People are failing to clean their hands properly 97% of the time before meals and it is leading to bacterial cross-contamination in the kitchen, according to a US study.
The research, from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), revealed most people fail to wash their hands for the necessary 20 seconds and even if they do, they do not dry them afterwards with a clean towel.
The observational study – aimed at evaluating food handling behaviours in a test kitchen – was conducted in collaboration with RTI International – a non-profit research and development organisation working for the US government – and North Carolina State University.
It also revealed that only 34% of the 383 volunteers who took part in the study used a food thermometer to check their burgers were cooked properly, although nearly half of them did not cook the burgers to the safe minimum internal temperature.
According to the USDA, meat and poultry products are done when they reach these minimum internal temperatures: 145F (62C) for beef, pork, lamb and veal (steaks, roasts and chops); 160F (71C) for ground meats (burgers); and 165F (73C) for poultry (whole or ground).
Rushed handwashing can lead to cross-contamination of food and other surfaces, resulting in food-borne illness, the USDA warns, with children, older adults and those with weak immune systems at higher risk.
Figures from the study showed that spice containers used while preparing burgers were being contaminated 48% of the time, while bacteria was transferred to refrigerators 11% of the time.
Those making salad while preparing burgers caused cross-contamination 5% of the time.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates around 48 million Americans fall sick from food-related illnesses every year, resulting in 128,000 hospital visits and 3,000 deaths.
USDA’s guidance on kitchen hygiene is to always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water for 20 seconds after handling raw meat, poultry or eggs and always dry hands on a clean towel.
Carmen Rottenberg, food safety spokeswoman at the USDA, said: “As a mother of three young children, I am very familiar with the mad dash families go through to put dinner on the table.
“You can’t see, smell or feel bacteria. By simply washing your hands properly, you can protect your family and prevent that bacteria from contaminating your food and key areas in your kitchen.”