WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Foodborne illness is on the rise and a recent meat industry study has identified a big reason: most consumers don't wash their hands before they cook or after they've handled raw chicken and beef.
The Food Marketing Institute here is the first group to sign on to what the Arlington, Va.-based American Meat Institute's president, J. Patrick Boyle, said is "a call to action" to get consumers tuned into their role in food safety. Boyle and Tim Hammond, Food Marketing Institute president, shared their vision for a national food safety campaign during a news conference here.
The widespread absence of such basics as hand cleaning underscores the need for a national how-to-prepare-food-safely campaign, according to AMI, which spearheaded the plan for a joint effort by the food industry, government and consumer groups.
Food processors and retailers in recent years have gone to great lengths to implement changes in how they handle food, particularly meat, in order to avoid spreading bacteria, Hammond said. But even the most state-of-the-art food safety system isn't enough, he added.
"All of us worry these efforts are undone if the consumer doesn't handle the product properly," he said. "We need to begin this [education] effort now and it has to continue year after year."
The national food safety program proposed by AMI and FMI officials includes a variety of educational programs that would drive home food safety basics. Part of the plan is to develop a slogan that would become part of the national dialogue, like "Just Say No" did for the antidrug campaign or "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" has for the campaign to end drunk driving.
Another aim is to establish a clearinghouse to avoid duplication of food safety education efforts and to identify those that are most effective, which would then be built upon.
"By pooling additional resources we can truly create a nationwide public education campaign to reduce foodborne illness," Boyle said.
Officials did not put a price tag on the program, but Hammond said he didn't expect a high cost since most participants already have some degree of food safety effort under way, and by coordinating programs organizations may actually realize some savings.
Hammond and Boyle expect the program to take shape by year's end, with a launch date early next year.
As a preamble to AMI's decision to back the program, the institute commissioned a study by physicians and food scientists of the extent of consumer knowledge about food safety. Among the study's findings:
Only 65% of consumers surveyed were aware of the need to refrigerate a roasted chicken breast immediately, with 29% thinking it's acceptable to let it sit on the counter until reaching room temperature before refrigeration.
The importance of refrigerating cooked meat or poultry after cooking is lacking. Eighteen percent surveyed said they aren't concerned or don't know whether it's safe to eat cooked meat left unrefrigerated for four hours and 14% were unsure about the safety of cooked poultry left on the counter for that period.
Only 32% knew the importance of storing stew in a shallow container after cooking. Fourteen percent incorrectly said it was safe to store stew in the pot and 54% said it was OK to put it in a deep container.
Only 54% of people surveyed knew they should wash a cutting board with soap and water after cutting fresh meat and before using it for chopping vegetables. Thirty-seven percent said it was safe to merely rinse the board with water and 5% would use the board without doing anything.
Citing Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, the report identified an estimated 6.5 million to 81 million cases of foodborne illness a year. While 79% of the illnesses are caused by improper food handling in food-service establishments, 21% of the cases are linked to food preparation and storage oversights at home.
Michael Doyle, a professor of food science at the University of Georgia, Griffin, Ga., who worked on the report, said that mistakes in preparing food and reheating already prepared food at home are common. Consumers aren't routinely taught food safety at school, nor is it something that is readily shared within families.
Bob Hahn, director of legal affairs at the consumer advocacy group Public Voice for Food and Health Care Policy here, supports the idea behind a national education program. "There is a need for it," he said. "There are gaps in consumer knowledge. You can never have too much food safety education."
However, Hahn said, the education campaign shouldn't turn into a process of blaming the consumer, and he added that industry should continue to stress its role in preventing foodborne illness. "Everyone should be very clear about that," he said.