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Too Many Cooks (Are Making Food Safety Mistakes)

I have a friend who is very wary of food safety practices at restaurants – religiously checking the sanitation scores of restaurants before going out to eat. New research shows that she’s probably right to be chary. Researchers, including NC State food scientist Ben Chapman, for the first time used video cameras to track food safety behaviors in commercial kitchens, and found that food safety violations happen a lot more often than previously thought.

A new study shows that kitchen workers are averaging one cross-contamination violation every hour.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are approximately 76 million cases of foodborne illness every year in the U.S. – with 325,000 resulting in hospitalization and 5,000 cases resulting in death. All of this is estimated to cost the country more than $150 billion a year. And it is estimated that as many as 70 percent of those illnesses can be traced back to food prepared outside the home – in restaurants, cafeterias, grocery store salad bars, etc. One of the things that can contribute to foodborne illness is cross-contamination, which happens when pathogens are transferred from contaminated food to uncontaminated food. For example, if someone used a knife to cut up some fish and then used the same knife to cut a sandwich.

The researchers found in their recent study, published in the Journal of Food Protection, that workers are averaging one cross-contamination violation every hour. If a kitchen has four workers, and they are each working eight-hour shifts, that means an average of 32 cross-contamination violations are taking place every day. That is a huge jump from the findings of previous cross-contamination studies, which relied on self-reporting and inspection results (as opposed to the video cameras used in this study.)

The study isn’t all doom and gloom though – it also lays out training and technology solutions that can help resolve these cross-contamination concerns. I hope they catch on soon, because I love ordering take-out. What can I say? I like food.