Irradiation backed as study reveals food safety practice concerns

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Findings revealed Americans often undercook chicken and rarely wash hands
Findings revealed Americans often undercook chicken and rarely wash hands

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An expert in consumer behavior and food science has backed the use of irradiation after a study found consumers do not follow recommended food safety practices in preparing meals at home.

Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer research at the University of California, Davis authored the study which found 40% of Americans often undercook chicken and 65% rarely wash hands.

She said that using irradiation can reduce Salmonella and Campylobacter levels to close to zero.

Omaha Steaks, Schwan's and Wegman's Markets all offer irritated ground beef.

Irradiation can be done by gamma rays, x-rays or electron beam.

However, past concerns about furan presence is a potential concern because based on high-dose animal tests, it is considered possibly carcinogenic to humans.

Approval versus usage

Bruhn told that there is currently a stand-off between two different views: the approval of more foods by the FDA and it will be used greater and use it on more foods and the agency will then approve it for that product.

“You can buy irradiated ground beef but the equipment is still expensive, supermarkets are the gatekeeper it is not the consumer blocking it. They are worried about the consumer reaction –what do you mean that the product you have been selling all these years was not safe?

“A third were aware it could be used to reduce harmful bacteria and to say the public won’t buy irradiated food is a cop out.”

Meanwhile, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) called for submissions on an application to permit the irradiation of a number of fruits and vegetables last week.

Steve McCutcheon, FSANZ CEO, said the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry had applied for permission to use irradiation to kill or sterilise fruit flies and other pests.

Food irradiation is used in more than 50 countries to destroy bacteria and pests and to extend the shelf life of food. The closing date for submissions is October 9.

Main findings from the study

Bruhn spoke to us after presenting a study which analyzed video footage of 120 participants preparing a self-selected chicken dish and salad in their home kitchens.

Cross contamination was highlighted as a concern because most participants, 65%, did not wash their hands before starting meal preparation and 38% after touching raw chicken.

Nearly 50% were observed washing chicken in the sink prior to preparation, which is not recommended as it leads to spreading bacteria over multiple surfaces.

Insufficient cooking was also seen as 40% undercooked their chicken, regardless of preparation method and only 29% knew the correct US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommended temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Researchers observed that cooking thermometers were not widely used, with only 48% owning one, and 69% reporting that they seldom use it to check if chicken is completely cooked.

Most participants determined “fully cooked” based on appearance, an unreliable method according to the USDA. No participants reported calibrating their thermometers to ensure accuracy.

Based on the findings a number of organizations are launching an educational campaign to increase consumer knowledge about safe food preparation practices in the home.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture, UC Davis, the California Poultry Federation, the Oregon Department of Agriculture, the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the Northwest Chicken Council, Partnership for Food Safety Education, and Foster Farms are involved.

Foster Farms funding

The study was funded by contributions from Foster Farms, a firm heavily involved in recalls recently​.

Bruhn said the company was not behind camera, she wrote the manuscript and video tapes were done by undergraduates and researchers.

She said they provided the money for the participants but they did not influence the results, adding it was essential to have industry collaboration or the work is not done.

“We wanted to know what they really do, not what they say they do and to focus the message on reinforcing the good and looking at the bad.

“They knew they were being filmed, they were told to go home and prepare their favourite family chicken recipe and then were filmed with two video cameras​.”

Bruhn said she didn’t want a test kitchen at a university but a normal kitchen environment.

“People don’t realise what they are doing with their hands especially after touching raw poultry.

“To take an example, if you had honey poured on the chicken, you touch the honey and touch the cupboard and the door handle, it is spread all over everything and cross contaminates the kitchen."

When asked about advice, she said: “Wash your hands after touching poultry with soap and dry with a paper towel, don’t wash chicken and stick the thermostat up to 165.”

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