Let’s make American TV Food Shows “Food Safe” now!

If I made a dollar every time someone brings up a celebrity chef and talks about what he or she viewed on a televised program and not follow safe food handling protocols, I would have a lot more money in my bank account.

I know what you are thinking “if a celebrity chef can do it on TV, why can’t I?”

We all know that Gordon Ramsay’s primary responsibility when filming “Hell’s Kitchen” isn’t food safety, its entertainment. The same applies for the filming of “Top Chef” or “Jamie’s Kitchen” or “Paula’s Home Cooking” or “30 Minute Meals” or “Throw down with Bobby” or “Guy’s Big Bite” or “Restaurant: Impossible” or “Bar Rescue” or insert your own favorite show here >.

Remember that Martha Stewart was confined to bed for several days after becoming ill with salmonella few years back? She had made her rounds on the daytime talk shows, preparing turkeys for the Thanksgiving holiday. I remember telling my family, “I wish they would show Martha washing her hands to prevent cross contamination.” Apparently, she did not wash her hands well and became ill. Yes, celebrities get sick, too.

I remember that Giada De Laurentiis was on “The Today Show” and preparing ready-to-eat foods with her bare hands while having a bandage on her finger. Where were the single-use disposable gloves? Does the producer or network not know these simple rules?

Foodborne illness continues to be a significant health concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year 9.4 million episodes of foodborne illness, resulting in 55,961 hospitalizations, 1,351 deaths and an economic burden of approximately $78 billion annually occur in the U.S.  Foodborne illnesses such as Hepatitis A and Norovirus can spread rapidly via improper personal hygiene such as not properly washing one’s hands or washing improperly. Wearing single-use gloves and preventing cross-contamination are very critical to prevent the spread of illness.

We all know that the food you see celebrity chefs preparing isn’t what the audiences are consuming, but viewers assume it is. Don’t you think that the chefs can include a bit more information and demonstration about food safety? Those few seconds they show the chef licking their fingers can be easily replaced by showing them washing their hands and adding a graphic that you must wash your hands properly.

Imitating positive behavior of a role model may impact the adoption of safe-handling practices. While role modeling has been shown to be an effective mode for behavior change in the nursing and medical arena, the concept has not been applied to food-safety education. Effective role modeling involves exposure, reinforcement, accountability, and repeating positive behavior. We need to start role modeling in food safety world NOW.

From a recent analysis* of 60 TV episodes revealed most common food-handling errors:

  • 98% of episodes (almost every show) failed to wash hands prior to beginning food preparation. However, 46% mentioned handwashing (or showed it), but did not mention that it is recommended 20 seconds.

  • Hosts were shown licking their fingers 5% of the time and touching their head, face, or hair 7% of the time.

  • With respect to cross-contamination, ready-to-eat food or kitchen items were touched after handling raw meat without reference to or actual washing of hands prior to touching the items 27% of times.

  • Cutting boards were used without washing or mention of washing in 69% of the episodes.

  • The host wiped his/her hands with a cloth towel or clothing in 35% of episodes.

  • 52% of the shows, chefs added ingredients to their dish with unwashed hands, and in 11% of the episodes the host was shown sampling food with their hands rather than utensils.

  • 25% of the episodes, the chefs handled the finished dish with their hands instead of utensils, and in 8% of the shows utensils were not washed between being used for raw and ready-to-eat foods.

  • In 45% of the shows, chefs tested meat for doneness without using a thermometer, and 8% mentioned an incorrect cooking temperature.

  • 8% episodes exhibited temperature abuse or recommended serving food at an incorrect temperature.

Who was the most obvious? Bobby Flay’s Boy Meets Grill averaged the most errors per show, at 5.7, while Paula’s Home Cooking averaged the fewest errors, at 4.0 errors per show. Fieri’s Big Bite and Ray’s 30 Minute Meals averaged of 4.1 and 4.2 errors per episode, respectively.

Rachael Ray mentioned on her show that it was OK to leave meatballs out at room temperature and snack on them throughout the night. 27% consumers agreed with her. Yea, sure! Insert your hashtag here > #___

Guy Fieri, while cooking burgers on his show did not use a thermometer, and only used the recipe cooking time. 52% of surveyed consumers agreed that if Guy Fieri did that, they would do the same.

I am not a celebrity chef but a food safety professional and next time you are watching your favorite food show on TV, please remember a few food safety tips:

  1. Always wash your hands with hot, soapy water and rubbing between fingers for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food. Use a paper towel.
  2. Thaw frozen food items in the refrigerator. Never defrost food at room temperature on the counter top or in the sink. It is acceptable to thaw frozen food under running water at a temperature of 70°F or below.
  3. Wash cutting boards and knives with hot, soapy water after food preparation, especially after cutting raw meat, poultry or seafood. Clean utensils and cutting boards between uses when meat has been on them.
  4. Never place food on the same plate or cutting board that previously held raw meat, poultry or seafood unless the cutting board has been thoroughly washed and rinsed.
  5. Refrigerate or freeze prepared foods and leftovers within two to three hours. Do not leave them sitting out at room temperature.

I am not familiar with any celebrity chef’s food-safety trailblazer ranking. Let’s let the food-safety professionals execute the educating and the chefs prepare the meals. As for the celebrity chefs — let’s hope that the TV networks and producer spend a few dollars and hire a consultant so that some key information about food safety is shown and implemented on the shows.

TV celebrity chefs are ideal role models for food safety messaging because of their popularity; therefore, they could serve as important resources for consumer food safety education.


* Published in Food Protection Trends (Volume 36, Number 6) and work supported by National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2012-68003-30155. Author: Rachelle D. Woods and Christine M. Bruhn

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