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Scientists Think Home Cooks Don't Know How to Wash Their Hands

Most home and restaurant cooks are cross-contaminating food like crazy. And it's all because no one knows how to wash their hands.

Say you're a particularly staunch vegan, and your mom is making dinner for the entire family. Supposing she's using separate vessels and utensils for preparing your seitan loaf and the rest of the family's plump roast chicken, you'd think that the chances of some poultry juice making its way into your plant-based Lump of Sanctity is pretty low, right? Well, no. Wrong. You, your mom, and almost everyone else you know is cross-contaminating like crazy.

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Most home chefs have a deplorable track record when it comes to food safety, new research from Kansas State University has concluded. As Science Daily reports, university researchers evaluating current food safety messages videotaped home cooks preparing a meal (very 1984, if you ask us). The meal included both raw meat and a fruit salad; in order to trace the spread of the meat's pathogens, the researchers inoculated it beforehand with a harmless organism whose presence they could test for later. At the end of the experiment, researchers found that a shocking 90 percent of participants had contaminated the fruit salad with germs from the raw meat. Sorry, vegetarians.

The basic problem, researchers found, is that people don't really know how to wash their hands. Though the home cooks included in the study did tend to wash, they did so crappily, either not scrubbing for long enough or foregoing soap altogether (smart move). Then, they dried their hands on kitchen towels multiple times, first contaminating the towels and then re-contaminating their hands each time they dried them. When they went to touch the fruit? Bam, salmonella salad.

"When you actually videotape it and observe it, most consumers are doing a really bad job in terms of preventing food contamination," Randy Phebus, the study's head researcher, told Science Daily.

The laughable results of the study are all the more hilarious when you consider the fact that prior to participating in the cooking experiment, the majority of the home cooks—two out of three groups of them—were either instructed on food safety practices or watched videos on the same practices. But cooks who received food safety messages before cooking performed only slightly better in the kitchen than those who received no messages at all, demonstrating the fact that old habits die hard (that, or food safety messages are really boring).

"Human behavior can be modified, but it's a very complicated effort to do that," Phebus said.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, that's exactly what a Republican senator is trying to do. Except Thom Tillis doesn't want cooks to wash their hands more—he wants them to wash them less. On Monday, while giving a speech criticizing what the senator sees as overly restrictive business regulations, Tillis opined that restaurant workers shouldn't be required to suds up after visiting the restroom. He argued that individual businesses—not the government—should be able to decide what's required of their workers.

"I don't have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy," Tillis said. In a case of huh? logic, the senator argued that consumers would be grossed out by such establishments, would refuse to patronize them, and that the businesses would eventually shut down, letting the free market take care of things. But considering that restaurants are already the most common sources of the pathogens that cause food poisoning, Tillis's thoughtful remarks aren't likely to do anyone any good if put into practice.

Thanks but no thanks for the suggestion, Tillis. We don't know what goes on in your home kitchen, but we'd like to at least cling to the (likely vain) hope that those ubiquitous brown-and-white bathroom signs actually make an impact on restaurant workers' sanitary practices.