Many young adults take chances with food safety

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Efforts to teach young adults about food safety may not be hitting home, a new study suggests.

Dr. Carol Byrd-Bredbenner of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and colleagues found that many college students engaged in eating behaviors that could make them sick, like eating raw homemade cookie dough or runny eggs.

While people are becoming increasingly aware of food safety issues, Byrd-Bredbenner and her team note, surveys still show a substantial proportion run the risk of food poisoning by eating raw eggs, undercooked hamburger and other foods that may harbor harmful bacteria.

To investigate how often young adults engage in this type of “risky eating behavior,” they surveyed 4,343 students at 21 colleges and universities across the U.S. about their eating habits and confidence in their ability to handle food safely. The findings are published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

On average, the study participants reported feeling strongly that they could prepare and handle food safely. But 53 percent reported eating raw homemade cookie dough (which contains uncooked eggs), 33 percent said they ate fried eggs with soft or runny yolks, 29 percent ate sushi, and 28 percent consumed raw sprouts. Eleven percent said they ate raw oysters, clams or mussels, and 7 percent said they ate pink hamburger.

The higher a person’s confidence in their food safety skills, the less likely they were to eat these high-risk foods, the researchers found, while people who perceived food poisoning to be a threat were also less likely to take food safety chances. White men were especially likely to eat risky foods.

While people who scored higher on tests of their food safety knowledge were less likely to eat risky foods, this knowledge-behavior link was “very weak,”

Byrd-Bredbenner and her team report.

This finding, along with high rates of risky eating seen in another study of students who had completed a food safety course, “suggests that current food safety education efforts may not provide the information and/or motivation needed to compel individuals to change their consumption levels of risky foods,” the researchers say.

They conclude: “Health professionals should focus creative efforts on developing safe food consumption behaviors in this group and thereby help safeguard the health of this population and enable them to fulfill the role of protecting the health of their future families.”

SOURCE: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, March 2008.