If you ask consumers what food safety means to them, many people stare at you like deer in the headlights. “Hmmm? I’ve heard of healthy foods, but I never really thought about safe foods, but oh, yeah … I know, the ‘five second rule.’ “
Unfortunately, for many people the topic of food safety often boils down to the false security of the “five second rule” (which actually should be the zero-second rule, because bacteria can immediately cling to dropped food), or maybe some awareness of expired milk or moldy cheese.
Despite all the good efforts of the restaurant industry to train employees on safe food practices, and Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) programs being adopted by growers across the country, many consumers are oblivious of food safety issues. That is, until an outbreak or food recall happens, and then there is all manner of outrage at the food industry and government and their “neglect” in offering us a dangerous food supply. To my astonishment, consumers themselves are largely unaware of how to handle foods safely.
This was the driving force for my books, Green Apple Tales. As my sons were going out on their own and starting families, I just wanted to make sure that my grandchildren had the information they needed to stay safe, because that’s what all parents want. And with my expertise in the field, I wrote a series of storybooks with messages about safe and healthy eating. I knew that there had to be some way to reach this lost generation of sons and daughters who never learned how to roast a chicken and mash potatoes, but rely on take-out foods and risk committing food safety faux pas in the process.
I was recently distributing food safety information at a county fair with the Massachusetts Partnership for Food Safety Education. One elderly woman, a wise old Yankee, walked by the booth and snickered at our display and colorful materials, mumbling “the government has ruined all our foods.”
I said, “Pardon me? Would you like some information on produce or the recent cantaloupe recalls?” But she kept on walking. I found myself wanting to explain the food safety culture a bit more. I wanted to describe the lengths to which government agencies go to try to educate the public (don’t you want any of our beautiful food safety flyers?) inspect facilities, and now with the Food Safety Modernization Act, will be required to check processors and imports to a greater degree.
I wanted to remind her of the great efforts the restaurant industry takes to control risks, train their staff and try to protect their customers.
Granted, some things are out of the public’s control, e.g., contaminated produce, or unsafe manufacturing practices. When a food recall happens, no wonder consumers throw up their hands and ask why the government (or the food industry) isn’t “protecting us.” But I believe that the time has come for the public to become more aware of the areas where they can take control and keep certain foods safer at home.
In the recent Salmonella outbreak from ground turkey, one might say that there should have been no bacteria in the product to begin with, but the fact is that preventing cross contamination of raw poultry juices onto kitchen surfaces could have helped. Yes, maybe microwave ovens should be able to more accurately cook a chicken pot pie, but a food thermometer can help verify the safe internal temperature of the pie at the end. No, E. coli is not a pathogen we like to see in our burgers, but cooking them well and watching out for the raw meat juices dripping onto the buns is a preventive measure that is another safety net.
This is not one of those articles that tells consumers to just “cook the darn hamburgers.” But until the day that we have a 100 percent pathogen-free food supply, educating consumers on ways that they can keep their foods safe where they are able just makes sense.
A national survey conducted by Eastern Food Safety showed the public lacks basic food safety knowledge. When nearly 400 parents were asked which was the most potentially hazardous food in a list of foods, only 20 percent correctly identified the riskiest food as cooked rice, and the majority (45 percent) selected tomato juice as riskiest (the other choices being flour and powdered milk).
In another question, 68 percent identified mayonnaise as being a higher risk than chicken. And they were clearly confused on the limits that a turkey sandwich could sit out at room temperature and still be safe to eat, with 28 percent answering that the limit was 2 hours, 25 percent responding 30 minutes, and 32 percent responding 1 hour.
Two parent working families are a reality, with busy schedules and take out foods. There is a whole generation that has lost the important skills of cooking and missed the information we learned from our own mothers as we cooked and ate together as families. With this are the casualties of obesity, diabetes and lack of knowledge about handling foods safely, not to mention the loss of family mealtimes.
When speaking to consumers across the country, I’m asked lots of questions about the foods they are feeding to their families. Should they wash their eggs, how long can food sit out and how long do foods last in the refrigerator… and what do you mean, cooked rice can be dangerous? They want to do the right thing, but the information is not getting out to them somehow.
Green Apple Tales are a series of storybooks with messages about safe and healthy eating. They were written for the purpose of educating children (and their parents) early on, so they can play it safe, eat well and be healthy at home. Each of the 10 books in the series contains a different message about handling foods safely, health and hygiene, using colorful characters. They demonstrate principles of temperature abuse, cross contamination and taking food temperatures. Speedo Tito rushes to refrigerate and cool foods safely while making his special “Soup de goop.” Tony the Pony washes jumping bacteria from his cutting board and knife after cutting raw meats for chili, and Delilah the Duck teaches children and adults about handwashing in a most enjoyable way.
The food safety principles are discussed in simple but scientific terms. The books include healthy recipes from the story, so that child and adult can cook together and practice what they learned, and there is also a more serious explanation of the food safety principle at the end of each storybook. After all, readers come away with a food safety knowledge base that is worthy of a restaurant food worker. These books have even been used to educate food workers with a range of learning abilities.
We in the food safety arena shouldn’t have to coddle the public or insult their intelligence by requiring them to cook poultry to an extreme 180 instead of the safe industry standard of 165. We need to give them the information necessary to handle foods safely at home, to protect themselves where they can. I think they can handle it, and my experience is that people are more motivated when given the scientific reasons behind certain practices.
Until the day comes when food is perfectly safe ( if that is ever a possibility) I’ll continue to smile when children sing their “ABC’s” while they wash their hands with Delilah, identify the names of pathogens like “SAL-MO-NELL-A,” and refrigerate their picnic foods like Pansy the Pig.
It warmed my heart when a 5-year old boy looked me in the eye and said he couldn’t eat his apple until he washed it
because it might have “SHI
-GE-LLA.” It’s working. My dream is that someday children will be dressing up like the lovable characters in the Green Apples Gang for Halloween. Imagine that.
For more information on Green Apple Tales, and ways to partner on consumer education,
visit www.greenappletales.com or contact Cindy Rice, Eastern Food Safety firstname.lastname@example.org