National Food Safety Education Month in September is a good time to reflect on a few key lessons of the past decade, and how these insights might help us address the perennial challenge of encouraging consumers to practice safe food handling at home.
The need for consumer education regarding safe food handling was framed in the 1996 report, Putting the Food Handling Issue on the Table: the Pressing Need for Food Safety Education. In 1997, government agencies, industry, and consumer groups pledged to cooperate in the development of science-based, consumer-oriented food safety messages. The result was formation of the nonprofit “Partnership for Food Safety Education.” However, many people may be more familiar with the partnership’s consumer-tested “Fight BAC!®” campaign and its actionable messages of “Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill.”
Lesson One—Mid-life High Point: One of the things the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have learned from their important food safety surveys of Americans is that safe food handling practices seem to peak at mid-life, but then drop off.
Older adults—who are at increased risk for serious foodborne illness—appear to be less consistent in practicing safe food handling. The number of seniors living in America is expected to double to an estimated 71.5 million by 2030, and a greater number of these older Americans will stay in their own homes than in previous years. Like many people, they too will continue to prepare a majority of meals and snacks for themselves.
Supporting older Americans with information about the real risks of foodborne illness to health as a person ages is a challenge we must continue to address. A report on hospitalization data and affected populations produced by RTI International for the Partnership for Food Safety Education suggests that, as older adults are a very heterogeneous population, it may be useful to target educational efforts to individuals with specific characteristics. Such characteristics include individuals with underlying chronic illnesses and those who live alone and prepare their own meals.
According to FDA consumer survey data, people who were age 20 to 29 at the time of the 1993 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak have the safest preparation practices of any age cohort. These people today are in their forties—so they are at the mid-life high point of food safety practice. It will be interesting to see if this cohort carries consistent safe food-handling practices into their later years.
Lesson Two—Post 1993 education efforts helped: The significantly stepped-up education efforts which followed the 1993 E. coli outbreak, including introduction of “Fight BAC!®” campaign messages in schools during the late 1990s, appear to have increased young people’s safe food handling practices. A couple of important areas of emphasis come from this success.
First, it is important to continue to work with those young people who were introduced to food safety in school in the late 1990s. This group is now at a stage in life where they are starting their own families. Research conducted for the USDA in developing the “Be Food Safe” campaign reinforces that parents of young children demonstrate a willingness to change behaviors in order to protect their children. Fortunately, these parents already report being more careful about food safety since having children, and state that they take a number of precautions when cooking at home to prevent foodborne illness.
However, CDC data confirm that very young children experience a high rate of hospitalization due to foodborne infection relative to that of children over the age of three. Supporting parents and guardians of young children with reminders about the importance of safe food handling and hygiene must remain an education priority.
These lessons tell us that young adults starting families are at a critical “teachable moment.” It is important for children to be introduced to hand-washing and information on the risks of foodborne pathogens at an early age in order to develop a knowledge base for entering young adulthood and the workforce—even perhaps in a food service position.
These critical audiences for preventive practices – older Americans, parents and guardians of young children, and elementary school kids — need to have access to food safety and hygiene practice information where they live, shop, seek health advice, and go to school.
To do this as well as other public health campaigns requires continued high-level commitment and cooperation by and between public agencies and private entities – government, schools, food manufacturers and retailers, consumer groups, health care professionals, and others. As was stated at the formation of the Partnership for Food Safety Education in 1997, “no single private or public entity commands the creative, human and financial resources to mount a major, high-impact safe food handling campaign. A partnership between the private and public sectors will bring together the necessary resources to create, launch and maintain such a broad food safety educational effort.”
Consumers are consistently bombarded with health messages – how can they hear and act on all of them? We need to get creative in reaching consumers and to renew our dedication to supporting them as they navigate health information so that risks of foodborne illness are clearly articulated.
Healthful eating demands safe food preparation. If each of us plays a part to publicize consensus food safety messages, we can help people feel more empowered to address risks when preparing food at home.