What you know about food safety and the way you handle and prepare food helps determine how safe you are — or how at risk you are — from coming down with a foodborne illness. With that in mind, the International Food Information Council Foundation has been tracking food-safety practices that different sectors of the U.S. population say they are following — or not following — since 2006. Bottom line: It’s all about the health of U.S. consumers. “Because only safe food can be nutritious food, this research is an important part of the applied research needed to ensure a wholesome food supply for the United States,” says the conclusion of an article about the foundation’s 5-year retrospective, Food and Health Survey, 2006-2010, which appears in the June issue of peer-reviewed Food Protection Trends. The comprehensive national study was designed to gain insights from Americans on important food-safety, nutrition, and health-related topics. The goal is to provide information that food-safety educators can use to help people stay safe from foodborne illnesses such as E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, contaminated food causes 48 million illnesses (1 in 6 people), 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths each year. In addition, the United States documents approximately 1,000 foodborne disease outbreaks each year. The outbreaks represent an amazing variety of foods. For example, in the period between 2006 and 2010, CDC documented 31 multi-state food outbreaks, among them high-profile outbreaks involving fresh spinach, tomatoes, peanut butter, frozen pot pies, cantaloupes, rice/wheat cereals, pistachios, alfalfa sprouts, beef, shredded lettuce, cheese and shell eggs. Surprises in store There are some surprises in store in this survey, which was conducted by market research firm Cogent Research. As a starter, although the participants showed increasing confidence overall in the safety of the U.S. food supply from 2008 through 2010, they also reported a decline in following key food-safety practices. Those practices include hand washing, washing cutting boards, separating raw meat and poultry from ready-to-eat food products, cooking to required temperatures, properly storing left overs and following microwave cooking instructions. Marianne Smith-Edge, an author of the article and senior vice president of Nutrition & Food Safety at the IFIC Foundation, told Food Safety News that there does seem to be somewhat of a  disconnect there. “Perhaps because of the rising confidence level, people might not be so mindful of following food-safety practices,” she said. That relationship between confidence in the U.S. food supply and a decline in reported food-safety practices corresponds with the Health Belief Model, a psychological model that attempts to explain and predict health behaviors. According to this model, individuals need an incentive to make changes in what they do. For example, they’ll likely take actions to improve their health when they believe they could avoid suffering from a negative health condition when they follow recommended actions. In other words, the audience needs to be awake and listening. Providing general food-safety education doesn’t provide nearly the incentive to follow recommended actions as a highly publicized foodborne illness outbreak or a personal experience with a foodborne illness. Smith-Edge also said that the group’s latest look at consumers and food safety in 2012 found that consumer confidence in the safety of the nation’s food supply appears to be increasing–up from the historical average of about 50 percent to more than 75 percent. “Interestingly, while past years’ surveys indicate a decline in food-safety practices, such as using a food thermometer or even washing one’s hands before preparing food, Americans perceive themselves as doing the best job when it comes to ensuring the safety of their food,” she said. Smith-Edge said this is consistent with information indicating that more than 60 percent of Americans agree that their chances of getting foodborne illness or food poisoning is extremely low. For Nancy Donley, president of STOP Foodborne Illness, this strong consumer confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply is part of the problem. “There’s nothing in life that’s 100 percent safe, and that includes food,” she told Food Safety News. “That’s why you need to pay attention and follow good food-safety practices.” Pointing to the new food safety act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 4, 2011, Donley said the law in itself most likely boosts consumer confidence in the U.S. food supply. “But what many people don’t know is that even with this new massive food safety law, nothing’s happening because there’s no funding for it,” she said, adding that proposed food-safety rules are trapped in a bureaucratic tangle. One of her frustrations is that people think getting a foodborne illness won’t happen to them or anyone they know. “Consumers just assume that the food they’re buying is safe,” she said. And even though there’s a lot more food-safety information out there for consumers since the tragic Jack in the Box E. coli poisonings, which in 1992-93 sickened hundreds and killed four children, Donley said there’s a key element missing in the information being provided to consumers. “People need to understand why they need to follow food-safety practices,” she said. “The food industry and government don’t want to alarm consumers by pointing out the possible consequences of not following them. But because of this, consumers are getting only half of the message.” Who’s responsible? Another “disconnect” in the foundation’s survey results is that 94 percent of the survey respondents said that the person preparing the food does the best job of ensuring that the food is safe to eat. “Americans are saying they trust themselves,” said Smith-Edge. “But we know that it’s not always the case that the people who prepare the food are always using best food-safety practices. The U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention says that the majority of foodborne illnesses occur at home. But home preparation and what happens in individual homes doesn’t get the headlines.” That follows along with an observation from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency: “If unsafe food gets