It's likely that apart from the contamination of meat and poultry in connection with its production, the greatest source of foodborne illness comes from unsafe handling of raw food product in the home. Contamination of raw food in retail stores or along the distribution stream is comparatively rare.
So it's quite instructive to see the most recent results of a food-safety survey that has been conducted over a period of years by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. During many years from 1988 through 2001, the FDA conducted a random-digit telephone survey of consumers to determine their attitudes and practices of such food-safety fundamentals as frequent hand washing during food-preparation chores and thorough cooking of food. The survey sampled from more than 1,500 to nearly 4,500 consumers, depending on the year. The intent of the survey was to obtain information that is projectable to the entire population. (See the news brief on Page 28.)
The news from the survey is good, particularly when it comes to results from more recent years. In most cases, but not in all, in-home food-safety practices have improved. Let's take a closer look.
Generally, the survey shows that from 1988 to 1993, the practice of washing hands after touching raw meat or chicken actually declined, that is, practices became increasingly risky, but from 1993 to 1998, practices that could lead to cross contamination declined, that is, practices became increasingly safe, a trend that continued through last year. Also, when it comes to consuming risky foods, safe practices generally improved. Specifically, the propensity to consume steak tartar, pink hamburgers and raw eggs declined during the period of 1998 through last year, but, strangely enough, consumption of raw clams, oysters and fish increased. And, further to seafood, what might be called a "sushi paradox" presents itself: Practices concerning cross contamination are the safest when it comes to fish, with behaviors regarding meat, chicken and eggs next and in that order, even though fish, in particular, is the food that increasing numbers of consumers eat raw. A slim 6% of consumers ate raw fish in 1993 against 15% now. Generally, though, in-home food-safety practices increased significantly between 1993 and 1998 and most of those gains were retained through last year.
Incidentally, the importance of avoiding cross contamination is underscored by another news article in this week's SN. A produce trade association has taken a food-safety gadfly group to task for stating that some 18,000 cases of foodborne illness, over the course of more than a decade, could be laid at the doorstep of produce. The association claims raw produce is seldom contaminated by any means other than by exposure to hazardous food. (See Page 43.)
Meanwhile, it's gratifying to see that one of the core solutions to food safety -- irradiation of ground beef and chicken -- is being used increasingly. As was reported in last week's SN, the number of chains offering fresh or frozen irradiated product is starting to take off. Now included in the number are chains such as Lowes Foods, Pathmark Stores, D'Agostino Supermarkets, Publix Super Markets, Wegmans Food Markets and Wal-Mart Stores. All these have some sort of irradiated program, or intend to have one soon.