Bad hand-washing habits are spreading dangerous bacteria, USDA warns

WASHINGTON -- Americans are putting themselves at risk of contracting a foodborne illness by not washing their hands properly when handling food, according to new research.

Participants in a recent study failed at hand-washing 97 percent of the time, the United States Department of Agriculture found, often by not washing their hands for 20 full seconds or not drying their washed hands with a clean towel.

Nearly half of those who did not wash their hands thoroughly after handling raw meat later contaminated salt and pepper shakers with bacteria from the meat. Others contaminated the test kitchen's refrigerator handle, the sink faucet handle, their cellphone and lettuce used to prepare a salad.

On its website, the USDA encouraged consumers to follow five steps for hand-washing: wet hands with clean water, lather hands with soap, scrub hands for at least 20 seconds, rinse hands with clean water and dry hands with a clean towel.

"As a mother of three young children, I am very familiar with the mad dash families go through to put dinner on the table," Carmen Rottenberg, the USDA's Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, said in a news release. "You can't see, smell or feel bacteria. By simply washing your hands properly, you can protect your family and prevent that bacteria from contaminating your food and key areas in your kitchen."

The broader study was linked to food preparation habits like thermometer usage. The USDA observed research participants in a test kitchen, finding that those who watched a video about food safety were twice as likely to use a food thermometer to check the doneness of meat than those in a separate group who did not watch the video.

Among those who watched the video, just over half used the thermometer correctly, and only 23 percent of those who didn't watch the video managed to correctly measure the internal temperature of the meat.
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