NSF International conducted a survey of 1,000 Americans to determine awareness and misconceptions of food safety in the home. The results were interesting — and surprising — and in some instances, contradictory.
Results of NSF Food Behavior Survey
NSF found that many consumers are uncertain about basic food safety practices in the home, either doing too much or too little when it comes to the safe handling and preparation of meals.
- Expiration dates. When asked if they’ve ever served or eaten food after its expiration date, 47 percent of respondents indicated they have. Consuming food past the expiration date isn’t necessarily dangerous, as some expiration dates like best used by and sell by dates are for freshness rather than for food safety. However, use by and expiration dates are two types of dates that refer to food safety, and you should never buy or use any foods past these dates , especially baby formula, baby food and dietary supplements.
- Defrosting foods. When survey respondents were asked what method they most frequently use to defrost meat:
- 18 percent indicated that they thaw meat at room temperature.
- 57 percent indicated that they thaw meat in the refrigerator.
- 20 percent indicated that they thaw meat in the microwave.
Frozen foods should never be thawed at room temperature, since bacteria can multiply very rapidly once any portion of the food item has reached 40ºF (4.4ºC). Frozen meat should be defrosted either in the refrigerator or in the microwave if you plan to finish cooking the meat right away. It is okay to cook meat from a frozen state, although it will take approximately 50 percent longer to complete the cooking process.
- Leftover storage. When asked how long do they usually keep leftovers in the refrigerator before discarding them,
- 47 percent responded that they stored leftovers three to four days.
- 32 percent kept leftovers for one to two days.
- 17 percent responded that they kept leftovers for more than five days or until they smelled or developed mold.
- 6 percent indicated they did not keep leftovers.
The general rule for leftovers is to consume them within three to four days or dispose of them. If you don’t plan to consume leftovers right away, consider freezing them.
- Handwashing practices. When asked how they typically clean their hands after handling raw meat or poultry:
- 77 percent responded that they washed their hands with soap and warm water.
- 12 percent washed with soap and cold water.
- 13 percent rinsed them under tap water without soap.
Washing hands with soap and warm water is recommended. Warm water is preferred over cold as it is more effective at removing grease and grime and it increases soap’s effectiveness. Lather your hands for at least 20 seconds before rinsing off the soap and drying.
- Observing the two-hour rule. When asked how often that they have eaten or served food that had been sitting out at room temperature for more than two hours, 47 percent said they have done so at least sometimes. This can be a very dangerous behavior, as bacteria can multiply very rapidly at temperatures between 40º F (4.4ºC) and 140ºF (60ºC).
- Washing produce. When asked how often they wash packaged fruits or vegetables, 60 percent said always. This is a very good idea if the package doesn’t indicate that the produce has been pre-washed.
- Handling defrosted meats. When asked if they have ever re-frozen meats that have been fully or partially defrosted, 64 percent said never. Actually, it’s okay to re-freeze partially or fully defrosted foods provided that they were properly thawed in the refrigerator (not the microwave) and haven’t been in the refrigerator for more than one to two days.
- Determining doneness. When asked how they know when food is done, the survey responded indicated:
- 43 percent use sight only.
- 38 percent use a food thermometer.
- 26 percent use time, i.e. when the recipe says the food should be done.
The remainder of the respondents indicated they use other methods, such as taste or smell. A certified food thermometer should always be used to confirm doneness, as neither color nor time is a reliable indicator of doneness.
The results of this survey certainly demonstrate the need for additional consumer education around food safety in the home. Many of the food safety practices we learn at home when we’re young are carried with us through life and passed to the next generation. By making a few simple changes to our everyday practices, we can help make a substantial difference in protecting against foodborne illness.