“We want to provide research-based information for consumers. The goal is to promote safe behaviors so that people actually begin to do them every day in the kitchen and as part of their shopping behavior.”
– Edgar Chambers IV, lead researcher
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates approximately 48 million people get sick from foodborne illness every year. Of this number, 128,000 require hospitalization, and around 3,000 die.
In addition to the toll that foodborne illness takes on human life, it is also very expensive. The United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (USDA ERS) states that foodborne illnesses cost the US economy nearly $16 billion a year.
Then there are the high costs of trying to prevent and contain foodborne illness (such as the costs to businesses, as well as other expenditures). From a macro-perspective, the total costs of foodborne illness are likely in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Now, consider that a $2.5 million research project may have accomplished more than any work that’s been done to date. Hyperbolic though this proposition may sound, it’s entirely possible.
The four-year research study—a collaborative project supported by a USDA grant—was led by Dr. Edgar Chambers IV, a distinguished professor in the Department of Food, Nutrition, Dietetics, and Health at Kansas State University. Food scientists from Tennessee State University and RTI Intentional also contributed to the project.
Dr. Chambers and other collaborative food scientists discovered a number of troubling statistics relating to food preparation in households. First, they found that just 25 percent of people use a food thermometer—an important tool for ensuring the proper temperature of meats and other products. Second, just 40 percent to 50 percent of people wash their hands before and during cooking.
To work on solving the problem, Dr. Chambers and his team devoted three years to studying the shopping and cooking behaviors of consumers. Dr. Chambers then had a thought: What if safety information and reminders were included in recipes? Would consumer sanitation and safety trends change? He said of his developing study: “This is such an easy thing to do: Just add the information to the recipe and people follow it.”
The doctor and his team decided to structure the project around several areas of food safety pertaining to poultry and eggs; specifically, the use of meat thermometers, hand washing frequency, and proper storage of meat products.
The team recruited 150 participants to prepare two dishes: a turkey patty with mushroom sauce and a Parmesan chicken breast. Half of the participants were given recipes that included food safety instructions, and the other half were given recipes that did not include the instructions. Importantly, the recipes required the participants to work with eggs, fresh produce, and meat, common carriers of foodborne bacteria.
The research team then watched both groups as they prepared the dishes, observing the frequency of hand washing and meat thermometer use. The results were very promising; in the group that received the safety instructions, hand washing increased by 60 percent and thermometer use increased 20 percent to 30 percent.
Real and Potential Impact
Following the study’s positive results, Dr. Chambers and his team are spending the fourth year of their project developing a food safety program. The team also presented their research to the USDA—and the reception was very promising. As a result of the study, the USDA is developing an initiative to include the team’s food safety instructions in recipes.
The objective of this and other efforts is to teach various groups (e.g., consumers, grocers, manufacturers, etc.) why is it imperative to include food safety instructions in recipes. The team also wants to reach out to publications that disseminate food safety information, such as websites, magazines, and journals, to educate these individuals as well.
Said Dr. Chambers of his study’s impact: “This is such a wonderful outcome. It’s such an easy thing to do and such an easy way to help people remember to be safe. It doesn’t cost anything—just a little extra paper and a little extra time to wash your hands and use that thermometer.”
While the study may not have cost much, it has the potential to extract a huge return on investment, both in terms of human health and economics. Dr. Chambers says, “[W]e can actually reduce health care costs by simply adding information to recipes. It’s a great finding and a great piece of information for the promotion of food safety information.”
Following their success, Dr. Chambers and his research team have decided to focus on kitchen lighting—an important part of the food safety equation. The increasingly frequent use of energy-efficient lights is a food safety concern, as light such as LED often gives poultry and meats the appearance of being more cooked than they are.