This week, SN's Fresh Market section includes two unrelated stories involving tough new food safety requirements for processors of meat and poultry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week announced that it will be lowering the acceptable level of “positive” tests for Salmonella and Campylobacter on raw chicken and turkey in processing facilities.
And, separately, Wal-Mart has informed its beef suppliers that it expects them to achieve a scientifically validated 100,000-fold reduction of pathogens found on beef in their slaughterhouses within the next two years.
Enhanced food safety is a top priority for everyone involved with the U.S. food industry, and these new requirements are both necessary and commendable.
But these pathogens cannot be wiped out completely, and additional precautions taken at processing facilities might not matter for shoppers who don't handle food properly at home.
In a 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers videotaped almost 100 people preparing meals in their home kitchens. Only one-third of the participants washed their hands with soap after handling raw meat, and one-third of the participants never attempted to clean the surface they were using for food preparation. Almost everyone cross-contaminated unwashed vegetables and ready-to-eat foods with raw meat, poultry, seafood and eggs during preparation, and many participants undercooked meat and poultry entrees.
These results are consistent with similar studies dating back to the mid-1990s. Many, many Americans today are either careless or unsure about how to safely prepare food at home.
This does not allow food processors to abdicate responsibility. If anything, studies like these serve as a reminder that processors cannot expect proper handling and preparation in household kitchens to be a reliable “kill step” for pathogens. Also, many illness outbreaks are caused by raw vegetables and leafy greens — including the recent E. coli outbreak linked to lettuce.
Consumers are merely one link in the field-to-fork food safety chain. But, as the final handlers, they are an important link.
SN regularly includes articles about how people have been dining out less and cooking at home more often in response to the recession. Retailers have responded by offering bundled meal deals, cooking demos, recipes in circulars and suggestions at service counters. The popularity of these programs is due, in part, to the fact that there's an entire generation of shoppers who are new to the habit of cooking at home regularly.
As we get closer to Memorial Day, and shoppers start breaking out their grills, it might be a good time for meat departments to remember that some of their customers are relatively new to this. Basic reminders about safe food handling never hurt, and they might be just as appreciated as tips for cooking a mean burger.
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