These days fewer Americans learn how to cook during childhood or high school. In fact, most public schools have scaled back on offering consumer science courses or what was traditionally known as home economics. It is estimated that many people now learn how to cook by watching popular cooking-themed television shows such as those provided through The Food Network.
A self-proclaimed lifestyle network, the Food Network is distributed to more than 96 million U.S. households and is considered the giant in food programming, ranked number one out of 50 cable channels. While the masterful chefs of the highly-popular Food Network cook up plenty of finger-licking-good food, a recent study on food safety measures suggests that it's not a good idea for some of their stars to actually lick their fingers while cooking the grub.
Last year, Texas Tech University (TTU) researchers set out to determine the scope of the televised food safety problem by studying popular Food Network programs: "30 Minute Meals with Rachael Ray," "The Essence of Emeril," "Everyday Italian," "Paula's Home Cooking" and "Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee."
Researchers analyzed forty shows airing over a two-week period using 17 different coded categories: six positive and 11 negative. Positive categories included hand washing, cleaning equipment, washing fruits and vegetables, refrigerating perishables, and using a food thermometer.
Negative categories included using food from unsafe sources, failing to use a food thermometer, using food from the floor, failing to refrigerate perishables, failing to wash fruits or vegetables, inadequately washing equipment, sampling food or licking fingers, potential cross contamination of ready-to-eat or raw foods, and touching the face when preparing food.
Results from the study found 118 positive food safety measures and 460 negative food handling incidents. Among the most noticeable culprits were not washing fruits and vegetables properly and a lack of hand washing in general. Washing fruits and vegetables is important because not doing so can lead to a foodborne illness.
According to the USDA, harmful bacteria that may be in the soil or water where produce grows may come in contact with the fruits and vegetables and contaminate them. Or, fresh produce may become contaminated after it is harvested, such as during preparation or storage. Eating contaminated produce (or fruit and vegetable juices made from contaminated produce) can lead to foodborne illness, which can cause serious - and sometimes fatal - infections.
Food borne illnesses are costly and can be prevented by proper food handling. The World Health Organization estimates major pathogens can create up to $35 billion annually in medical costs and lost productivity. So, although cooking shows are touted as entertainment, if people are looking at them as educational and instructional, then it is very important that these popular stars follow and demonstrate good food safety practices.
Cindy Akers, TTU associate professor, explained that while it is realized that the televised programs have time constraints and are not documentaries, food safety issues could be better integrated into the shows. Who remembers the famed chef, Julia Child, and her "impeccably clean hands?" Although the viewer seldom witnessed the actual hand washing procedure, this simple statement implied a very important practice. Always start food preparation with clean hands.
So, how did the analyzed shows do on the food safety rating? "30 Minute Meals with Rachael Ray" and "Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee" practically tied for having the most positive categories at the time the programs were aired last year. The worst was "Paula's Home Cooking," in part for the host's habit of licking her fingers more than 20 times while preparing her down-home favorites. On the other hand, Paula Deen demonstrated proper food sampling more than any of the others.
The researchers noted that they were frequently asked to identify the safest or least-safe host on the Food Network. It seems there's not really a fair way to name one person as best or worst. For example, one show had the most positive observations, yet it also had the second-highest negative practices.
(Revised from an original article that first appeared in the Texas Tech Today eNewsletter, September 9, 2008. "Texas Tech Study Measures Food Safety in Popular Cooking Shows," by Norman Martin.)
Dr. Sonja Koukel is the Health, Home & Family Development Program educator for the Cooperative Extension Service UAF Juneau District.