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NPR Special Report: How Safe is the Food Supply?
Food-borne Illnesses Often Start at Home

John Freyer's story Listen to Joe Palca's report

Aug. 18, 2001 -- Each year, 76 million people -- nearly one-quarter of all Americans -- get food-borne illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Common cooking mistakes
Caught on tape: A volunteer for a food safety study cross-contaminates food by washing her hands in cold water without soap, then wiping her contaminated hands on her kitchen towel.
Photo: Safe Food Institute

View all the stories in this series

Many of them point fingers at restaurants and fast-food joints, but often, the real culprit lies much closer. Experts say many of these illnesses are caused at home, where unsanitary cooking habits can turn a kitchen into a breeding ground for bacteria.

NPR's Joe Palca recently cooked a meal under the watchful eye of two food-safety analysts to learn more about safe food handling.

In Logan, Utah, researchers Janet Anderson of Utah State University and Thomas Shuster of the Safe Food Institute have spent the past year closely observing people's cooking habits, videotaping volunteers as they prepare food.

The results so far have been less than appetizing. "From what we saw in the kitchen, the behavior was bad. There were a lot of mistakes being made," says Shuster.

Basic Food Safety Tips

• Wash hands in hot soapy water before preparing food.

• Use a meat thermometer to ensure safe internal temperature for cooked meat, poultry and seafood.

• Wash countertops and other surfaces after they come in contact with raw meat, poultry and seafood.

• Use paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces -- it helps minimize cross-contamination.

• Perishable foods should not be held at room temperature for more than two hours.

• Use a refrigerator or cold running water to thaw foods.

• Remove jewelry when cooking -- it can harbor bacteria.

"One important thing about cooking behavior is that it's very habitual. You get in the kitchen and you just start doing things the way you've always done them."

But even a bout with food-borne illness may not persuade people to change old habits, because most people who contract the illnesses get off easy, with only a day or so of discomfort.

But not everyone is that fortunate. For more than a quarter-million people annually, food-borne illness requires hospitalization, and it kills about 5,000 people every year.

When NPR's Palca prepared a meal of roasted chicken and salad, Anderson and Schuster gave him high marks for washing his cutting board after cutting poultry on it, but deducted points because he didn't store the chicken in a way to minimize juice leaks.


Web Resources

Visit gateway to government food safety resources with information from multiple agencies

Check out the USDA's Foodborne Illness Information Center

Read food safety guidelines from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention