Consumer Safehandling Knowledge

Although consumers recognized the potential seriousness of foodborne bacteria and believed they were well informed (1), many were unaware of safe-handling and storage practices, with those age 35 or younger demonstrating the lowest level of knowledge (7-8). A 1998 nationwide poll indicated more than 90% of consumers had heard of Salmonella, yet critical gaps existed in food safety knowledge (9).

Many factors have contributed to consumers' lack of familiarity with safe food handling. Increased participation in the paid labor force has resulted in less in-home training of young people in food handling; few schools offer or require food preparation classes; partially prepared foods may have different, less familiar handling requirements (7). Additionally, some historic food safety recommendations related to temperature and acidity do not eliminate risks from some pathogens.

Food safety experts have identified the most common food-handling problem by consumers at home. The top factors attributed to mishandling include contaminated raw food, inadequate cooking or heat processing, obtaining food from unsafe sources, improper cooling, intervals of 12 hours or more between preparation and eating, and colonized person handling implicated food or poor hygiene (10). Mishandling associated with specific pathogens included the same contributing factors (11).

In a nationwide mail survey, Williamson et al. (8) found specific safe-handling practices were not practiced by 15 to 30% of respondents. People failed to rapidly cool cooked food, with 29% indicating they would let roasted chicken sit on the counter until it cooled completely before refrigerating. Only 32% indicated they would use small shallow containers to refrigerate leftovers. People were not aware that failure to refrigerate may jeopardize safety, with 18% not concerned or uncertain about the safety of cooked meat and 14% about poultry left unrefrigerated for more than four hours. The need for sanitation was not recognized, with only 54% indicating they would wash a cutting board with soap and water between using it to cut raw meat and chop vegetables.

Similarly, in a California survey, only 63% indicated they clean the food preparation area with soap and water. The importance of temperature control was not fully understood, with 50% indicating they refrigerate leftovers in large containers. Of particular concern, more than half of consumers always or sometimes tasted leftovers to check whether they are still safe (1).

Even consumers who knew they were being watched and evaluated made mistakes. An audit of consumer food-

handling practices among 106 U.S. and Canadian households found 96% had at least one critical violation. Households average 2.8 critical and 5.8 major violations per household (12). A critical violation was defined as one that, by itself, can potentially lead to a foodborne illness, whereas major violations are unlikely to cause foodborne illness but are frequently cited as contributing factors.

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