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Wash Hands and Clean Food Surfaces after Handling Raw Meat

Lauran Neergaard / AP 19jun00

WASHINGTON -- Think you're savvy about food safety? That you wash your hands well, scrub away germs, cook your meat properly?

Guess again.

Scientists put cameras in the kitchens of 100 families in Logan, Utah, who thought they did a pretty good job. What was caught on tape in this middle-class, well-educated college town suggests why food poisoning hits so many Americans.

People skipped soap when hand-washing. Used the same towel to wipe up raw meat juice as to dry their hands. Made a salad without washing the lettuce. Undercooked the meat loaf. One even tasted the marinade in which bacteria-ridden raw fish had soaked.

Not to mention the mom who handled raw chicken and then fixed her infant a bottle without washing her hands.

Or another mom who merely rinsed her baby's juice bottle after it fell into raw eggs -- no soap against the salmonella that can lurk in eggs.

``Shocking,'' was Utah State University nutritionist Janet Anderson's reaction.

But experts call this typical of the average U.S. household: Everybody commits at least some safety sins when they're hurried, distracted by fussy kids or ringing phones, simply not thinking about germs. Even Anderson made changes in her own kitchen after watching the tapes.

Indeed, the Food and Drug Administration funded Anderson's $50,000 study to detect just how cooks slip up. The ultimate goal is to improve education of consumers on how to protect themselves from the food poisoning that strikes 76 million Americans each year.

``One of the great barriers in getting people to change is they think they're doing such a good job already,'' said FDA consumer research chief Alan Levy.

Surveys show most Americans blame restaurants for foodborne illnesses. Asked if they follow basic bacteria-fighting tips -- listed on the Internet at http://www.fightbac.org -- most insist they're scrupulous in their own kitchens.

But Levy says most food poisonings probably occur at home. The videotapes suggest why.

``People have no idea'' they're messing up, said Anderson. ``You just go in the kitchen and it's something you don't think about.''

She described preliminary study results at a food meeting last week, but promised the families anonymity and so she didn't show the tapes.

For $50 and free groceries, families agreed to be filmed. Their kitchens looked clean, and presumably they were on best behavior, but they didn't know it was a safety study. Hoping to see real-life hygiene, scientists called the experiment ``market research'' on how people cooked a special recipe.

Scientists bought ingredients for a salad plus either Mexican meat loaf, marinated halibut or herb-breaded chicken breasts with mustard sauce -- recipes designed to catch safety slip-ups.

Cameras started rolling as the cooks put away the groceries.

And there was mistake No. 1: Only a quarter stored raw meat and seafood on the refrigerator's bottom shelf so other foods don't get contaminated by dripping juices.

Mistake No. 2: Before starting to cook, only 45 percent washed their hands. Of those, 16 percent didn't use soap.

You're supposed to wash hands often while cooking, especially after handling raw meat. But on average, each cook skipped seven times that Anderson said they should have washed. Only a third consistently used soap -- many just rinsed and wiped their hands on a dish towel.

That dish towel became Anderson's nightmare. Using paper towels to clean up raw meat juice is safest. But dozens wiped the countertop with that cloth dish towel -- further spreading germs the next time they dried their hands.

Thirty percent didn't wash the lettuce; others placed salad ingredients on meat-contaminated counters.

Scientists checked the finished meal with thermometers, and Anderson found ``alarming'' results: 35 percent who made the meat loaf undercooked it, 42 percent undercooked the chicken and 17 percent undercooked the fish.

Must you use a thermometer? Anderson says just because the meat isn't pink doesn't always mean it got hot enough to kill bacteria.

Anderson's study found gaps in food-safety campaigns. FDA's ``Fight Bac'' antibacterial program doesn't stress washing vegetables. And Levy calls those dirty dish towels troubling; expect more advice stressing paper towels.

Anderson's main message: ``If people would simply wash their hands and clean food surfaces after handling raw meat, so many of the errors would be taken care of.''

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