HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. -- The time is now for supermarkets to lead higher-profile food-safety education efforts, as more consumers become conscious of safe-handling and cooking procedures, according to Richard Daniels, president of Audits International here.
He bases that belief, in part, on recent research findings he presented last month at the Institute of Food Technologists Annual Meeting and Food Expo in Chicago.
The study found that a significant number of households, compared with those that participated in a similar study two years ago, met acceptable food-safety standards. Some 121 households in 82 cities across the United States volunteered to open up their kitchen habits to auditors, in a fashion identical to the prior study.
The job facing the food industry is to capitalize on this growing wave of awareness, Daniels said. And that's where the supermarket comes in.
"The supermarket's role is the same as anyone else's in the food industry," he said, adding that retailers are on the front lines of food-safety education.
"Think about it. Everybody is in the supermarket at least once a week," he said.
In this latest study, auditors observed participants in their own home as they prepared meals and also gave them a brief quiz. When a violation was observed, follow-up questions identified that the violations were mostly due to lack of knowledge (62%), as opposed to a perceived lack of importance (38%).
The good news from the new research is that 26% of households in the recent study met acceptable standards of food safety used in the food-service industry. That's compared to just 4% in the 1997 study. Also, the frequency of households committing at least one critical violation of food-safety standards dropped from 96% in 1997 to 69% in the more recent study. A critical violation is one that could of itself cause foodborne illness, Daniels explained. The number of such violations per household had dropped to an average of 1.7 compared with 2.3 in 1997.
The bad news is that nearly three-quarters of the households were still dangerously nonvigilant about safe food-handling practices, Daniels said. The fact that households studied still have an average of 1.7 critical violations is cause for concern, he said.
But, he noted, the problem could be that people are not aware that they're committing violations because they're just not thinking, and adhering to safe food-handling practices hasn't yet become automatic for them.
"I think the majority [of those failing to follow safe practices] were just not conscious of what they were doing," Daniels said. He added that their comments showed that was the case.
"If you gave them a quiz on when they should wash their hands, they would probably get all the answers right. They know they're not supposed to touch garbage and then touch food they're preparing without washing their hands, but they do it. And then they say they weren't conscious of doing that," Daniels said.
Cross contamination, improper cooling of leftovers and neglected hand washing were the critical violations most often seen by the researchers.
"They [the consumers] seem to be totally unaware that they're not washing their hands when they're supposed to, for example," he said.
Here's where retailers can have a big impact, he said. Raising awareness levels of shoppers may require supermarkets to admit that there are indeed risks associated with fresh foods. Until recently, the entire food industry has underplayed such risks in their desire to make people feel safe, Daniels said.
"And I think that desire gets in the way of the reality, which is this: Raw meat, raw chicken and raw ground beef haven't ever been safe, and they have to be handled properly," he said.
He pointed out that if people aren't frightened, at least a little bit, they won't change.
"The supermarket needs to say, 'Maybe you should be a little afraid. You can't mishandle chicken or let your little child touch this chicken and then put his fingers in his mouth.' It doesn't mean the supermarket or the chicken people have done anything wrong. It's just a risk [because of the bacteria present].That's all," Daniels said.
"I think the supermarket industry has enough savvy and enough money to do that and figure out how to do it positively. The hard part is admitting that there are risks," he added.
Daniels compared the process of educating and constantly raising awareness about food safety to the evolution of getting people to wear seat belts or bicycle helmets.
"A thousand little children didn't run out of the house one day and fall on their heads and get hurt, but over time, parents and grandparents gained an honest recognition [that there was a risk]," he said. The same has been true with seat belts. People have come to see the risks because they're reminded constantly in the media and in ads and other venues, he said.
"Our food supply is pretty good, but not so safe the consumer doesn't have a responsibility. I think it was Dan Wegman [president of Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y.] who said it can no longer be business as usual in regard to food safety," he said.
The food-safety expert went on to praise Wegmans' efforts in educating consumers.
"I know there are others out there [educating consumers about food safety], but Wegmans is the most upfront and obvious about it," Daniels said.
"In fact, if enough other supermarkets started doing something like Wegmans has, we could drive the point home," Daniels said.
Audits International, with its own third-party food-safety inspection force, provides information about food safety and food quality including food-safety risk assessments, product or package performance, and crisis assistance or resolution.