Recently, a popular on-air personality did a segment remotely from a restaurant. While participating in this cooking segment in a restaurant kitchen, he didn’t wash his hands before handling the food, didn’t check the internal temperature of the burger he was cooking, sampled the burger while still wearing food prep gloves – and the list of his mistakes goes on and on.Part of my morning routine is watching a national morning television show or cooking show while I’m getting ready for work. Often, the on-air personalities make blatant food safety errors on national TV – which make their viewers think it’s OK to model similar behavior in their own kitchens.
While I recognize that there’s limited air-time for each televised segment, it’s frustrating (and dangerous) to see on-air personalities make such obvious errors with regard to food safety protocols. When viewers see highly-respected TV personalities and chefs skip hand washing, fail to use meat thermometers, cross-contaminate (e.g., using the same board to prep raw meat and ready-to-eat foods like vegetables), or cook with their long hair and dangly earrings hanging over the food, they think it’s OK for them to do the same. Keep in mind: each of these mistakes on its own could cause a foodborne illness incident or outbreak. Combining multiple errors while prepping one meal increases the risk factors exponentially.
As a food safety expert – and as someone with a robust history of food service and hospitality experience myself – I encourage the media to do a better job promoting the importance of food safety. And I also remind TV viewers to not make these same mistakes in their own kitchens.
Foodborne illness is a widespread and serious problem that sickens 48 million people in the U.S. each year and contributes to 5,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths annually. I travel around the country educating people about the importance of food safety protocols, but then they tune into cooking shows/segments and see TV personalities making the very same mistakes that I tell them to avoid.
Foodborne illness is 100% preventable. Whether you’re running a restaurant, cooking dinner for your family at home, or demonstrating a new recipe on a television show, there are certain things you should do every day – for every meal – to prevent foodborne illness:
- Wash your freaking hands. This is the single most important thing for people to do to prevent the spread of dangerous bacteria. Wash your hands with soap and hot water – not hand sanitizer – and scrub in between your fingers and under your fingernails. Dry your hands with a clean, single-use towel.
- Avoid cross-contamination. Raw proteins – poultry, meats, seafood, and eggs – contain bacteria, so be sure to wash and sanitize anything that’s come in contact with these raw foods – your hands, cutting boards, knives, plates, etc. Don’t use the same cutting board or knife to chop ready-to-eat foods (like veggies for a salad) after prepping raw chicken on that board. And don’t place cooked meats on the same plate you used to hold the raw meats.
- Cook foods to the proper temperature. Use a food thermometer every time you cook meats/proteins to ensure they’ve been cooked to the proper temp. Undercooked foods can harbor unsafe levels of bacteria and can make diners sick – and can even kill them. Many cooking show hosts and TV chefs use “touch” methods or look for a certain color in their meats to determine doneness, but neither of these approaches ensures that the meats are cooked to safe temperatures. Years ago, a huge foodborne illness outbreak at a Jack in the Box restaurant was traced back to undercooked burgers. People died from this mistake. Avoid this error in your kitchen!
- Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Not only should you cook foods to proper temperatures, but you should serve them correctly, too. If you have a buffet at your restaurant (or at a party at home), keep hot foods hot using warmers or slow cookers, and serve cold foods (like shrimp cocktail) on ice so they remain chilled. Don’t allow any foods to sit out for more than two hours – or one hour if your party is outside on a warm day.
- Properly clean and sanitize all equipment. Often, on television, chefs use a cloth towel to wipe off cutting boards or knives. Wiping equipment with a cloth towel won’t remove bacteria from the surface – only properly cleaning and sanitizing can do that. In fact, if you wipe contaminated equipment with a towel, the towel would then be covered in bacteria that can be spread to hands, foods, and other equipment. It’s essential to regularly rinse, wash and sanitize all surfaces and equipment – especially after prepping raw proteins.
- Practice safety over fashion. On TV, chefs always look “camera-ready,” with cute outfits, stylish jewelry and fancy hairdos and fingernails. In reality, restaurant and home chefs should tie their hair back so strands don’t drop into the food, contaminating it. Also, rings, bracelets, and watches can trap dirt, food, and bacteria – and possibly fall into the food accidentally – and shouldn’t be worn while preparing or serving food. Fingernails should be kept short and clean, and fake fingernails (which can harbor bacteria and fall into the food) should never be worn in the kitchen.
Cooking shows and segments are certainly entertaining and can inspire new ideas, recipes, and techniques. While it’s OK to watch and enjoy these shows, be aware that they often don’t reflect proper food safety protocols that would keep your guests – and your family – safe and healthy. Follow proper food safety practices every day, with every meal, no matter what you see chefs doing on TV. While TV chefs can be fun to watch, they most certainly are not good role models when it comes to food safety. Hopefully, that will change in the future. If these popular television chefs modeled proper food safety practices, perhaps more restaurant and home chefs would learn to do the same.