July 10, 2018

Volunteer cooks had 1,200 opportunities to wash their hands correctly. They failed 98% of the time.

Daily Briefing

    While testing the effectiveness of a new kitchen safety training video, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists made a surprising discovery: Few volunteers washed their hands after handling raw meat, leading to the spread of germs all over the test kitchen, Maggie Fox reports for NBC News.

    Learn how we can help you improve hand hygiene and cut infection rates to zero

    About the study

    USDA recruited nearly 400 volunteers to test a new training video designed to help people understand how and when to use food thermometers. For the experiment, 182 volunteers watched the video and then prepared turkey burgers and salad in a test kitchen. The researchers compared their actions with those of 201 volunteers who prepared turkey burgers and salad without watching the video.

    Findings

    The researchers found that the video did indeed increase use of meat thermometers: 75% of the volunteers who saw the video used a thermometer when cooking the turkey burgers, compared with 34% of volunteers who had not seen the video. Even so, the researchers found volunteers in both groups used the thermometer incorrectly.

    But the researchers also noticed a disconcerting fact: Almost all of the volunteers failed to properly wash their hands after touching the raw meat.

    Carmen Rottenberg, head of food safety at USDA, said, "There were many, many times in the course of the study that people had the opportunity to wash their hands—nearly 1,200 opportunities." But nearly 98% of the time, participants failed to do so properly, even as they continued to touch other items in the kitchen, including the salad greens, spice bottles, and kitchen surfaces.

    "In some cases the participants did not wash their hands at all, and in other cases they washed their hands and were ineffective," Rottenberg said.

    The scientists tested the kitchen surfaces and the salad and found traces of contamination all over the kitchen. According to the scientists, 5% of the salad lettuce was contaminated.

    "If this had been at someone's home, they would have sat down at the dinner table and enjoyed that salad and it would have been contaminated with bacteria," Rottenberg said.

    Rottenberg noted that pathogens can live on surfaces for a day and a half, which means anyone who later used contaminated spice containers or touched contaminated surfaces could continue to spread germs.

    USDA scientists extrapolated the findings to determine how bacteria might spread if every U.S. household prepared turkey burgers and salad using the same bad habits. They estimated nearly six million households would transfer potentially harmful bacteria from raw poultry to salads, nearly 57 million households would contaminate their spice containers, and 12 million households would have bacteria on fridge door handles.

    According to Rottenberg, the findings may help explain why 48 million U.S. residents develop foodborne illnesses every year (Fox, NBC News, 6/28).

    Next, learn how we can help you improve hand hygiene and cut infection rates

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