A project commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has revealed multiple examples of risky food safety practices in kitchens.

Having insights into these behaviors and the factors that influence them will inform policy decision-making, guidance, and risk assessment work, said FSA.

Kitchen Life 2 used cameras to see food safety behaviors in 70 households and 31 food business operator kitchens in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It also collected data using surveys, interviews, and refrigerator and freezer thermometers.

Findings were split into seven reports looking at areas such as not washing hands with soap after touching meat, reusing a chopping board after preparing meat, chilled food storage, reheating leftovers, and use-by dates.

Analysis showed that behavior is informed by many factors, both internal, such as beliefs, knowledge, skills, and motivation, as well as external, like social norms, physical space to prepare a meal and the time available.

Behavior was often a result of habits and routines. In households, knowledge gaps existed concerning using food past its use-by date, not reheating it properly, and storing foods at incorrect temperatures. Even participants who knew that food should not be consumed past the use-by date often did so. Ease was often prioritized over good food hygiene behaviors, mainly when the good practice was more time-consuming.

Meat and fish findings
In a sample of 70 households, 308 meal occasions they involved the preparation of raw and cooked meat, fish, or poultry. Eighty occasions involved someone not washing their hands for at least 45 seconds during the meal preparation, and 136 occasions where someone washed hands without soap. Around households, touching other kitchen items when preparing raw meat, fish, or poultry was common.

Tiredness and distraction were barriers to washing hands with soap, as well as beliefs about the limited consequences of not doing it. Handwashing usually lasted less than 20 seconds.

In businesses, washing hands with soap after touching raw meat, fish, or poultry was influenced by kitchen layout and access to a sink, with barriers including busyness and time. Other habits included wiping hands on a tea towel rather than handwashing.

In the section on chopping boards, there was often a long time gap between households preparing meat, fish, or poultry and the board being washed. Placing items such as utensils and plates on the board without it being cleaned was more common than reusing the same board for foods like salads. This poses a risk of cross-contamination.

The reuse of an unclean cutting board used to prepare meat, fish, or poultry and then chop other food groups was observed on 25 occasions in food companies and 25 times in houses.

Many businesses reported that chopping boards were washed at high temperatures in dishwashers, so staff did not need to wash them by hand. Color coding was familiar, with red for meat and poultry and blue for fish. There were gaps in knowledge around the need to clean and disinfect the boards before use.

Shelf life dates and fridge temperatures
Sixty-five households had a fridge/freezer thermometer installed during the study, and in 34 of them, the average fridge temperature measured was greater than the recommended maximum of 5 degrees C (41 degrees F). Eight had an average temperature above 8 degrees C (46.4 degrees F).

Twenty-nine food businesses had a fridge thermometer installed, and in eight of them, the average temperature was higher than the advised max of 5 degrees C (41 degrees F). At one site, the average temperature was above the legal maximum of 8 degrees C (46.4 degrees F).

When leaving a fridge door open, the average time in households was 48 seconds, with a maximum of 8 minutes and 26 seconds. For businesses, the average was 43 seconds, and a maximum of 4 minutes and 50 seconds. This was an unconscious and habitual behavior that participants were unaware of. When asked in interviews, people did not believe they left fridge doors open for over 30 seconds. 

In a survey, 53 of 70 household participants said they ate foods past the use-by date. Many people were confused about the difference between use-by and best-before dates.

The main influences on not checking and consuming foods past use-by dates concerned low levels of understanding and beliefs about how meaningful they are in practice. Sensorial cues, such as the look, smell, and taste, were commonly used to check whether foods were safe to consume. 

On some occasions in businesses, chefs relied on the look, smell, and taste of foods to determine whether they were safe to serve customers. There was also confusion between use-by, best-before, and display-until dates.

Reheating leftover foods was observed on 144 meal occasions in households. Factors affecting whether households reheated leftover food until steaming hot were different levels of understanding that leftovers contained bacteria and beliefs about the consequences of eating partially reheated foods.

Checking whether the middle was hot was the most claimed behavior and was seen as an effective method to judge when reheated food was ready to eat. Seeing if steam was coming from it was reported by less than half the households in the sample.

One area of confusion was the safety of eating cold items versus the need to reheat foods until steaming hot. Leftovers can be eaten cold if they have been cooked and cooled properly, but if reheated, they need to be steaming hot before being consumed and not just warmed up, according to FSA

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