Television cooking shows whip up delicious-looking meals that you may want to make at home yourself—but they may also be cooking up trouble when it comes to food safety, two studies have found.
In the first study, published online in the Journal of Nutrition Education in 2016, researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst analyzed 39 episodes of 10 TV cooking programs to see how well the chefs and contestants complied with 15 standard food safety practices. The results were less than mouth-watering.
In most episodes, food preparers used clean utensils (78 percent), followed practices to prevent contamination during food prep (62 percent), and had clean fingernails (82 percent). But that means that many didn't adhere to these standards, including 12 percent of episodes featuring dirty fingernails (yuck!).
More disconcertingly, most of the shows did not follow most of the recommended practices—at least while on camera—such as washing hands (only 7 percent compliance), washing produce (only 9 percent did that), adhering to proper cooking times and temperatures (7 percent), wearing clean clothes (30 percent), and pulling hair back (12 percent).
Most episodes featured chefs or contestants engaging in behaviors that could spread dangerous bacteria between foods, including not handling raw foods correctly (91 percent) and improperly using wiping cloths (93 percent). Only three episodes even mentioned food safety practices.
“Overall, there is little emphasis on modeling good food safety practices during television cooking shows,” according to the researchers. In fact, celebrity chefs and contestants exhibited more unsafe behaviors than restaurant employees and consumers in general, they noted.
In the second study, which was published in the Journal of Public Health in 2016, researchers from Kansas State University and Tennessee State University watched 100 cooking shows featuring 24 celebrity chefs including Bobby Flay, Curtis Stone, Emeril Lagasse, and Martha Stewart. As in the University of Massachusetts study, the chefs did not always wash their hands, change cutting boards, or use thermometers to check that meat was cooked to proper safe temperature.
Among the, well, grosser practices, 21 percent of the chefs licked their fingers or touched the food after touching their hair or other dirty things. Some chefs were more careful than others, though none got a 100-percent favorable review.
Modeling food safety practices
Some 48 million cases of foodborne illnesses, and 3,000 related deaths, are reported each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though it’s unknown how many cases occur at home, a survey from the International Food Information Council Foundation suggests that home cooks have gotten more lax about food safety in recent years.
The authors of the studies recommend that food safety messages be incorporated into the scripts of cooking shows, with chefs modeling positive behaviors (such as measuring food temperatures, washing produce, and using clean cloths to wipe counters), and that food safety should be part of the criteria used to judge cooking show competitors. If they don't model the behavior, they can at least remind viewers of what to do. Rather than help fuel potential foodborne illnesses, these shows—which are watched by half of U.S. adults at least on occasion, according to a Harris poll—might then instead help decrease them.
Also see Test Your Food Safety Smarts.