Video study finds contaminated food served in ‘clean’ restaurants

June 9th, 2010 - 3:44 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, June 9 (IANS) How safe is the food we eat at restaurants, cafeterias and other food-service providers?

A new study from North Carolina State University (NCSU), the first to place video cameras in commercial kitchens to see how precisely food safety guidelines were being followed, discovered that risky practices are more prevalent than thought.

“Meals prepared outside the home have been implicated in up to 70 percent of food poisoning outbreaks, making them a vital focus area for food safety professionals,” says Ben Chapman.

Chapman is an assistant professor and food safety specialist in family and consumer sciences at NCSU, who led the study.

“We set out to see how closely food handlers were complying with food safety guidance so that we can determine how effective training efforts are,” adds Chapman.

Researchers placed small video cameras in unobtrusive spots around food-service kitchens that volunteered to participate in the study.

There were as many as eight cameras in each kitchen, which recorded directly to computer files and were later reviewed by Chapman and others.

“We found a lot more risky practices in some areas than we expected,” Chapman says. For example, most previous studies relied on inspection results and self-reporting by food handlers to estimate instances of “cross-contamination” and found that cross-contamination was relatively infrequent.

But Chapman’s study found approximately one cross-contamination event per food handler per hour.

In other words, the average kitchen worker committed eight cross-contamination errors, which have the potential to lead to illnesses, in the course of the typical eight-hour shift.

Cross-contamination occurs when pathogens, such as Salmonella, are transferred from a raw or contaminated source to food that is ready to eat: For example, using a knife to cut raw chicken and then using the same knife to slice a sandwich in half.

Cross-contamination can also result from direct contact, such as raw meat dripping onto vegetables that are to be used in a salad.

“Each of these errors would have been deemed a violation under US Food and Drug Administration Food Code inspection guidelines,” Chapman says.

“But more importantly, cross-contamination has the potential to lead to foodborne illnesses and has in recent outbreaks,” Chapman adds.

“And it’s important to note that the food-service providers we surveyed in this study reflected the best practices in the industry for training their staff.”

The study also confirmed the long-held supposition that more food-safety mistakes are made when things are busier in the kitchen.

“During peak hours, we found increases in cross-contamination and decreases in workers complying with hand-washing guidelines,” Chapman says, according to an NCSU release.

The study is published in the June issue of the Journal of Food Protection.

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