Lack of knowledge about food hygiene putting teens at risk

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Many teenagers are lacking in basic food hygiene skills, putting their health at risk by engaging in dodgy food handling practices.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo examined the food practices of Ontario high school students and found many of them didn't observe basic food safety rules.

Of the 32 recommended food-handling techniques, below 50 per cent were being observed by the students. These included basic hand hygiene and measures to prevent cross-contamination.

The students were then put through a standard food-handling course and observed two more times to see if they'd picked-up any of the required food safety rules.

Although improved markedly, many still engaged in risky behaviour that could lead to food-borne diseases.

"High school students represent the next generation of food handlers, but they are not well studied," said lead researcher Ken Diplock.

"They are just starting to prepare food on their own and for others, and they're also beginning to work in the food industry.

"It's important to get to students before they develop bad habits."

One skill that did stick, following the training course, was the use of thermometers to test when meat was cooked. Prior to training, only 5 per cent of the teenagers used a thermometer, compared to 33 per cent of teens observed by researchers three months after the course.

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"Even though training programs have important benefits, there are obviously still gaps between knowledge and how food handlers behave," said Mr Diplock.

"Food safety education improves knowledge and behaviour, but unless the values are reinforced in other areas such as home life and society, the behaviours will not always stick."

Chef and director of the Kids Cooking Academy director Richard Neale said he wasn't surprised by the study's findings.

"I think we do a good job teaching kids at an early age about the importance of washing their hands before they eat and after going to the toilet quite well, but unfortunately if left to their own devices children and teenagers will always take the easy or lazy option," Mr Neale said.

"It will always be up to parents and educators to reinforce these behaviours."

He said the rise of food delivery companies made it even more vital to teach teens about proper food handling, storage and hygiene.

"With the explosion of companies like Uber Eats and Menulog, it has never been more necessary to teach teens the importance of how to store food correctly along with the temperature danger zones of food.

"It is extremely important to provide teens with this knowledge around leaving food out."

And with more teens cooking for themselves, their friends, family and also working in food outlets, they should know the basics about cooking and food safety.

"It should also be reinforced with the practical aspect of cooking food so they have something to relate to and apply the theory which they have learnt," he said.

"Understanding of cross contamination is also vital, especially as they start to prepare food for themselves or others."

Learning the basics of food hygiene will protect teens against illness and, in the worst case, death.

"The biggest risk of poor food hygiene and storage is food poisoning," he said.

"In extreme cases this can be fatal or lead to a lifetime of problems internally.

"Food hygiene isn't a big issue for teens as they feel invincible and don't think these things can happen to them, that's why we need to show them the importance of this and reinforce the behaviour until they get it right."

His top tips for better food hygiene are:

  • Always wash your hands before preparing food.
  • Never leave food out of the refrigerator for extended periods of time.
  • Constantly review the use-by dates of all your food products.
  • Prepare different foods on different chopping boards to avoid cross contamination.
  • Make sure the area where you prepare your food is clean and has been sanitised thoroughly.