|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Volume 3, No. 4 1998
Web Manager's Note: This newsletter was issued in 1998. Copy is provided for historical purposes, but contact information herein is likely to be out of date.
New research by federal agencies is beginning to shed light on consumers knowledge and awareness of foodborne pathogens. Its also revealing ways consumers are improving their food handling habits--and behaviors that continue to be risky.
To help food safety educators link to this new information in the planning stage, a small working group of federal researchers and food safety educators met together this past July to discuss the research and possible implications for consumer education.
While not all data discussed at the consumer research meeting have been published yet, this issue of The Food Safety Educator highlights data now being released. As additional results are analyzed and published, theyll be covered in this newsletter.
Consumer educators from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), USDAs Food Safety and Inspection Service and Cooperative Extension met with federal researchers representing FDA, USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
According to FDAs Food Safety Education Officer Marjorie Davidson, "Data emerging from consumer research can provide us with vital information as we begin developing new food safety education programs.
"We are beginning to collect information that provides us with a picture of consumer behavior over a number of years and sheds light on trends and changes in behavior.
"In addition, we are collecting data through a number of sources: the FDA/FSIS consumer survey, new CDC data, and new independent research. As a result, we can begin to refine and structure food safety education messages that target behavior that contributes to food safety risks. And, as educators, we can begin to try to guide future consumer research."
According to Davidson, the working group sought to accomplish a number of goals, including sharing study results across agencies, identifying how research can guide consumer education messages and identifying areas for future research.
In discussing the implications of the research, working group participants observed that:
Future communication projects for educators may need to focus on "skills building." People report that they are handling food safely, said one researcher, but they dont really know how to follow through. They think they are thoroughly cooking food, when in fact its undercooked. They report they are washing their hands, when they are only rinsing with water.
Consumers may be more receptive to "new" safe food handling informationinformation about emerging bacteria or new outbreaks. In addition, when peoples attention is drawn to food safety issues in the news, educators need to be ready to help people learn.
In considering how to communicate "risk" to consumers, educators need to understand and deal with consumer feelings concerning risks. Overemphasizing risks may alienate consumers and scientific data concerning risk may seem insignificant to consumers. Educators need to help consumers understand who faces increased risks from foodborne illness and why.
Highlights: Consumer Research MeetingFDA: Consumers Are Changing
"The big picture is, people say they are changing changing like crazy," said Dr. Alan Levy of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Consumers handling of food has improved dramatically over the past 5 years, according to Levy.
People now report a greater awareness of some specific pathogens and many now say they follow the basics of safe food handling. But, problem areas and food safety gaps still exist.
Whats generated the reported change? According to Levy, much of the knowledge gained appears to have been driven by foodborne illness outbreaks and media coverage.
These are some of the results now being analyzed from the 1998 FDA/FSIS Consumer Food Safety Survey.
FDA researchers Drs. Sara Fein and Levy provided participants at the consumer research meeting with insights drawn from the survey and discussed how food safety educators might make use of the data.
Fein presented an overview of the surveys findings and compared them to findings reported from two previous surveys taken in 1988 and 1993.
Levy presented information drawn from various demographic groups.
What the survey shows: Fein explained that the 1998 survey was a representative nationwide telephone survey of 2,001 people taken between February and April.
While not all questions asked in 1988 and 1993 were identical, "the trends over the three surveys allow us to look at behaviors, awareness, knowledge, and risk perception over a period of time," Fein said.
The surveys show many improvements, according to Fein.
Some of the most dramatic changes have concerned consumers knowledge of microbes. In 1993, 84 percent (%) of consumers knew about Salmonella. In 1998, that number had increased to 93%.
In 1993, 39% of consumers knew that food with Salmonella contamination could be made safe by cooking. By the 1998 survey, that figure had jumped to 62%.
Fein reported that the survey also shows a significant reduction in the number of consumers eating pink hamburgers. Twenty-five percent reported that they ate pink hamburgers in 1988--16% reported this behavior in 1998.
People also have a greater understanding of the risks of leaving foods, like meat, at room temperature. In 1988, 17% of consumers felt it was okay to leave meat out overnight. Today that figure is down to only 6%. In 1988, 21% thought meat left at room temperature for more than 2 hours was safe. Today, only 8% of consumers are making that mistake.
