A new push by health officials to prevent food contamination is in the home kitchen, as infections from salmonella, the deadliest food-borne germ, are on the rise.
Most food-borne illnesses are on the decline in the U.S., such e-coli infections, which have been cut in half over the past 15 years. But over the same period, salmonella infections have remained roughly constant. More than a million people a year get sick from salmonella poisoning, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of confirmed cases of salmonella infection last year rose 10%, erasing a small improvement in 2009, the CDC said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture last month revised its recommendations for safely cooking pork, steaks, roasts and chops to avoid salmonella and other infections. The USDA also is planning to launch its first national multimedia campaign this summer on safe-food preparation. And some employee-benefit health plans are running seminars on how to keep food safe during the hot summer months.
We know it is our job to make food as safe as possible before it reaches consumers' tables, but knowing the risk is not zero and it may never be zero, we have to get the word out about what consumers can do," says Elisabeth Hagen, undersecretary for food safety at the USDA.
Salmonella can contaminate many foods, including raw meat, eggs and vegetables. It is often described as the sneakiest germ: It can enter a cantaloupe through a knife that cuts through an unwashed rind, for instance. And it can contaminate eggs before the shell is formed inside a hen. While salmonella may cause only mild illness that lasts a few days, it also leads to more hospitalizations and deaths than any other kind of germ found in food.
Outbreaks of salmonella also have been linked to processed foods including pot pies and peanut butter. Although salmonella can be destroyed by proper cooking, when it comes to foods like peanut butter, consumers can do little to prevent exposure.
A growing number of studies show that many consumers fail to follow recommended practices for food preparation, such as safely defrosting meat, using a meat thermometer at the end of cooking to test for internal doneness and properly chilling leftovers.
One online survey, which polled 1,000 Americans this spring, found 79% of respondents said they wash their hands with soap and water when handling food, down from 89% last year and 92% in 2008. The survey, conducted by the nonprofit International Food Information Council Foundation, a research group overseen by university, government and food-company trustees, also found that 71% of respondents said they washed cutting boards with soap and water, down from 78% in 2010 and 84% in 2008.
Even when home cooks know about safe food-handling practices they don't always follow them, says Michael Shapiro, an associate professor of media psychology at Cornell University. In focus groups used to help design more effective messages for the nonprofit Partnership for Food Safety Education, some cooks said employing food thermometers might indicate to others that they didn't know what they were doing or were an unsafe cook, Mr. Shapiro says.
"We've been rather stupid as a society about our attitudes towards food, and people never want to consider the possibility that it was something that happened in their own home," says Elizabeth Scott, co-director of the Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community at Simmons College in Boston.
Amy Emberle's son Ryan, then 2 years old, contracted a salmonella infection in 2007 that was later traced to microwave pot pies made by ConAgra Foods. It took about three weeks to confirm salmonella was the culprit, during which time the toddler lost nearly 10 pounds from constant vomiting, bloody diarrhea and severe dehydration, says Ms. Emberle, an assistant quality manager for an aerospace manufacturer in Nebraska.
"Once you go through something like this you are so much more conscious of the potential for food-borne illness," says Ms. Emberle, whose son recovered. She says she now takes extra precautions when reading cooking instructions and preparing fresh foods.
A lawsuit Ms. Emberle brought against the company was settled for an undisclosed sum. ConAgra in October 2007 recalled all pot pies produced in its Marshall, Mo., plant. The company says it has invested more than $100 million in improving food safety since 2007. It made cooking instructions clearer on its packaging with visual cues such as a thermometer with the proper temperature and phrases such as "cook until steaming" to help consumers understand when the food is cooked properly.
Federal health officials are applying lessons learned from reducing E. coli infections to tackle salmonella's spread, and legislation passed last year gives the Food and Drug Administration broad authority to regulate food facilities.
The USDA's new recommendations suggest cooking whole cuts of meat to 145 degrees Fahrenheit as measured with a food thermometer placed in the thickest part of the meat. Then, the meat should be allowed to rest for three minutes before being carved or consumed to destroy any remaining pathogens. The USDA said pork could be cooked to 145 degrees safely, instead of 160 degrees previously recommended with no rest time; as long as the rest time is added to the lower temperature, the meat is safe even if it still looks pink, the USDA said. Ground meats should be cooked to 160 degrees, with no rest time required, and the safe cooking temperature for all poultry products is 165 degrees.
The Partnership for Food Safety Education, whose members include food-industry associations and food-science professionals, offers cleaning tips for consumers on its fightbac.org website. These include washing hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds after handling food and using the bathroom, and washing surfaces with a mixture of ¾ teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water for added protection against bacteria. It also suggests using paper towels, since cloth towels and sponges can be contaminated after use.
"Your don't have to go crazy, but just make sure you clean the kitchen counter when meat juice falls on it and cook food to proper temperatures," says
Martin Bucknavage, a food-safety expert at Penn Sate University. "When we have a lapse in good practices, salmonella is an organism that can really take advantage of that." Also important, says Mr. Bucknavage, is cooling hot food after it is prepared but not consumed to avoid new bacteria growth.
And for those who like runny eggs, he says, "there's always a potential that salmonella could be there" if the egg isn't fully cooked.
Nancy Donley, president of Stop Foodborne Illness, a consumer group for food-safety awareness, lost her 6-year-old son to an E. coli infection from eating undercooked hamburger in 1993. Back then, she says, she wrongly assumed food at a supermarket was safe. The CDC's reports that overall food-borne infections are down may be misinterpreted by consumers as signaling the danger is past, she warns.
"The problem is that food-safety messages dance around trying not to scare people too much, and then we get conflicting messages that say we have the safest food supply in the world," Ms. Donley says. "Consumers may then think, if it's so safe, why do I have to do anything?" Her advice: "We are never going to have a 100% safe food supply, so consider it contaminated when you bring it in the house, and practice safe food handling."