Diners beware: some restaurant workers may not have a full grasp of what it takes to keep food safe from contamination.

That’s according to a recent study from the University of Illinois at Chicago, which posed a series of food safety questions to area food handlers and found that the average respondent was able to answer only 72 percent of them correctly – a rate that would earn them a C- on most school grading scales.

Researchers surveyed 372 food service workers in order to test their familiarity with meat and poultry handling protocol. Of those surveyed, only half received a score of 70 percent or above.

Employees who were certified in safe food handling – usually a manager or supervisor – scored slightly higher than other participants, averaging 77 percent; however, 35 percent of this group still scored under 70 percent.

And while these scores might mean a passing grade in school, in the restaurant industry they raise red flags, says Mark Dworkin, associate professor of epidemiology at UIC and lead researcher of the study.

“I really don’t know of any of these kinds of questions that it’s OK that they don’t know,” said Dworkin in a phone interview. “They’re handling this food for the whole public, including Grandma and young children and pregnant women.”

The question most commonly answered incorrectly by meat and poultry handlers was a true or false statement: “Beef may be placed in the microwave to defrost.” The statement is true; however 65.3 percent of respondents answered “false.”

And 56 percent of respondents answered “true” to the statement “Raw meat can be stored anywhere in a refrigerator as long as it is wrapped in plastic,” a false statement because meat must be stored on the bottom shelf so that it doesn’t drip onto other foods.

Dworkin says that requiring food workers to have a full understanding of food safety protocol is not too much to ask.

“I don’t think that it’s unfair to be expecting them to know this information, which is not difficult information to learn,” he says. “You don’t need to know complicated mathematics to know this stuff.”

An especially surprising finding, Dworkin notes, was the significant knowledge gaps displayed by managers, who are not only required by Illinois law to carry a food handler certification, but are also responsible for training employees in proper handling techniques.

A less-surprising result was that employees of national chain restaurants achieved slightly better results than those working at local establishments.

“[Chains] have more protocols in place and they also have in-house training to keep them out of trouble,” says Dworkin. “They recognize the economic need to invest a little bit in that.”

Food Safety Knowledge: A National Issue

For those wiping their brow thinking the study does not apply to restaurants outside Chicagoland, Dworkin has some not-so-comforting news: these types of findings are most likely not region-specific.

“It’s probably similar in much of the rest of the country,” he says, “based on the little amount of published data there is out there on restaurant food handler knowledge.”

Moving Forward: Filling in the Information Gaps

In addition to pinpointing the problem, Dworkin and his team have also come up with a solution — a set of educational materials designed to address the food safety problem areas revealed by their study.

Phase 2 of the study will include introducing those materials to restaurant inspectors, whom Dworkin says are the best people to deliver safe food-handling information to workers.

“Many sanitarians have told me that the most important thing they do during an inspection is the education of food handlers,” says Dworkin, “but they don’t have a lot of time for it. That’s what they think is most useful.”

And education doesn’t just mean knowing the ABCs of food handling, says Dworkin. Workers must understand why it is so important to keep food free of harmful pathogens.

In the study, when asked whether “eating ground meat that is not completely cooked can cause bloody diarrhea,” a full 36.8 percent of participants said no.

Simply knowing proper handling protocol, “is enough for robots,” says Dworkin. “But for human beings, knowledge influences behavior, and so do emotions, and when you recognize that a particular practice can cause bloody diarrhea, it’s an alarming fact. It makes you more likely to take something seriously…when you realize that the consequences are not minor.”

While they wait to distribute their educational materials to health inspectors, researchers have already provided these resources – including a comic strip – to Chicago-area food handlers, who have shown a slight improvement in familiarity with food safety protocol.

Consumers can also take measures to protect themselves by being aware of what to look for while dining out. Dworkin says consumers can ask themselves the following questions:

-Do you see staff washing their hands?

-Do you see thermometers placed where cold food is stored, i.e. in the fish case at a sushi restaurant?

-Do you see people wiping their face with their hands and then not immediately going to wash their hands?

-Are workers handling money and then food directly afterward?

-Are workers scooping ice with their hands on the glass instead of using ice tongs?

The UIC team revealed the results of its study – funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – at the 2010 and 2011 International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) annual meetings. Researchers plan to begin studying the effects of health-inspector-provided education in the near future.