People see increased food safety risks in some foods. In 1988, 31% viewed chicken as a high-risk food, today that number is 45%. In 1988, 25% saw red meat as a high-risk food, today 49% see it as risky.
So what are the most common problem areas?
Only 5% of consumers see eggs as a food with potentially dangerous bacteria, down from 9% in 1993-- and their handling of eggs reflects that fact.
Fein noted that 65% dont wash their hands after handling raw eggs. And, she pointed out, 9 times as many consumers eat raw eggs (37%) as eat steak tartare. Raw cookie dough appears to be one of the main sources of raw egg consumption.
Consumers seem to understand the importance of thorough cooking, but only 2% report using food thermometers to check hamburger patties for doneness. And only a few cooks (14%) use a thermometer to determine when chicken parts are done.
While consumers have improved their knowledge about the importance of handwashing, Fein reports that "cross-contamination is still a difficult problem."
Twenty-four percent of consumers admitted they dont wash their hands with soap after handling food like raw meat, and 21% dont wash their cutting board after cutting these foods. In addition, 32% dont wash their hands before cooking the main meal.
Another knowledge gap: food safety risks from homes. By and large, most consumers still think that problems are most likely to occur in restaurants or processing plants, not their own homes. Forty percent think that it is not common to get sick from food preparation at home.
"People dont think food safety is their responsibility," Levy said. "You can see this in a number of places. They dont feel concerned about risks they can control."
Another difficult issue: consumers dont know that some people are at higher risk of foodborne illness than others. Fein noted that nearly two-thirds (62%) were not aware of any risk groups. Most of those who named a risk group used behavioral characteristics, such as not washing hands. Only 4% of respondents correctly noted that young children are high risk. Only 6% knew that the elderly were also high risk.
Levy pointed out that "people just dont see themselves in the risk groups. For instance, the term elderly needs to be defined, perhaps explaining that it is people over 60. We need to educate people that liver risks relate to drinking. We need to explain what immune compromised means. "
Those are the "overall" numbers, but who is actually doing what? How do the behaviors of older people compare to those of younger people for instance?
Well, the older folks have it all over the younger folks. According to Levy, their food handling practices are much safer. "In general, older people have good food handling habits, with the exception being their handling of eggs."
Who else does a good job in terms of food safety knowledge and safe handling of food? Blacks and ethnic minorities, and people with less education.
People with low food safety knowledge and skills include young people (ages 18 to 25), people with higher education levels, whites, and men.
Where do we go from here? Current research indicates that, by and large, people report they are handling food safely. But, Levy said, a question remains concerning the gap between what people say they do and what they actually do.
"People tell us they never undercook chicken, but independent research shows that 30% of the time the chicken is not cooked thoroughly. Its not intentional, but its undercooked. I think that is really very significant. Even when people are trying, they dont always achieve what they intend."
Future research may address this gap.
Highlights: Consumer Research MeetingGo to the Source
One of the best ways to zero in on what consumers are thinking, is to ask them. Thats the reason for focus group testing.
Dr. Alan Heaton from FDA has used focus group research on a number of issues that are of critical importance to food safety educators, including:
- Thermometer use
- Hamburger handling
- Safe handling label
- Vibrio vulnificus
- FDA consumer advisory.
"You can learn a lot from focus groups, and its a process that can be done quickly and cheaply," Heaton reinforced at the consumer research meeting. He added that its important to have a trained moderator.
One of Heatons observations from focus group research was that people "like information that is new and they can use--something that prompts them to say, Wow, I didnt know that!"
Heatons research concerning the FDA consumer advisory revealed useful information for educators about consumer reactions to "risk" and warning labels.
The FDA consumer advisory was designed as a "warning" on restaurant menus that would alert high-risk people to dangers from foods, such as uncooked eggs. Focus group research showed that consumers reacted negatively to the warnings. As a result, FDA is changing its initial approach.
Dos and Donts on Warning Messages
FDAs focus groups provide great information for educators.
Here are just a few highlights gleaned from FDAs research:
Warning messages are ineffective because:
Warning messages are effective when they:
Highlights: Consumer Research MeetingCDC Reports...
