Newly published research concludes that education significantly increased safe food handling among high schoolers, but also showed the students continued risky practices that can result in foodborne illnesses.

The study, from researchers at the University of Waterloo, Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, and the University of Guelph in Canada was published online May 10 in the Journal of Food Protection.

Researchers said youth are a key audience for food safety education. They often engage in risky food handling behaviors, prepare food for others, and have limited experience and knowledge of safe food handling practices.

The scientists observed the food safety handling behaviors of high school students who were enrolled in food and nutrition classes.

“Our goal was to investigate the effectiveness of an existing food handler training program for improving safe food handling behaviors among high school students in Ontario, Canada,” according to the research abstract.

“However, because no schools agreed to provide control groups, the study evaluated whether behaviors changed following delivery of the intervention program, and whether changes were sustained over the school term.”

The study measured 32 food safety behaviors, before the intervention and at two-week and three-month follow-up evaluations. Researchers observed 108 students, in person, who were enrolled in grade 10 and 12 food and nutrition classes and who individually prepared recipes.

Observers watch for “within-student” changes in behaviors across the three time points, using “mixed effects” regression models. These modeled trends in the total food handling score of a possible 32 behaviors and subscores for 17 “clean” behaviors, 14 “separate” behaviors, and one “cook” behavior, adjusting for student characteristics.

The results
At baseline, the students averaged 49.1 percent correct food handling behaviors. Only 5.5 percent of the 108 students used a food thermometer to check the “doneness” of their chicken under the “cook” behavior.

All four behavior score types increased significantly after two weeks postintervention and remained unchanged 3 months later.

Student characteristics, such as having taken a prior food handling course, were not significant predictors of the total number of correctly performed food handling behaviors or of the “clean” or “separate” behaviors. Additionally, frequency of cooking and self-described cooking ability were the only characteristics significantly associated with food thermometer use  (“cook”).

Despite the significant increase in correct behaviors, students continued to use risky practices postintervention, leading researchers to believe that the risk of foodborne disease remained.

The authors were Kenneth J. Diplock, Joel A. Dubin, Scott T. Leatherdale, David Hammond, Andria Jones-Bitton, and Shannon E. Majowicz with The School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo, The Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science at the University of Waterloo, The School of Health and Life Sciences and Community Services at the Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, and The Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph, at the time of the study.

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