The site is no longer being updated, including the FSnet archives, but remains a vast source of food safety information. For current information, please visit the iFSN successor, bites, at

Can TV Cooks Become Food Safety Celebreties?

15.oct.02, Douglas Powell (with files from Lisa Mathiasen and Bonnie Lacroix)., Commentary from the Food Safety Network

Now that the Thanksgiving orgy of pretentious and bland food safety advice for consumers has been tucked away until Christmas, or Easter, or the launch of barbecue season (it ends?), in what way do mere mortals go about preparing food and where do they get their information on a daily basis? If they're anything like my semi-retired father, they hear the messages but they do not necessarily internalize them; that is, people may say they know how to handle food safely, but actually do something else, especially in the kitchen. And one of the biggest sources of those messages?
My father watches cooking shows. He tries out the recipes. And he seems to be having fun in the kitchen, or at least living vicariously through others on the Food Network while sitting on the couch. Last year after Thanksgiving, dad called for my turkey stock recipe. For the last 15 years, my wife and I have taken the turkey leftovers from my parents house and made a killer stock. But now, inspired by TV and expectations of adventures in soup, dad wanted to make his own stock. Such is the popularity and prominence of food in our lives that two suburban men can have a discussion about how the cloves have to be stuck into the onion and how tarragon is the secret stock ingredient without being mocked (right?).
And if we can, others probably are as well.
With that in mind, my lab undertook a formal study of the food safety practices of celebrity chefs on TV. We have over 160 hours on tape from broadcasts in June and July 2002, and are formally viewing and assessing good and bad food safety practices.
Recently (Oct. 7), we had the opportunity to present preliminary results at the Cuisine Canada meeting, a bi-annual gathering of cooks, chefs and others, TV celebrities included.
Based on 29 hours of detailed viewing, we observed basic food safety errors about every five minutes, especially cross-contamination (handling raw meat and then handling vegetables or herbs without washing hands) and time-temperature violations. Few used meat thermometers. And no one talked about how they ensured the safety of ingredients entering the kitchen. The response from the crowd was varied. One celebrity chef said that food safety was boringĀ  and time consuming.
Maybe, but not for the 76 million Americans and 2-7 million Canadians who get sick each year from the food and water they consumer. Another participant remarked that if the public sees food professionals licking the spoon and using the same spoon to serve food to others all the time, they begin to think thatĀ¹s the way it should be done. These seemingly simple food safety practices that TV chefs could promote belie a much deeper reality: producing and keeping food safe is hard. The largest food recall in U.S. history was announced late Sunday -- 27 million pounds of fresh and frozen ready-to-eat turkey and chicken products produced by a Pilgrim's Pride plant in Penn.
The recall came as federal officials investigated a listeria outbreak that has caused at least 23 deaths and 120 illnesses in eight Northeastern states.
The recall also came as Canadians were once again being told food safety is simple, never thaw the turkey on the counter (which I always do) and that it is OK to thaw turkey in the sink with water (which the Brits find appalling). But smoked turkey breast from the deli? Who's going to cook that except some derivative of the fried bologna culture trying to move upscale. Food safety is complex, it requires constant vigilance and commitment.
And TV chefs can help spread that message.
A couple of years ago flying out to give a food safety talk, I sat near one of these Canadian celebrity television chefs. I listened to him talk to another passenger who had recognized him from the tube. He profused for about 30 minutes about how his show was really about entertainment, and the food was more of a condiment.
I entered the conversation with a vague question about food safety, citing an outbreak that was described in that morning's paper -- raw sprouts and E. coli O157:H7, 50 sick -- and asked if he was ever concerned about the food safety practices being broadcast on his show. He said his producer occasionally pointed something out but that he really didn't know about it or care, it was supposed to be a fun show.
My dad cares.

Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at the
university of Guelph. Bonnie LaCroix and Lisa Mathiasen are graduate
students. The Food Safety Network provides research, commentary, policy
evaluation and public information on food safety issues from farm-to-fork