into our grocery stores, it makes headlines. And rightly so. But unsafe food, which could lead to foodborne illness, can also happen from what we do — or don’t do — in our own kitchens.” But Donley, whose 6-year-old son Alex died of E. coli in 1993 aft er eating a hamburger served during a backyard cookout, rails against this attitude, saying that the food industry and the government can’t be left off the hook — that they need to be held accountable for practices and policies that ensure that the food consumers are buying and bringing home is safe. In another look at the responsibility for food safety, participants in the foundation’s surveys over the past 5 years had varying views on which “stakeholder” is responsible for making sure food is safe, with a greater percentage assigning responsibility to government and food manufacturers than to farmers, retailers, and consumers. Younger respondents were more likely than older respondents, and white respondents were more likely than respondents of other racial groups, to assign responsibility to retailers. More educated respondents and white respondents were more likely to assign responsibility to farmers, consumers and food manufacturers — in that order — than were less educated groups and other racial groups. No differences were seen in assignment of responsibility by gender or by region. Men and women — and others  When looking at survey responses to questions about individual food-safety practices, females often trended toward reporting having the best food-safety behaviors. Smith-Edge said that “it’s good news that women ‘get it,'” because they’re usually the primary shoppers and preparers of food. She also said that the survey reveals that men, more than women and other groups represented in the survey, often don’t pay attention to food safety — regardless of education. For example, men who have not attended college — or men who have attended graduate/professional school — were more likely to report following none of the recommended food safety practices. But because men often grill food and sometimes take charge of cooking large roasts, for example, Smith-Edge said it’s important to get the message across that “it’s not macho to ignore food safety guidelines.” The survey also found that white, more highly educated respondents, and respondents from households that included individuals who were particularly more vulnerable to foodborne illness — young children, people over 50, and those with immune-related diseases — were more likely to report following better food-safety practices. But that does not mean they had an exemplary track record. For example, respondents from households that included children aged six and under were less likely than respondents from other vulnerable households to report following recommended food safety practices. When looking specifically at this group, the survey suggests that educating parents and caregivers of young children about how susceptible young children are to foodborne illnesses and how severe the illnesses can be would likely boost their incentive to follow recommended food-safety practices. Oh, those thermometers… It seems that just about everyone knows that a thermometer can tell you if the food you’re cooking has reached the temperature that will make it safe to eat. Yet in the case of vulnerable households, fewer than 30 percent reported using a food thermometer to verify that the correct temperature has been reached. And only 27 percent of respondents overall reported using a food thermometer regularly to check doneness of meat and poultry cooked using conventional methods. “The use of food thermometers is not ‘run of the mill,'” said Smith-Edge. Microwaves can be tricky  A 2007 multistate outbreak of Salmonella associated with microwaving not-ready-to-eat frozen pot pies put the spotlight on the need for people to understand more about the proper use of microwaves when cooking foods that haven’t already been fully cooked. For example, not everyone knows the wattage of their microwave oven, and it’s the wattage that determines how long something needs to be cooked. And not everyone knows the different “standing times” microwaved foods need for enough heat to penetrate the food to reach proper temperatures throughout the microwaved products. And while 72 percent of respondents to the survey reported following all microwave cooking instructions on product labels, fewer respondents reported they were actually doing what was required to cook not-ready-to-eat foods safely in a microwave oven. The new USDA “Cook It Safe” campaign provides information on microwave cooking, including how to figure out the wattage of a microwave oven. Consumer concerns and labels  For the most part, respondents put foodborne illnesses from bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella at the top of their list of concerns. Chemicals in the food came in next, followed by imported foods and food allergens. Respondents’ top priority when choosing foods was checking the expiration dates, followed by checking the ingredients, organic labeling, country of origin labeling and allergen labeling. Younger, female, more highly educated, Hispanic or “other” racial groups, and respondents living in the West were more likely than other groups to look for organic labeling. Trust  When it comes to information about food safety, respondents said the most trusted sources were government agencies/officials, health professionals, health associations, and television news programs. They also said they were likely to be prompted to make changes to their food-safety practices based on the advice of physicians and mainstream media than on other sources. The least trusted sources of food-safety information were blogs or social networking sites. Now what?  Smith-Edge said that the survey points out that food-safety messages need to be consistent, targeted to specific groups, and action-based. “We have to be mindful that one message doesn’t fit all,” she said. She also believes that food safety is “a shared responsibility across all lines.” She described the survey as “a barometer” about people’s perceptions that food-safety educators and communicators can use to be effective.. “It really comes down to four basics: clean, separate, cook and chill,” she said. “That’s the first line of defense to prevent foodborne illnesses.”