Cooking: Hey, Jeet Yet?
Comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s redneck vernacular pretty much describes what millions of Americans do each day. "Hey jeet yet? Naw, dju? Yu'nt to? Aight." We really enjoy eating out, even in the current slow economy. Sadly, just as many of us are ill informed on food safety and how to keep our family safe.
Thousands of us begin by looking at the food safety score of the restaurant. Since becoming a restaurant owner, I have heard the phrase “I don't eat at places with less than an A rating" uttered more than a few times. But, it might surprise you as to why. It's usually not in response to our food safety score (which, by the way, is very good). Patrons usually make the statement in response to the number of times they witness “The Pit Crew” washing their hands. Truth be told, our staff does wash their hands quite frequently because we are adamant about hand washing. However, hand washing is not the magical armor that keeps our guests safe. Education is.
Let's face the facts. No restaurant owner wants to hear that a guest visited the doctor the next day with the "stomach flu." Vice versa, I can't think of a single patron who purposefully wants food poisoning. Yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) "estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of food-borne diseases." (www.cdc.gov)
Let that sink in for a second. Now, add the following line to the beginning of that statement, "While the food supply in the United States is one of the safest in the world." Yes, you read that right. America has one of the safest food supplies in the world, yet roughly 17% of Americans still gets sick from food borne illnesses every year.
So, why are Americans getting sick from food-borne illnesses in the age of social media and 24/7 news broadcasts? Well, let’s take a moment to review a few facts. The CDC has identified the top five risk factors that most often are responsible for food-borne illness outbreaks:
- Improper hot/cold holding temperatures (of potentially hazardous food)
- Improper cooking temperatures of food
- Dirty and/or contaminated utensils and equipment
- Poor employee health and hygiene
- Food from unsafe sources
I’m sure some of you probably are nodding your heads in agreement, but I'm sure there are more than few that are saying, ”But what about hand washing? I don’t see that in the list.” So, let me give you a few more tidbits to digest. In the latest observational study sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology and the American Cleaning Institute®:
- More than three-quarters of the guys (77%) washed their hands publicly in 2010, compared to 66% in 2007.
- Men still strike out more often with hand washing in sporting venues. Turner Field in Atlanta had the worst hand washing percentage for the guys – barely two-thirds (65%) washed their hands.
- Perhaps as a counter to the men’s poor hand washing practices, Turner Field brought out the best in "southern belles." Women's hand washing was 98 percent. (Hat tip to you, ladies. The overall rate of women washing their hands in public restrooms improved from 88% in 2007 to 93% in 2010).
- Those of us who say we always clean our hands before handling or eating food has stayed about the same: 77% in 2010, compared to 78% in 2007.
- And, my personal favorite statistic....18% of Americans report that they do not always wash their hands after changing a diaper (Holy smokes, Batman! You have got to be kidding me!)
Okay. Are you beginning to get the picture? I sure hope so. But, let's be serious for a second. The latest statistics show that Americans are “listening to their mothers.” Hand washing has become more frequent. Equally as important, the latest report from the CDC indicates that the total number of food-borne-illness cases has dropped by nearly a quarter in the past 15 years. However, the report also shows that the percentage of Americans getting sick from a food-borne illness is still very persistent. The question is...why?
Well, part of the answer is that we have to better educate ourselves. Both the restaurant industry and the general public need a better understanding of food safety. Currently, the trend is focused on ServSafe® training for restaurant staff, yet the majority of our meals are at home (or carry-out from home). Let me explain it to you in another way. Between 60 and 70 percent of foodborne illnesses occur at home yet the area that gets the most attention (recalls, outbreaks, etc.) is on restaurants and the food supply chain.
Whether you believe those stats or not, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we recognize that education is the real key to a great dining experience. We have to focus on educating ourselves on the the top five risk factors for food-borne illness. If we practice at home what we preach in restaurants, we will build good work place habits that are secondary in nature. More importantly, we will lay the foundation to decrease food-borne illnesses America.
The second part of the equation is recognizing that new behaviors are affecting food-borne illnesses. Let me prove it to you. The next time you are in a restaurant or public place, I want you to take a moment to observe what people are doing. It should come as no surprise to see people using their phones for texting, surfing the web, social media and talking. However, what you can't see is that one in six cell phones carries fecal matter! (Holy heart failure, Batman!) As shocking as that statistic sounds, the truth of the matter is that it’s likely from the users not washing their hands after using the bathroom. Equally important, it shows how easy it is to contaminate yourself with a very common place event. Every one of us is guilty of using our cellphones at the table.
In closing, I guess what I’m saying could probably be summed up in a few phrases by mama. Mama always said, “A little soap & water never killed anybody.” Even more important, Mama always said “Get an education!” So, teach yourself and your family good food safety practices. You may be saving yourself from the next trip to the doctor.
Safe and happy dining!