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Don't believe everything you see on TV

28.jun.04, Lisa Mathiasen, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

28.jun.04, Lisa Mathiasen, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
Top Gun isn't the worst movie to watch repeated on the TBS Superstation.
It's not the best, but there are worse.
A few months ago I watched Top Gun along with my roommate and his girlfriend
as part of the cheesy Dinner and a Movie show, this time featuring a menu of Pentagon Pork Barrel Pozole.
Several times during the broadcast, the host mentioned food safety practices that could supposedly help prevent food poisoning. His advice included using vinegar to wash meat-contaminated cutting boards (a practice that will not only solidify the meat fat, but has never been shown to prevent sickness) and washing the meat before it is cooked (which will disperse dangerous bacteria and raise the potential

for massive cross-contamination). All the food safety tips he presented were incorrect; my roommate's girlfriend believed them all.
Despite Mom's warnings not to believe everything on T.V., people do learn from what they watch (a startlingly large number of North Americans think the Daily Show with Jon Stewart is the news, not the fake news that Stewart repeatedly tells his audience it is). And while there is a wide range of food safety coverage on television, cooking shows serve as a particularly good source for food safety information because of their popularity and availability. Or they could. With this thought in mind, my colleagues and I initiated a formal study investigating what television cooking shows were presenting to their viewers about food safety. We watched over 75 hours of recorded material in June 2002 and June 2003 and assessed the good, the bad, and the disgusting of food safety practices.
Based on 60 hours of detailed viewing we observed that unsafe food handling practices occurred at a frequent rate (two-to-four times per 30- minute show). For every safe food handling practice observed, we saw 13 unsafe practices. The most common errors were inadequate hand washing, and cross-contamination between raw and ready-to-eat foods. Not surprisingly, the mistakes observed during this research have also been observed by consumers, and there is a possibility that some people are developing poor food handling practices based on the behaviour of celebrity chefs.
Our findings from this study have been presented to cooking show hosts, the scientific community, and most recently have been published in the May edition of Food Protection Trends, a peer-reviewed scientific journal. While the general response from consumers and the scientific community is that food safety is important and should be acknowledged by cooking shows, the response from the cooking show hosts varied. One celebrity chef said food safety was boring and time consuming. Maybe, but not for the 76 million Americans and 2 to 7 million Canadians who get sick each year from the food and water they consume.
We produced a short video highlighting both positive and negative food safety practices observed on cooking shows as an entertaining way to inform others. Although the video was developed using the copyright guidelines of fair use for education and research purposes -- we weren't trying to make any money -- The Food Network formally threatened to sue us if we continued to show the video.
I guess they didn't like what they saw.
The seemingly simple food safety practices TV chefs could promote -- without lecturing, just adopting the practice would suffice -- belie a much deeper reality: producing and keeping food safe is difficult. The difficulty of food safety became a reality last week for the more than 240 individuals who became sick after eating at an American restaurant chain based in Louisville Ky. After experiencing cramps, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting I'll wager that few of these people would say that food safety practices are boring or too time consuming.
In the past, food safety has been considered the responsibility of the food industry, retail and government. However, most cases of foodborne illness are traced back to improper handling and preparation, not only at retail and in restaurants, but also in the home. Understanding food safety is necessary for anyone handling food, from a mom cooking for two to a chef cooking for 200. Food safety is complex; it requires constant vigilance and commitment. But with sufficient attention to basics such as handwashing, proper storage temperatures and cleanliness, the risk can be greatly reduced. TV chefs can help spread that message.
Lisa Mathiasen is a graduate researcher with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.