Bad food safety reporting I. Would your home kitchen fail a food safety inspection? Mine would

There has been a proliferation of terrible food safety reporting, especially nonsensical stories targeting the home as the overall number 1 super-duper source of foodborne illness.

The most recent round started with a study published in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control weekly report on Sept. 3, 2010, by the folks in Los Angeles who popularized letter grades for displaying the results of restaurant inspections. This time they used the same criteria to grade home kitchens, and concluded “at least one in seven home kitchens would flunk the kind of health inspection commonly administered to restaurants.”

So what? Based on the way the study was done, my kitchen would fail.

The problem with many of the results garnered from the L.A. study is that home kitchens where food is prepared for a few family members and friends are not restaurants where food is prepared daily for thousands of strangers: the risk is amplified, and so are the required precautions.

The results are based not on actual inspections, but  an Internet quiz taken by about 13,000 adults. So it’s the same self-reported nonsense, and only by people who surf the Intertubes, and could be bothered to take the quiz.

Direct video observation is a far more reliable indicator of human behavior in the kitchen, and yes, people make mistakes all the time, especially me.

But how those mistakes are defined can really mess up the results; food safety is not simple, so basing scores on answers to 45 questions could be erroneous and magnify the error rate.

I went through the survey and spotted some possibly problematic questions, depending on how the answers were scored and weighted (that information is apparently not available to mere mortals).

Q. I cook meat thoroughly until the juices are clear, not bloody.

I cook meat until it reaches the safe temperature endpoint as verified by a tip-sensitive digital thermometer. Color is a lousy indicator of meat food safety. Do I lose points?

Q. I defrost frozen foods by either storing them inside the refrigerator, under cold running water, using a microwave oven, or during the cooking process.

I would never defrost under cold running water because that is a microbial cross-contamination disaster and is not recommended by the federal government. Do I lose points?

Q. I check to make sure that there are no foreign objects such as glass, hair, etc., in my food.

I pay attention. I don’t specifically check for glass or hair using my special glass and hair goggles. Do I lose points?

Q. I thoroughly rinse my fruits and vegetables before cooking or eating them.

Depends. If it’s pre-washed bagged salad, I do not rewash because scientists have said the re-washing process is more likely to cross-contaminate the greens with whatever crap was previously in my sink. The paper is in Food Protection Trends and available here. Do I lose points?

Q. I always have soap and paper towels available for hand washing.

At home I use tea towels and go through a couple a day, ensuring they are routinely washed and cleaned. Do I lose points?

Q. I remove all jewelry from my hands and maintain my fingernails trimmed before I prepare foods.

No. I’m not a sandwich artist making subs for thousands. I’m preparing food for my family. Do I lose points?

The authors conclude, “Use of interactive, online learning tools such as the Food Safety Quiz can be used to promote home food safety in the community” but provide no evidence to support this claim, and state in the next sentence, “further research is needed to evaluate and improve the program content and to assess its effect on changing food handling and preparation practices in the home kitchen.”

The study was crap. Worse, blaming people is a lousy motivator for behavior change, if that was indeed the goal.

The Associated Press, and every other story about the study stated, “experts believe the bulk of food poisonings are unreported illnesses from food prepared at home.”

Experts believe foodborne illness has multiple causes from multiple sources. Casey Jacob and I tried to contribute to the public conversation about foodborne illness, where it happens and who’s to blame, with the appropriately titled paper, Where Does Foodborne Illness Happen—in the Home, at Foodservice, or Elsewhere—and Does It Matter? in the journal, Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. The paper has been published online ahead of print. We conclude, ??While some occurrences of foodborne illness result from unsafe practices during final preparation or serving at the site where food was consumed, others are consequences of receiving contaminated food from a supplier, or both. Data gathered on instances of contamination that lead to illness make greater contributions to the development of programs that reduce the risk of foodborne illnesses, than data or assumptions that describe locations where contaminated food is consumed. The abstract is below:

Foodservice professionals, politicians, and the media are often cited making claims as to which locations most often expose consumers to foodborne pathogens. Many times, it is implied that most foodborne illnesses originate from food consumed where dishes are prepared to order, such as restaurants or in private homes. The manner in which the question is posed and answered frequently reveals a speculative bias that either favors homemade or foodservice meals as the most common source of foodborne pathogens. Many answers have little or no scientific grounding, while others use data compiled by passive surveillance systems. Current surveillance systems focus on the place where food is consumed rather than the point where food is contaminated. Rather than focusing on the location of consumption—and blaming consumers and others—analysis of the steps leading to foodborne illness should center on the causes of contamination in a complex farm-to-fork food safety system.