A touch of the face here, a lick of the finger there. We've all seen TV chefs do it before. But, do these minor transgressions add up to poor food safety?
In an effort to determine how effective television cooking shows are at demonstrating good food safety practices, researchers at Texas Tech University recently completed a study analyzing programs broadcast by the Food Network.
Similar studies of television food programs have occurred in other countries - notably an evaluation of television cooking shows on public television in the UK and Canada. The Texas Tech study purports to be the first such study ever conducted in the U.S.
Over a two-week period in May 2007, researchers watched 49 Food Network cooking shows, including "30 Minute Meals with Rachael Ray," "The Essence of Emeril," "Everyday Italian," "Paula's Home Cooking, and "Semi Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee," coding instances of 17 different categories of "positive" and "negative" behaviors.
According to the researchers, positive behaviors included hand washing, cleaning equipment, washing fruits and vegetables, adequate refrigeration, and use of a thermometer. Negative behaviors, included the use of food from the floor, failure to refrigerate perishables, failure to wash fruits or vegetables, inadequately washing equipment, sampling food or licking fingers, cross-contamination of ready-to-eat or raw foods, touching the face and failing to wash hands.
The researchers identified a total of 460 poor food handling incidents and 118 positive food-safety behaviors. Certain behaviors deemed to be poor -- such as not washing fruits, vegetables and herbs properly, as well as a lack of hand washing in general - were prevalent.
TV chef Paula Deen figured prominently in the results, both positive and negative. "Overwhelmingly, Paula Deen improperly sampled food or licked her fingers the most, with 20 observations in nine shows," wrote Erica Irlbeck, one of the study's co-authors, in an email. On the other hand, she noted that Deen also "exhibited the correct method to sample food, from an individual serving dish, more than any other host (eight)."
I asked Irlbeck whether hand washing and washing of produce, while absent from the broadcast, may simply take place before the cameras start rolling. "We are very well aware of the fact that a lot of the food safety behaviors not exhibited on these shows most likely occurs off camera," she wrote. "The Food Network is primarily entertainment, and watching someone wash vegetables or clean countertops is not very entertaining. Additionally, in a 30 minute television program, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate every food safety practice. With that said, some simple changes (they're listed in the study) to future, and possibly existing, shows could be very beneficial to demonstrate safe cooking practices to the amateur cook."
One of the recommendations was the addition of graphics, superimposed on-screen during the shows, to "explain the necessary precautions to prevent foodborne illness."
Brooke Johnson, president of the Food Network, reacted to the study with the following statement:
"Food Network was not involved in the research process of this study and we have not been given the opportunity to review the full findings. However, we can say with complete confidence that we adhere to established food safety standards when producing our programs, discussing these practices regularly with the producers, cooking experts and chefs involved in Food Network programming. Food Network Kitchens has developed a printed manual, "Food Handling Producer Guidelines," that is provided to those involved in the production of our shows. In addition, we regularly inform our viewers of a variety of food safety practices and feature an area on our Web site (www.foodnetwork.com) devoted to the subject.
"An important distinction is that our programming depicts cooking, dining and entertaining as a fun, shared experience. It would be out of context to present all the safety standards you would expect in restaurants (such as hairnets and gloves) when most of our shows portray cooking at home. It should be noted, as with any instructional or project-based program, not every step of the process is captured in the final, edited episode. But we do our very best to present viewers with the tools necessary to be safe while enjoying cooking at home."
Irlbeck, a self-described "huge fan "of the Food Network, says that she won't be changing her TV habits based on her findings: "Doing this study did not make me less of a fan -- it just created an opportunity to point out, especially to beginner cooks, that many food safety practices are not being demonstrated. The Food Network has an opportunity to educate the fans at home how to safely prepare foods."