The Foodborne Disease Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) now monitors foodborne disease in 7 sites covering 20.3 million people, 7.5% of the nations population, according to Samantha Yang, MPH, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Yang presented an overview of FoodNets surveillance systems and goals for 1998, including surveillance for Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome and improved outbreak response.
An abstract by Dr. Fred Angulo distributed at the consumer research meeting pointed out that "FoodNet is a sentinel network that can rapidly respond to new and emerging foodborne pathogens."
Among the key findings of CDCs surveillance activities in 1997:
The overall burden of diarrheal disease is significant. FoodNet estimates that 360 million cases of diarrheal illness occur each year, resulting in approximately 28 million medical consultations. Its not known at this time what percentage of these illnesses can be linked to food.
Campylobacter was the most frequently diagnosed pathogen under surveillance, even though outbreaks caused by this pathogen are rare. A study of Campylobacter infections that began in 1998 will identify control points and direct future prevention strategies.
FoodNet showed that the occurrence of Escherichia coli O157:H7 varied among the FoodNet sites and that consumption of undercooked hamburgers at homes or restaurants is a risk factor for infection.
In contrast with the findings of previous investigations, hamburgers eaten at fast-food restaurants were not associated with infection, suggesting that recent changes in the industry may have reduced E. coli O157:H7 infections from that source.
Expanded efforts to reduce contamination of meat and to promote thorough cooking of hamburgers can further reduce the number of these infections. A CDC study is planned to explore other potential control points.
Hospitalization rates were highest for persons with Listeria infections and Listeria caused nearly half of the reported deaths from foodborne disease. Because of this, FoodNet will conduct additional studies of Listeria infections to identify food sources and potential control points.
FoodNet and state surveillance identified an outbreak of Vibrio parahaemolyticus associated with the consumption of raw oysters in western states. As a result, oyster beds were closed and the public was warned, preventing further human illness.
More information on FoodNet is available through the Internet, including the April 1998 Report to Congress. Go to: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/foodnet/foodnet.htmBehavioral Risk
Another source of information on consumer behavior is a survey of approximately 20,000 people conducted by a number of state public health departments through their annual surveys of risk behaviors, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance system, (BRFSS).
To help assess risk in relationship to food handling, CDC and FDA developed 12 questions about food safety that can be added to the state surveys.
In 1995 and 1996, eight states used all or some of the questions when they conducted their BRFSS surveys. The results show some interesting similarities to the FDA/FSIS Consumer Survey.
Dr. Sean Altekruse, FDA liaison to CDC, briefed the consumer research meeting on their findings. He noted that "risky behavior was relatively common among men and young adults, as well as high-income earners. One theory is that since high-income earners dont fix food often, they may not be aware of how to handle food safely.
"There is also some suggestion that kitchen experience is what matters more than didactic information."
According to Samantha Yang, MPH, of CDC, "Were encouraging states to add these food safety questions to their risk factor surveillance. Surveys can be vitally important in helping states identify their food safety education needs. And, if the data is collected periodically, states can use this information to evaluate the effectiveness of their education efforts."
These survey results were recently published in the CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Sept. 11, Vol.47/SS-4. Internet access: http://www.cdc.gov/epo/mmwr/mmwr_ss.html
AFoodNet newsletter. Now you wont have to find out secondhand whats happening with foodborne disease surveillance. Find out first.
CDC is launching a free quarterly newsletter designed to provide you with information from the sentinel sites as well as a preview of upcoming projects. Interested?
Sam Yang, MPH
Mail Stop A-38
1600 Clifton Rd., N.E.
Atlanta, GA 30333
Do you use a food thermometer? Many folks would answer "yes" for the holiday meal. But how about for every day?
According to the new FDA/FSIS Consumer Survey, only 2% of people use a food thermometer to check the temperature of ground beef patties.
Thats a problem FSIS is determined to do something about. New USDA research proves that the color of meat is not a reliable indicator that the meat has reached a temperature high enough to destroy harmful bacteria such as E.coli O157:H7.
According to Susan Conley, director of FSISs food safety education and communications staff, "using a food thermometer is the only way to be sure a ground beef patty is cooked to a high enough temperature to destroy harmful bacteria."
The temperature needs to reach 160 degrees F. Research now shows that at that temperature, the patty may look brown, pink, or some variation.
