An editorial in today’s New York Times points out that there a lot worse for our health than rats scurrying across the floors of fast food restaurants. What could be worse? How about home cooked meals.
Rats in restaurants, while distasteful, are more a distraction than a disaster for public health. As reported in this newspaper, flies — each one a potential airborne disease carrier — are a more dire threat. So are cows, sheep and pigs, whose excrement can contaminate food at its source with E. coli, as was recently believed to be the case with California spinach and with vegetables served at Taco Bell. And to echo the punch line of many a nature documentary, the greatest threat to restaurant sanitation is man: salmonella, for example, is typically initiated or spread through improper hand-washing, food handling or cooking.
Restaurants, moreover, are not the primary source of the food we eat. Most meals, even in the dining-obsessed culture of New York City, are taken in the home. We tend to think of our own kitchens as clean, but research published in 2004 by Janet Anderson of Utah State University paints a different picture.
Professor Anderson filmed 100 people preparing a meat entree and a salad at home. The subjects were told they were being observed for chicken and meatloaf recipes, but the study was actually about food safety. Of the 100 cooks, fewer than 50 washed their hands before preparing food; 30 failed to clean their cutting boards; 82 undercooked the chicken; 46 undercooked the meatloaf; and 24 didn’t store raw meat on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator (to keep any leaking juices from dripping onto other food).
An earlier study, by Audits International of Highland Park, Ill., evaluated 106 home kitchens in 81 cities in the United States and Canada. It found that 99 percent violated at least one critical food safety standard. Yet home kitchens are not subject to health inspections.