Richard W. Daniels

During the fourth quarter of 2000, Audits International conducted our third National Home Food Safety Study. Our restaurant inspectors used a critical control point approach to evaluate meal preparation, service, and cleanup practices in 115 households around the country. The evaluation, similar to what we use to inspect restaurants, netted at least one critical violation—an improper practice that, by itself, can potentially lead to illness or injury—in three-fourths of the participating households.

Based on the study’s results, it is no surprise that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 76 million cases of foodborne illness resulting in 5,000 deaths in the United States annually. When our data are compared to the data generated by the Food and Drug Administration, it seems quite likely that half of the incidences of foodborne illness in the U.S. result from problems in the home. Yet, before we begin to panic, let’s look at what may be the study’s most important finding: that by increasing consumer food safety awareness, we can cause significant improvements in the home.

The extensive improvement in home practices that was observed between 1997 and 1999 was primarily driven by fear of hamburgers, raspberries, eggs, chicken, and even lettuce. The fear has been attributed to an abundance of negative media attention. Since that time, negative media impressions have decreased, but, unfortunately, so has the rate of improvement.

In spite of all our educational efforts, the vast majority of consumers are still “doing it wrong,” and there is a real need for practices to improve. After all, there are as many generations of bacteria in one week as there have been of man in 2,000 years, and bacteria aren’t getting weaker! I believe that it is the food industry’s responsibility to do everything reasonably possible to improve home food safety practices. It serves no good purpose for us to wait for a crisis in order to bring the need for improved safety practices to the forefront.

Our study probed the reasons that critical violations occurred. Approximately 20% were due to a conscious choice to ignore the safety principle (e.g., “I’ve always done it this way, and I think it’s safe”). For now, I believe that we should ignore these individuals and spend our efforts on those who may be more easily influenced.

Two other reasons were lack of knowledge of correct practices and lack of awareness (i.e., although knowledge may have been satisfactory, the individual was not thinking of the safety principle at the time). The need for education and increased awareness varied from one violation to the next, but in all cases, awareness was a major factor and appears to be the key to meaningful improvement.

The analogy that best illustrates the importance of awareness is the use of seat belts. Some of us automatically put them on before starting a car. Others intend to wear seat belts but frequently forget until they’ve been driving for 5–10 minutes. Think about the handwashing, cross-contamination, and other mistakes that are likely if one does not begin to think of food safety for 10 minutes after starting to prepare dinner. Before disregarding this idea as insignificant, consider that 40% of critical violations in the study were directly attributed to a lack of awareness by participants.

What if every time consumers were about to use a food or ingredient they could be reminded of the critical food safety issues involved without perceiving them as negative? I think a solution exists which is voluntary, relatively inexpensive, and easy to initiate: the use of universal, safe food-handling icons on food labels.

While I applaud the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture for the safe-handling icons which appear on labels of meat and poultry products, I believe they should be made more specific by including such things as refrigeration and cooking temperatures. And I believe that some icons still need to be developed or improved to focus on currently neglected issues, including the proper handling of leftovers and the proper storage position of ready-to-eat vs raw foods in the refrigerator.

The food industry needs general agreement on a set of icons for the most serious food safety hazards—icons that are quite specific but at the same time can be used by everyone involved with food, not just meat packers. They should be used not only on food labels but also by the media, in printed advertisements, magazines, and cookbooks, etc. The use of these icons should be voluntary, not mandatory.

Even if they are only added to food labels that are scheduled to be changed for other reasons, in 12–24 months most products could include the appropriate icons. Once the meanings of the icons are understood, their presence on labels would create awareness where it is most needed: at home, during food preparation. The data collected in our study lead to a belief that once consumers understand the principles of food safety, the presence of these icons will result in enhanced awareness and a major reduction in the rate of foodborne illness.

As the adage goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Just think what an ounce of awareness will do for all of us. To this end, I offer to work with anyone interested in developing these icons. It is the next step in the process.

by Richard W. Daniels is President, Audits International, Northbrook, Ill. He can be reached at [email protected] .