Research Suggests Teens Don’t Know Much About Food Safety

Food safety is a vital issue, both in terms of public health and good business practice. However, according to a recent study, today’s teenagers (which includes tomorrow’s food handlers) know very little about the basics of food safety.

Study: Most Teenagers Unaware of Food Safety Standards

A study out of the University of Waterloo found that teenagers possess little understanding of how to handle or prepare food in a manner that’s safe and healthy. The study, which measured 32 different food-handling behaviors among Ontario high school students in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, found that participants followed fewer than 50 percent of the recommended practices.

“High school students represent the next generation of food handlers, but they are not well studied,” lead researcher Ken Diplock said. “They are just starting to prepare food on their own and for others, and they’re also beginning to work in the food industry.”

The research entailed observing students in high school food and nutrition classes three times. The first observation occurred before the students took Ontario’s standard food-handling training program. The second observation occurred two weeks into the training program, and the third and final observation took place three months later.

The purpose of the study was twofold: (1) To gauge students’ understanding of basic food handling practices, and (2) to help them improve in areas where they may be deficient.

At the start of the class, one of the more egregious shortcomings was a lack of proper thermometer usage to determine the “doneness” of meat. At baseline, only 5.5 percent of students even used a thermometer. By the end of the study, that rate had improved to 33 percent.

“Even though training programs have important benefits, there are obviously still gaps between knowledge and how food handlers behave,” said Diplock. “Food safety education improves knowledge and behavior, but unless the values are reinforced in other areas such as home life and society, the behaviors will not always stick.”

Despite the fact that there was a significant increase in correct behaviors, researchers found that students continued to use risky practices after the intervention. This led them to believe that the risk of food-borne disease is still high in this age group, even after they’ve taken a food-handling course.

Educating the Next Generation of Food Workers

The concern about the lack of food safety knowledge and application among teenagers is that they represent a large proportion of future workers in the food business. From restaurants to packaging facilities, teenagers often fill entry-level positions in this industry.

Proper education of the next generation of food workers is an undeniable public health concern. Here are some practical steps food delivery and serving operations should take to ensure their employees understand and use recommended food safety practices:

  • Emphasize the importance of cleanliness by investing in proper food-grade cleaning supplies. When employees are given the right resources, they’re more likely to make smart decisions.
  • According to a CDC survey of 486 food workers across nine different states, 5 percent of workers say they’ve prepared food when they were suffering from a bout of diarrhea and/or vomiting. Employees should never be encouraged to show up for work when they’re sick. They should be strongly encouraged to stay home and get well.
  • Cross-contamination is one of the biggest risks in kitchens and restaurants. Separate preparation stations should be set up for raw meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and other sources of unhealthy bacteria.
  • Employees should be rewarded for following certain protocols. This reinforces healthy behavior and increases the odds that workers will take proper food handling recommendations seriously.

Moving Beyond the Classroom

Though it’s wise to teach students about food safety in the classroom, it’s ultimately the duty of employers to make sure their young hires follow proper procedures. It’s only when an industry shoulders this level of personal responsibility that it can continue to succeed.

Melissa Thompson writes about a wide range of topics, revealing interesting things we didn’t know before. She is a freelance USA Today producer, and a Technorati contributor.