Conley pointed out that this guidance is especially important for people who are more susceptible to foodborne illness: this includes young children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems.
"We will be mounting an intensive campaign to teach people about the importance of using food thermometers for ground beef patties as well as other everyday meals.
"Research shows that most people intend to cook thoroughly, but they dont always do it. A food thermometer is the only reliable way to know if food is safely cooked. And, as an added bonus, the quality is good too. At 160 degrees F you get a nice, juicy burger," Conley said.
"People are used to using thermometers for the holidays. They can use it every day and take a significant step in protecting themselves and their families," Conley added.
Check our inserts for a "how to" fact sheet on using food thermometers.Grocery Store Chain Leads the Thermometer Bandwagon
USDAs concern about use of food thermometers has helped prompt other thermometer campaigns.
Wegmans Food Markets, Inc., a grocery store chain in New York and Pennsylvania, launched a campaign last summer to educate consumers about the importance of cooking ground beef to 160 degrees F.
According to Wegmans Director of Consumer Affairs, Mary Ellen Burris, "the campaign has produced very positive results reversing a downward trend in ground beef sales and increasing consumer trust in Wegmans."
The chain began marking its ground beef packages with bright yellow labels encouraging thermometer use and cooking to 160 degrees F.
At the same time, Wegmans began in-store demonstrations in each of the chains 57 stores, teaching consumers about safe grilling of burgers.
A poster used in the demonstration pictured two burgers, one pink and one brown. "Which is done?" the poster asked. The poster provided the answer: the pink burger had been cooked to 160 degrees F, the brown burger to 140 degrees F.
As Burris notes, "A lot of factors can cause hamburger to appear brown. The only way to really know if its done, is to use a meat thermometer."
Among the campaigns impressive results:
Finally, and significantly, "consumer trust in Wegmans meat increased as did their belief that Wegmans has true concern for their customers when it comes to food safety," Burris said.
For a variety of background materials on thermometer use and the color of cooked ground beef, check the FSIS web site at: http://www.fsis.usda.gov
USDAs Meat and Poultry Hotline has issued its new package of holiday information:
You can access them at: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/whatsnew.htm
Also, check the inserts in this newsletter for some "Consumer Information" fact sheets with great reminders about "Turkey Basics." These fact sheets focus on:
Dont forget that our nationwide, toll-free hotline has timely food safety messages available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call 1-800-535-4555.
Wyoming Cooperative Extension also launched a thermometer campaign in the fall of 1997. With a costumed hamburger character, free disposable temperature indicators, brochures and grocery store displays, the local extension educator, health inspectors, and volunteers fanned out through Albany County for an 8-week period.
In their post-survey they found the number of people using the disposable indicators to test the doneness of ground beef had increased from 3.3 percent to 14.2 percent and the number of people aware of the disposable indicators increased from 9.6 percent to 46.8 percent.
For more information
on their campaign, contact:
Mary Kay Wardlaw
Albany County Extension Office
Laramie, WY 82070
Food Talk is a free monthly e-mail newsletter for health professionals, educators and consumers. Its published by University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension, and its distributed to more than 3,000 subscribers in 57 countries.
Each issue provides a short, how-to message on food, nutrition or food safety. The newsletter is written by Alice Henneman, extension educator and registered dietitian. And youre encouraged to copy the material, just provide credit.
To subscribe, send
Subject: (please leave blank)
Message: SUBSCRIBE FOODTALK
Glimpses into the world of irradiation are appearing on the web. One site takes you inside an irradiation facility with a "virtual" tour through an on-line video guide. The other highlights research about irradiation technology.
The Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) has the on-line video guide providing a virtual tour of a Florida food irradiation facility. You can download the video, or you can order a copy. The web site includes speeches from GMAs recent conference on irradiation. Go to: www.gmabrands.com
The Food Safety Consortium and Iowa State University Extension support research into irradiation by housing a plant with a commercial-size food irradiator on-site. The plant is called the Linear Accelerator Facility. You can check out the plant, as well as related irradiation research, through: http://www.foodsafety.iastate.edu
Hardly a week goes by when we dont hear of some new, and seemingly conflicting, study about food and nutrition.
Consumer surveys confirm what we had already suspected: people are confused. How can we do a better job of communicating emerging science and put it in a context that people can understand better?
