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Studies find ways to improve food safety education programs

Foodborne illness afflicts about 48 million people annually in the United States, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Increased knowledge of food safety could reduce these numbers. “Food safety is an important part of food security,” said Yaohua Feng, an assistant professor of Food Science and Extension at Purdue University. “Low-income consumers have unique challenges to safe food handling, including limited food safety knowledge, a lack of kitchen tools such as thermometers and extra cutting boards for performing food safety practices, and poor microbial quality of foods in low-socioeconomic status areas.” Two recent studies from Feng’s Food Safety Human Factor Lab show how to improve awareness among low-income consumers who suffer higher risks of contracting food-borne illnesses compared to other groups.

The studies involved 60 primary food preparers for young children, from low-income families, split evenly between English- and Spanish-speaking households. Differences between the two groups highlighted the importance of family and culture in food preparation.

“Food to me is more than a science. It’s an art. It’s a culture. In every community, we have a different ritual formed around food, including how we handle food.”

- Yaohua Feng, assistant professor of Food Science and Purdue Extension food safety specialist

The project began with a needs assessment. Research team members visited homes to observe the challenges that mothers and grandmothers of young children face in their everyday meal preparation.

“We used the information we collected from the fieldwork to develop the education program,” Feng said.

The program consisted of two weekly one-hour virtual course sessions plus two take-home tasks. The team based its course materials on the four core food safety practices of the Partnership for Food Safety and Education: clean, separate, cook and chill.

The first study, published in Foods, a journal of the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI), reported the results of pre- and post-program surveys from the participants. The second study, published in the journal Food Control, described a dialogue-based delivery approach that is rarely used in food safety education programs. The dialogue approach contrasts with typical lecture-style one-way presentations.

Instead, the second study presented the implementation of the dialogue-based food safety education program consisting of a mix of live Zoom conversation and pre-recorded video sessions.

“We recorded all the reflections from the participants and discussed how we can further adopt this kind of approach in food safety education, and what are the pros and cons?” Feng said.

The program, originally developed for in-person delivery, had to be adapted for Zoom after the COVID-19 pandemic set in. But many of the participants found the Zoom format helpful because of their childcare duties at home.

“They liked the convenience because, for this class, we can reach people from all over the United States. They do not need to travel to a certain physical location, and they can take care of their children at home,” said Han Chen, lead author of the Food Control paper and a Ph.D. student in Feng’s Food Safety Human Factor Lab.

Among its findings, the study found that some participants don’t keep certain foods in the refrigerator because of what they learned from their parents. The reason could relate to the ethnic cuisine and differing cooking techniques that many Spanish-speaking participants practice. But it could also stem from differences in language instruction. The program was taught in Spanish to Spanish-speaking participants, but some Spanish terminology used could vary from country to country.

“Our Spanish-speaking lecturer could use different words from our participants depending on which Spanish-speaking country they were originally from,” Feng said.

The study also showed that more English-speaking participants used a food thermometer, when cooking meat. Food thermometers serve two purposes, she noted. They can ensure that the chicken reaches a safe temperature, but they can also prevent overcooking. Some family cooks fear dire results from food-borne illness resulting from undercooked chicken. But overcooked chicken gets dry and rubbery.

Additionally, the study also found that some participants determined their refrigerator temperatures through feeling and touching. The self-measured refrigerator and freezer temperatures of many participants did not reach the recommended range. To ensure the safe storage of foods, it’s recommended to use a refrigerator thermometer and make sure the refrigerator temperature is at or below 40 degrees F and the freezer temperature is at or below 0 degrees F.

The MDPI Foods paper assessed whether a widely used behavioral change model called the theory of planned behavior could help develop effective food safety education materials. Lead author of that paper was Juan Archila, who received his master’s degree from Purdue in August.

Archila’s paper evaluated the effectiveness of food safety education programs on changing participants’ knowledge, attitudes, and self-reported behaviors. He found that self-reported knowledge, attitudes and practices all increased after the participants completed the program.

The course materials prepared by Feng and her team are available here. The work was supported by grants from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.  For more food safety tips, follow the team on social media: Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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