There has been an increase in the number of young Australians who always wash their hands before handling food, according to a survey.

Two thirds of 18 to 34 year olds said they always washed their hands before handling food, which is up from 57 percent in 2022.

Findings were released by the Food Safety Information Council (FSIC) to mark Global Handwashing Day on Oct. 15. The survey was conducted nationally online in late August 2023 involving 1,238 people aged 18 years and older.

Young people were less likely than older age groups to always wash their hands after going to the toilet but age made little difference when washing hands before touching food.

Handwashing importance
Lydia Buchtmann, council communication director, said there had previously been a considerable gap in handwashing practices between younger and older age groups.

“Food Standards Australia New Zealand’s report on the Annual Cost of Foodborne Disease in Australia by the Australian National University stated there are an estimated 4.67 million cases of food poisoning each year that result in 47,900 hospitalizations, 38 deaths, costing the economy AUS $2.1 billion (U.S. $1.3 billion). Poor handwashing could be a major contributor to these figures,” said Buchtmann.

In another study, researchers used a simulation-based approach to foodborne disease in Australia, capturing the cost of premature mortality, direct costs of non-fatal illness, indirect costs of illness due to lost productivity, and costs associated with pain and suffering.

In 2019, the cost in Australian dollars of foodborne illness and its sequelae was 2.44 billion each year, with the highest pathogen-specific costs for Campylobacter, non-typhoidal Salmonella, non-Shiga toxin–producing E. coli, and norovirus. The highest cost per case was for Listeria monocytogenes, found the study published in the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease.

The Food Safety Information Council’s advice is to always wash and dry hands before handling, preparing and eating food; after touching raw meat, fish, seafood, shell eggs or poultry; after using the toilet, taking children or others to the toilet and changing diapers; after blowing your nose; after touching animals or cleaning cat litter trays, and after gardening.

FSIC research found that 17 percent of Australians said they don’t always wash their hands after going to the toilet, compared with 18 percent last year and 34 percent admit they don’t always wash hands before touching food, which is down from 47 percent last year.

The study continued to show gender differences. Men were less likely than women to always wash their hands after going to the toilet with 79 percent versus 86 percent of women and before touching food at 62 percent versus 70 percent of women.

Role of animals
Other research from FSIC showed 31 percent of cat owners feed their pets raw meat and 12 percent don’t always wash their hands after clearing out the litter tray.

Pets can carry bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi which can be transmitted to humans, especially young children. Two of the major issues are Salmonella and toxoplasma.

Advice includes avoiding cleaning out litter trays if pregnant and emptying them daily as the parasites in the cat’s feces don’t become infectious until 24 hours after being excreted.

Try to keep pets out of food preparation areas, especially kitchen worktops, and wash hands with soap and dry thoroughly before handling food and after touching your pet, their food or toys. Also, don’t let pets lick or take food from your plate.

The research on feeding cats raw meat and handwashing after cleaning out litter trays was funded by a donation from SA Health and conducted nationally online in August 2023, among a sample of 1,238 people aged 18 years and over. 

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