructions called “poultry,” which was actually intended to thaw the chicken rather than thoroughly cook it. According to the study, “this method was inadequate to reach a microbiologically safe internal temperature.”

Similarly, of those participants choosing the conventional oven, many failed to allow adequate time for the appliance to preheat and/or did not allow proper cooking time when cooking multiple pieces of chicken.  

The study concluded that while data obtained from self-completed surveys appeared to show a positive picture of food safety knowledge, the observational results indicated the contrary. As the study noted, “participants consistently implemented unsafe food handling practices that may lead to an increased risk of foodborne illness when preparing frozen, uncooked, breaded chicken products.” The results were particularly compelling in regards to the small percentage of consumers (7 percent) who properly followed label instructions. “It appears that labels don’t work,” observed Ben Chapman, one of the leading researchers, “so we have to develop more compelling messages directed at the appropriate audiences using multiple mediums.”

“Food safety isn’t simple,” concluded Chapman. “These types of studies are not often done and can provide great risk assessment information, especially when compared to self-reported surveys, where folks can report things they didn’t do.” The study suggests that there are clear steps both consumers and manufacturers can take to limit the risk of foodborne illness and/or food contamination. “I’ve seen anywhere from 10-70% of illnesses coming from the home,” said Chapman. “That’s a big difference. Food safety is a farm-to-fork issue.”