Clean, separate, cook and chill. Those four words are the main message of the government’s new ad campaign to raise consumer awareness of safe cooking techniques.
Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack and Department of Health and Human Services’ Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Tuesday announced the launch of “Food Safe Families,” a multimedia initiative that will use videos, print ads and a website to teach people about the risks of food poisoning and how they can reduce those risks by handling food properly at home.
The campaign is a collaborative effort between the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in cooperation with the Ad Council.
The rollout was scheduled for the end of June so that it would reach consumers right before the Fourth of July, the beginning of the season when most foodborne illness outbreaks occur — fueled by large summer gatherings centered around food.
“The launch of the Ad Council campaign comes at a time of heightened attention to food safety issues, when American families are looking for clear and concise information on how to better protect themselves,” explained Vilsack.
The program’s public service ad blitz attempts to put a lighthearted spin on the serious subject of foodborne illness by featuring comedic videos, each offering one of the four featured food safety lessons.
In one clip, a woman relaxing in a wood sauna is shocked to find a pig standing next to her. She pours water over the stove’s hot rocks to create steam, and the needle on the wall thermometer shows the temperature rising. The narrator then advises the viewer to cook meat to the proper temperature.
“Cook foods to the right temperature using a food thermometer,” says the narrator.
Critics claim that the videos are too offbeat, and don’t actually portray how to follow the suggested safety steps.
“These ads seem a little too wacky and divorced from the basic behaviors we wish to communicate,” said representatives from various consumer food groups in a March letter to the Ad Council.
“How many people will immediately make the association between a live chicken and their chicken McNuggets? Between a live pig (in a sauna!) and bacon?” said a consumer group insider in an e-mailed statement to Food Safety News.
However, FSIS says the joking nature of the ads will be an effective way to draw consumers into a food safety dialogue, and that they will know what precautions to take once they visit foodsafety.gov, the address that appears at the end of the commercial.
“These are funny ads, but this is serious business. Humor and over-the-top situations will get people talking and thinking about what they do in their homes. The opening for the ads will get people interested. Then we confront them with the reality of the problem and what they can do to make themselves and their families safer,” said FSIS press officer Neil Gaffney in an emailed statement to Food Safety News.
Indeed, each ad ends with a sobering statistic. For example: “3,000 Americans will die from food poisoning this year. Keep your family safer.”
Leaders of the campaign hope that clean, separate, cook and wash will become a commonplace mantra in American homes — akin to stop, drop and roll.
However, some experts say that instead of reiterating basic home-cooking safeguards, which have become standardized in food safety education, the ads should provide Americans with lesser known tips, such as what to look for when dining out.
“I think one thing that is missing from pretty much all consumer campaigns out there is that it focuses too much on the things you do at home and doesn’t focus enough on things like ‘You should ask questions if you’re a consumer,’ and ‘These are the types of things that you should look for when you’re trying to buy food,'” said Dr. Ben Chapman, assistant professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, in a phone interview with Food Safety News.
Chapman recommends that consumers ask farmers at farmers’ markets whether they know about and use good agricultural practices in growing their produce, or checking to see whether a restaurant has been cited for sanitation violations before eating there.
“Stuff like that is really what I see missing from consumer [messages] in general,” he says.
Restaurant safety, a topic this campaign doesn’t cover, is becoming increasingly important as studies have shown that more than 50 percent of American meals are now eaten outside the home.
Over half of norovirus outbreaks (the most common foodborne virus outbreaks in the U.S.) come from safety errors at commercial establishments, according to the University of Florida’s Extension Program.
“The restaurants are in a different position, because there’s a lot of work that needs to be done there and we still get a ton of restaurant-related outbreaks,” Roy Costa, a food safety trainer and expert and Food Safety News contributor said in an interview. “The restaurants are really a sore thumb in this whole thing.”
Consumer advocacy groups such as STOP Foodborne Illness and the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention have also expressed concern that the ads messages could give consumers the false impression that they alone are responsible for protecting their families from foodborne illness.
“We don’t want the consumer to come away with the idea that it’s all on them to fix the problems that occur upstream. And that’s kind of sending the wrong message to the industry,” says Costa.
However, says Gaffney, consumers must have a hand in protecting themselves, and have to be equipped to stop the spread of bacteria in their homes should contaminated produce slip through the food producers’ and sellers’ safety nets and into the kitchen.
“Contamination shouldn’t happen in food processing, but the reality is that things can get through, even for the safest companies trying hard and doing everything they can to avoid pathogens in their products. We know that consumer education can help reduce foodborne illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths. That is why this campaign is so important,” he says.