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Proper hand-washing is a cooking must-do

wash your hands

It’s time to come clean: Do you (or your family members) always remember to wash your hands when cooking at home?

Chances are, most of us don’t. A new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that Americans aren’t properly cleaning their hands while preparing food 97 percent of the time.

“It’s probably the thing that people would be least likely to admit is that I don’t wash (my hands) before I cook,” says Carmen Rottenberg, acting deputy under secretary for food safety at the USDA.

Making food safety a habit may require a shift in how you operate in the kitchen, Rottenberg says. However, simple steps - such as washing your hands frequently and using a food thermometer – can go a long way in protecting your family’s health.

“Food is not scary. But you need to handle it properly, and you need to cook it at a safe temperature to ensure safety in the home,” Rottenberg says.

The USDA, in collaboration with RTI International and North Carolina State University, conducted an observation study on food safety behaviors of home cooks.

Participants in the study thought they were testing out a recipe for turkey burgers. However, researchers were assessing the participant’s food safety practices in the kitchen.

Specifically, the preliminary results of the USDA’s study showed some concerning results.

 Hand-washing: The study revealed that consumers aren’t washing their hands correctly 97 percent of the time. Most consumers failed to wash their hands for the necessary 20 seconds, and numerous participants didn’t dry their hands with a clean towel.

“Then they were touching something else in the kitchen, be it the spice containers or the handle of the refrigerator or their cell phone,” Rottenberg says.

“If you’ve got contamination from the product, and then you touch something else, you are contaminating other surfaces in your home, which is why it’s so critical to wash your hands well with soap and water,” she adds.

 Thermometer use: Results reveal that only 34 percent of participants used a food thermometer to check that their burgers were cooked properly. Of those who did use the food thermometer, nearly one-half still didn’t cook the burgers to the safe minimum internal temperature.

 Cross contamination: The study showed participants spreading bacteria from raw poultry onto other surfaces and food items in the test kitchen. About 48 percent of the time, they are contaminating spice containers used while preparing burgers; 11 percent of the time, they are spreading bacteria to refrigerator handles; and

5 percent of the time, they are tainting salads due to cross-contamination.

While it’s tempting to skip a few steps in the rush to get dinner on the table, saving time isn’t worth the risk of getting sick from food-borne pathogens.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million Americans are sickened with foodborne illnesses each year, resulting in roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Children, older adults and those with compromised immune systems are especially at risk.

“People often get food-borne illness because they don’t cook their food long enough. They think, well, I’ve never gotten sick before,” Rottenberg says. “But it only takes one time to have absolutely debilitating, life-long impacts from food-borne illness.”

When preparing food at home, make it a habit to wash your hands before and after handling raw meat and poultry, Rottenberg says.

Home cooks should follow the CDC’s recommended five steps for proper hand-washing: Wet hands. Lather with soap. Scrub for at least 20 seconds. Rinse. Dry with a clean towel.

Keep paper towels near the sink so they are easily assessible. Rottenberg also recommends preparing salads first, before handling raw meat.

In her own kitchen, Rottenberg says she and her three kids often prepare spices in a small bowl ahead of time so they aren’t contaminating the spice containers after touching raw meat.

Rottenberg also reminds her children that they need to wash their hands before snack time and meals. “Children need to be taught that at an early age so that they grow up with (the habit) that this is what you do before you consume food,” she says.

And if you aren’t in the habit of using a food thermometer, now is the time to start. Rottenberg says it’s a common misconception that if you cut into a piece of meat or poultry and the juices “run clear,” it’s safe to eat.

“That is not an effective method,” Rottenberg says. “You could have clear juices, and it still could be undercooked. You can only tell that by measuring with a food thermometer.”

Insert the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat (or from the side on a ground meat patty) until the probe reaches the center.

Meat and poultry products are safe to eat when they reach these minimum internal temperatures: beef, pork, lamb and veal (steaks, roasts and chops), 145 degrees Fahrenheit; ground meats (burgers), 160 degrees; poultry (whole or ground), 165 degrees.

For more information about safe food preparing and how to properly use a food thermometer, visit www.foodsafety.gov. You can also call the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline toll-free at 1-888-MPHotline (1-888-674-6854). The hotline is open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Central Time.

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