Not-so-safe Food On Television

Matt Schiering 7/21/16

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

For those of a certain age, you may recall this famous line from the award-winning film, Network. But recently, in the midst of a talk I was giving at the AFDO conference in Pittsburgh, I wouldn’t have been surprised if people started spontaneously shouting it. I had just taken a moment to give a soft plug for a food safety sponsorship my company was doing for a televised cooking show. Specifically, I shared how disappointed I’ve been by the sad state of food safety on nearly every cooking show on television.  I received spontaneous, raucous applause in response.  I couldn’t help but think that maybe we’re onto something.  But, what to do about it?

Like anything, the first step is awareness.  Those of us who work in food safety already have a perception of poor behavior on televised cooking shows, but is there data to back this up?  In fact, there is!  As far back as 2004, when there were fewer than one-fourth as many cooking shows on TV as there are today, the American Meat Institute reported on a study conducted by the University of Guelph. The study revealed that on-air chefs made food safety errors 13x more often than they handled food correctly. In just sixty observed hours of food handling, more than 900 separate errors were noted.  The most frequently observed missteps were closely aligned with the most common causes of foodborne illness:  1) Improper hand washing between prep steps (handing of raw protein, immediately followed by handling vegetables or other foods). 2) Improper surface sanitizing so as to prevent cross-contamination (cutting board usage is a travesty) and 3) Practically no temperature monitoring whatsoever.

Let's do the math. Eight-in-ten Americans report watching at least part of a cooking show every week (Harris Poll).  There is an estimated 400+ broadcast hours of cooking programs viewable any time of day or night every week in the U.S. (not including webcasts). The Food Network alone reaches 85MM households through an array of cable providers. More than 1MM viewers tune in EVERY SINGLE DAY to watch one of these programs. And, this does NOT include the countless news and variety programs which feature cooking segments as part of their daily demographic outreach.  A recent study revealed that 44% of cooking show viewers felt that their own cooking at home was influenced by what they observed on TV; while an astounding 88% rated the behavior of on-air chefs as “better than average.”

So then… if TV chefs are almost universally admired, and nearly half of those watching them model their own behavior on what they’ve observed, and they’re actually observing pitiful food safety practices – what does that mean for the common household cook?  I just a got a chill.  The bad kind. This is precisely why my company decided it was time to sponsor a cooking show by promoting proper food safety solutions. Lest you think this blog was just a shameless plug, I will share that the four episodes of Season Six of All Mixed Up have already aired on Lifetime network.  Our segments featured tips on hand hygiene, proper cooking and thawing temperatures and preventing cross-contamination. Upon request, we are happy to share a summary clip for you to review and share as you deem appropriate. A snapshot can be seen here:

For now, let’s continue to speak up and speak out about what we have all recognized as unacceptable food safety practices on the vast majority of potentially influential TV programs.  Write these programs and the networks which air them; post a blog to share your own perspectives – or simply share this very article.  Together, we can surely impact the conversation... and in time, change behavior for the better!

Matt Schiering is Vice President and General Manager of Sani Professional, the Food Safety division of PDI, Inc. He invites you to share your views with him at: 

Matt Schiering

VP and General manager, Sani Professional