New USDA Study Highlights Importance of Food Safety

The study looks at handwashing, thermometer use and cleaning of food preparation areas.

September 20, 2023

During Food Safety Education Month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is releasing the results from the final year of a five-year study that observed how consumers prepared meals. The study was produced by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) as part of its efforts to highlight the importance of safe food handling practices.

“These studies are important for the USDA to understand consumer behaviors in the kitchen, and it is timely to be releasing the latest findings during Food Safety Education Month,” said USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Emilio Esteban. “The results allow us to shape food safety communications and help consumers safely prepare food.”

The study observed food safety behaviors, including participants’ thermometer use for ground pork sausage, handwashing and cleaning and sanitizing of food preparation surfaces.

Handwashing remains a concern. The most recent data shows that 87% of participants self-reported they washed their hands before starting to cook in the test kitchen. However, only 44% of participants were observed doing so before meal preparation. Additionally, handwashing was not attempted 83% of the time when it should have been done (e.g., touching raw sausage and unwashed cantaloupe, cracking eggs, contaminated equipment or surfaces). Throughout the study, 96% of handwashing attempts did not contain all necessary steps.

Throughout the study, 50% of participants used a food thermometer to check the doneness of sausage patties; however, 50% of those participants did not check all the patties with the thermometer.

To test for cross contamination, the study used harmless tracer bacteria injected into the pork sausage to simulate the spread of foodborne illness causing bacteria during meal preparation. Among the surfaces tested, the kitchen sink was most often contaminated with 34% of participants contaminating the sink during meal preparation. The next highest was the cantaloupe with 26% of participants introducing contamination when cutting the cantaloupe during meal preparation. Contamination on fruits and vegetables, and other ready-to-eat foods, is especially concerning because these foods are consumed raw, without a final step like cooking, which kill bacteria.

Foodservice sales in convenience stores are about 26% of in-store sales, a category that continues to be a key focus area for retailers. The importance of food safety is paramount: Outbreaks affect not only individual brands but the entire industry.

To help make your kitchen as safe as possible, check out NACS Show education session 5 Food Safety Risks You Can Control.

Additionally, join convenience retail food safety, foodservice, quality assurance and risk management professionals for the NACS Food Safety Forum—the only industry-specific event of its kind—on October 3, 2023. The forum is co-located this year at the NACS Show in Atlanta.