Teens Taking Chances with Food Safety — And We’re All Affected


Safety is one of the key selling points that agriculture uses to promote food produced on Canadian farms. It’s often mentioned in the same breath as freshness, wholesomeness and nutrition, mirroring what consumers say they value (besides local).

Farmers take many on-farm measures to keep food safe — using sound environmental practices, and federally approved plant and animal health products, for example. But what happens to food after it leaves the farm is varied. It may be out of producers’ hands, but do consumers see it that way? I doubt it. I think consumers see farmers having some responsibility for knowing what’s going on throughout the so-called value chain, in areas such as handling and food processing.

Food safety is enhanced when food is handled properly. Processing includes cleaning. For food produced in the great outdoors, where nature meets agriculture, some cleaning is not only desirable, it’s necessary.

Shannon Majowicz, professor and foodborne disease epidemiologist at the University of Waterloo. Photo by Mike Cowbrough.

“Food isn’t sterile,” says Shannon Majowicz, a University of Waterloo professor and foodborne disease epidemiologist. “People like to see food grown in nature. They like to see nature connected to food production, like deer grazing around farmers’ fields. But when the deer poop on something people are eventually going to eat, like lettuce, that’s a food safety issue.”

In society’s zeal for fresh food, commodities move quickly from the farm to the table — not with reckless abandon, but with purpose. And in many cases, they’re handled by teenagers.

It’s estimated one in five teenagers has some role in handling food that reaches the public, like through fast food outlets and grocery stores. In many cases, food safety and food preparation training is standard.

Nonetheless, Majowicz, working with University of Guelph population medicine professor Andria Jones-Bitton and others, found Ontario teenagers have limited exposure to food preparation, let alone proper food safety procedures.

They’re following a societal trend which sees fewer people — such as their parents — preparing meals at home. So as they age and move out, they enter their new home life with very little experience handling and preparing food.

But there’s an angle even before that. In high school, they’re increasingly taking on volunteer hours as a condition of graduating. In some cases, that involves helping out in places where you might find populations of people particularly susceptible to food-borne disease, such as the very young, and elderly.

“Teenagers are very involved with food preparation and delivery,” says Majowicz. “We want them to learn and develop good food safety habits.”

Last year, she and her research team published a study of Ontario high school students’ food safety knowledge, practices and attitudes, in the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

Then earlier this month, Majowicz presented their findings at the International Association for Food Protection conference in St. Louis, a conference that drew 3,000 participants.

Here’s what they found, based on discussions with students and observations in schools.

On average, students said they were indeed interested in food safety, and in avoiding food poisoning. The students thought they were adept at knowing how to safely cook a meal.

But unfortunately, they’re not. Most assessed meat’s doneness by looking at it, or cutting into it, rather than using a thermometer to check its temperature. They also commonly handled lettuce after handling raw meat.

Only eight per cent washed their hands after handling raw produce.

And many were on their phones while cooking, sometimes taking selfies or pictures of their food, even while handling raw meat.

And yet, they claim foodborne illness is not a personal threat to them. It could, however, certainly be a threat to everyone else.

Majowicz says the study, sponsored by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ Food Safety Research Fund, represents an opportunity to start a conversation between farmers, teenagers and the food industry about this aspect of food safety.

“Consumers are the end users of farmers’ commodities,” she says, “and teenagers have a big role in the delivery of these commodities. As an industry, I believe it’s important for agriculture to know what’s happening with the products it produces, once they leave the farm. And when it comes to food safety concerns about these products, knowledge among teenagers appears poor.”

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