To answer that question, an advisory group was convened by the Harvard School of Public Health and the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC).
The advisory group developed a set of guidelines called Improving Public Understanding--Guidelines for Communicating Emerging Science on Nutrition, Food Safety, and Health. Their goal is to help scientists and communicators provide the necessary context and qualifiers to aid the public in evaluating a studys relevance and importance.
In an introduction, Timothy Johnson, MD, MPH, Medical Editor for ABCs Good Morning America, notes: "These Guidelines can only make a difference if they dont sit on a shelf. Putting these recommendations into practice just might make a difference in the publics understanding of diet and health...."
There are specific guidelines for a variety of groups, including journalists, scientists, journal editors and interest groups.
The guidelines were first published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (February 4, 1998, Vol. 90, No. 3). They have since been reproduced and are available through the Foundation. You can place an order or download the document from their website: http://ific.org
How do you deal with consumers who have been over-exposed to hazards news?
Susan Conley, director of the FSIS food safety education and communication staff, addressed this problem in a speech to environmental sanitarians in August.
The answer, she said, is not to provide "less information. We have a responsibility to empower the public to protect itself from the public health hazard of foodborne illness."
Communicators, Conley said, need to provide information in a way that minimizes the "hazard-weary" phenomenon.
To do this, Conley suggests that communicators take a number of steps. The first, and most important step, is to make sure the information is science-based. This is a process, she acknowledges, that has become "a lot more complicated in recent years."
In addition, she encouraged communicators to remember that "the messages must be practical and motivate consumers to action. They must also be consistent and when needed, targeted for a specific audience."
To read the speech, go to: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/speeches/sc_iamfes.htm
This past summer, FDA reaffirmed previous health advisories that people at high risk for serious foodborne disease should avoid eating raw alfalfa sprouts.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued similar advice in August, following outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7 traced to sprouts. The government and growers are exploring intervention methods to improve sprout safety.
FDAs Food Information
FDAs website: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov
Catherine E. Woteki, the USDA Under Secretary for Food Safety, has been elected to the prestigious Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
Each year, Institute members devote volunteer time to conducting studies and issuing reports on a broad range of health issues.
In a press release, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman said, "The Institute of Medicine is recognized worldwide for its members work in examining policy matters related to the publics health. Its an honor to have the senior food safety official of the Department of Agriculture elected to such an esteemed group, and I know Dr. Wotecki will contribute to its efforts."
NAS is a private, non-profit society of scholars engaged in scientific research. In 1970, NAS established the Institute of Medicine to address public health issues.
It advises the federal government on public health matters and, through its own initiatives, identifies and studies issues related to medical care, research and education. The Institute currently has 574 active members.
There have been over 2 million hits to date on the Fight BAC!™ website.
Join the crowd. Check it out.
In the past year, the Fight BAC!™ campaign has been everywhere and done just about everything.
PUBLICATIONS are flying around the country.
The Partnership for Food Safety Education has shipped approximately 12,000 supermarket kits to Food Marketing Institute members and about 52,000 community action kits to health educators.
The Consumer Information Center, (CIC) in Pueblo, Colorado has distributed more than 30,000 copies of the BAC brochure and another 26,000 have been distributed by the Partnership. CIC can be reached tollfree at 1/888-878-3276.
Many Fight BAC!™ partners are interested in buying materials instead of reproducing them. The Partnership has a number of items for sale, including the very popular animated 30-second public service announcement. Its available for only $3 in VHS format, or Beta for $15.
Also available are bulk copies of the color brochure in English or Spanish, and the Supermarket Kit and Community Action Kit.
You can order these
materials and more directly from the website, or contact:
Partnership for Food Safety Education
800 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Suite 500
Washington, D.C. 20006
The public relations firm Fleishman Hillard has been selected to spearhead this years campaign. The firm will focus on national recognition of the BAC!™ character. Also in the works for this coming spring: a teachers guide for grades four through six.
The Food Safety Educator is a free quarterly publication. To subscribe, send us your name and mailing address.
For Further Information Contact:
FSIS Food Safety Education Staff
Dianne Durant, Writer/Editor
Phone: (301) 504-9605
Fax: (304) 504-0203
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