Each year, the Government of Canada estimates that one in eight Canadians get sick from a foodborne illness, for a total of 4 million Canadians. Anyone who has ever been through a bout of food poisoning will most likely never forget how terrible and traumatic it was.

Public health officials from local to federal levels often warn about how young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and immunocompromised individuals are more susceptible to contracting a foodborne illness. But, what about older teenagers and college students? What about these future mothers, fathers and consumers who have a hand — literally — in food preparation and cleaning food surfaces in the spaces they share in home kitchens or public spaces?

new study by the University of Waterloo shows that the majority of teenagers are in need of food safety education.

Taking a look at this study, a low level of awareness among youth was highlighted around the necessary, proper precautions when it comes to handling food.

The study measured 32 different food-handling behaviors among Ontario high school students in grades 10 to 12. It found that less than 50 percent of the recommended practices were followed by students. This included basic hand hygiene and simple steps to prevent cross-contamination.

The leader of the research team, Ken Diplock, said high school students represent the next generation of food handlers, but they are not well studied; “They are just starting to prepare food on their own and for others, and they’re also beginning to work in the food industry.”

Diplock believes it’s important to “get to” students before they develop bad habits.

For the study, researchers observed students in high school food and nutrition classes three times; once before the students took an Ontario standard food-handling training program, then two weeks and three months later. The program significantly helped them improve their skills, but many students continued to engage in behaviors that greatly increase the risk for foodborne diseases.

The most significant improvement found after the training course occurred with thermometer use. Using a thermometer is the only way to determine if food, especially meat and poultry, has been cooked thoroughly enough to kill pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella. Student use thermometers increased from 5 percent at the first observation to 36 percent and 33 percent after two weeks and three months, respectively.

“Even though training programs have important benefits, there are obviously still gaps between knowledge and how food handlers behave,” Diplock said in the research report. He said food safety education improves knowledge and behavior, but unless the values are reinforced in other areas, “such as home life and society,” the behaviors will not always stick.

The study showed that behaviors remained consistent between the second and third observations; which is believed to be caused by students regularly handling food in the presence of teachers, who reinforced what they had learned.

Co-author and Public Health Professor Shannon Majowicz, said “we put a lot of emphasis on general food safety education as a way to protect people from getting sick; it could also make a difference if we educate students about safe food handling in high school before they are young adults living and cooking on their own and for others.”

In June, the study was officially published in the Journal of Food Protection with Waterloo with credit to Joel Dubin, Scott Leatherdale, David Hammond and Shannon Majowicz, and Andria Jones-Bitton at the University of Guelph. Diplock is now coordinator of the Bachelor of Environmental Public Health program at Conestoga College.

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