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USDA study finds people not handling and heating frozen foods safely

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Photo: Jennifer Yario

Raleigh, NC — Many people may not be preparing frozen foods safely, leaving them – and their families – at risk of illness, results of a recent study indicate.

On behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, independent research institute RTI International and North Carolina State University conducted a multi-method study to examine consumer food-handling behaviors.

Although frozen foods are convenient for families, some of the confusion comes from people not knowing if products are raw or ready to eat. In a web-based survey of more than 400 U.S. adults, 22% either identified a not-ready-to-eat chicken entrée as either fully cooked or partially cooked, or didn’t realize the product was actually raw. Many frozen foods “have browned breading, grill marks or other signs that normally show that a product has been cooked,” researchers said.

In addition, 61% of the respondents said that despite previously experiencing a foodborne illness, they haven’t made any changes to the way they handle food at home. Even more concerning: Half of those respondents said someone living in their home is susceptible to a foodborne ailment.

During a segment of the study that involved food preparation in a test kitchen, 97% of participants didn’t wash their hands to help prevent cross-contamination. Of the 3% who washed their hands, 95% did so improperly, with most not washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

Millions of Americans are sickened with foodborne illnesses annually, resulting in an estimated 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to a Sept. 23 press release from USDA, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To lower the risk of foodborne illnesses, USDA recommends:

The study findings – part of a larger research project commissioned by FSIS to evaluate various consumer food handling behaviors – are included in RTI International’s “Food Safety Consumer Research Project: Meal Preparation Experiment on Raw Stuffed Chicken Breasts” final report, published Sept. 23.

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