The meat industry needs to give more attention to educating consumers on the safe handling of their products. Certainly the information presented in the accompanying sidebar illustrates the knowledge gap among consumers in terms of safe food handling.

The Fight BAC! campaign, initiated in 1997 by 10 founding members and three government agencies, was a sound first step. However, recent survey results show there is less awareness of the program today than there was four years ago.

Although all parties within the food chain are responsible for assuring a safe food supply, the consumer is the final defense against bacterial contamination. However, most consumers remain unaware of their role.

Some studies illustrate the seriousness of the problem and help explain why foodborne pathogens are estimated to cause 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year.

Researchers for the Safe Food Institute at Utah State University videotaped 100 consumers preparing meals and found lots of bad habits. Subjects were asked to prepare a multiple-ingredient salad and an entree (meatloaf, breaded chicken breast or marinated halibut) not knowing that the researchers were studying food safety.

Researchers compared the consumers' food preparation behaviors with Fight BAC! recommendations, which include the following categories.

  • Cleaning: The study showed the average hand-wash attempt was 4.4 seconds, without soap – 20 seconds with soap is recommended. What's more, only 30 percent of the subjects attempted to clean food preparation surfaces.
  • Separating: In all, 98 percent of the subjects cross-contaminated their food. Subjects didn't use separate preparation areas for raw meat and salad ingredients. Utensils were not properly cleaned and dish cloth and hand towels all added to the cross-contamination problem.
  • Cooking: Inadequately cooking meat was a common error. Chicken was the most frequently undercooked entree – 82 percent failed to meet temperature standards. Also, 82 percent of the ovens were inaccurate, not even within 5¦F of the setting.

    While everyone attempted to check the entree's doneness, few used a thermometer. Most – 95 percent – checked doneness visually or by tasting.

  • Chilling: Standard refrigeration temperature is 40°F or colder. In this study, 36 percent of refrigerator temperatures exceeded 40°F. Also, 30 percent of the refrigerators were overcrowded, which prevents air circulation needed for proper cooling.

    Of the subjects who marinated the entree 77 percent did so on the counter vs. in the refrigerator.

Another study involving universities in Nevada, Colorado, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania shows that on average it takes consumers 70 minutes to move meat products from purchase to freezer. Getting it to the refrigerator took an average of 42 minutes. The longest delay was five hours and 10 minutes.

Supermarkets are trying to help consumers learn about food handling. Ukrop's Super Markets in Richmond, Va., stocks thermal bags in the frozen foods aisle. Safeway stores organized in-store exhibits and displays. Albertson's and Wal-Mart are working with the Partnership for Food Safety Education on a campaign to educate employees.

Nevertheless, awareness of the Fight BAC! program has slipped to 33 percent, down 13 percent from last year – the lowest awareness since the program started.

Melanie Miller, Partnership's executive director, says the decline stems from the lack of full-time attention. In September 2000, Miller stepped into that role. She has initiated several projects to increase program awareness, and is targeting high-risk audiences: children, the elderly, pregnant women and the immune compromised. The organization also is working with physicians to educate patients.

Lastly, the Partnership is building alliances with major corporations that have a vested interest in food safety, such as Clorox, Glad, Reynolds, Rubbermaid, McDonald's and Pfizer. Uncovering Food Safety Facts- More than 30 percent of consumers eat leftovers that have been in the refrigerator for seven to 10 days.

  • Only 5 percent of consumers use food thermometers to determine meat doneness.
  • Some 60 percent of consumers store raw meat on the middle or top shelf of the refrigerator vs. the recommended bottom shelf so it doesn't drip onto other foods.
  • After contacting raw meat, 76 percent of utensils (cutting boards, knives, forks) are not properly cleaned.
  • When preparing food, 66 percent of all hand washing is done without soap.
  • More than 70 percent of food preparation surfaces are not sufficiently cleaned.
  • Only 7 percent of adults know the correct temperatures for food storage and preparation.

Kristal Guier writes for Meat & Seafood Merchandising magazine