CORVALLIS - That masterpiece of the outdoor grill, a hamburger charred on the outside, pink and juicy on the inside, is becoming a museum piece - at least in Oregon, according to a report by two Oregon State University researchers.
In two surveys of food handling practices in Oregon households - one in 1986 and the other in 1996 - perceptions that rare hamburger might cause illness changed dramatically. In 1986, 52 percent of the survey participants, who were the major food preparers in their households, said rare hamburger posed a high risk. In 1996, that figure jumped to 88 percent.
Even more gratifying to Carolyn Raab, OSU Extension food and nutrition specialist, and co-author of the research published in the Journal of Consumer Studies and Home Economics, people also changed their behavior as a result of their awareness of the dangers of rare hamburger. In 1986, 23 percent of those surveyed served rare hamburger. That figure dropped to five percent in 1996.
"Obviously, people should not serve rare hamburger, especially in light of the recent recall of millions pounds of hamburger suspected of being contaminated with E. coli bacteria," said Raab, referring to a recent incident in Colorado.
Raab and her research colleague, Margy Woodburn, emeritus professor of nutrition and food management at OSU, attribute the heightened awareness in Oregon to media coverage linking undercooked hamburgers to an E. coli outbreak in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s.
That awareness doesn't extend to other parts of the nation. For example, a 1995 survey in Nebraska found only 58 percent of consumers cooked hamburgers until they were well-done.
"We could eliminate the threat posed by E. coli in hamburger simply by cooking all hamburger until it is well done. And that applies to hamburger cooked at home as well as in restaurants," Raab said.
Raab and Woodburn noted that the Industry Council on Food Safety has designated September as National Food Safety Education Month as a way to reinforce food safety practices with food professionals and in the home.
While the recent recall of hamburger has focused attention on governmental safeguards to protect the public from contaminated food, the way consumers handle and prepare food in the home is perhaps more important in guarding against food poisoning.
"Even if we could devise a foolproof food safety inspection system, it's unlikely that people would be willing to pay the higher cost of food that would result," Raab said.
Raab and Woodburn's research on food handling practices and food risk perceptions was gauged to measure the extent to which Oregon food preparers take an active role in ensuring the safety of the food they consume at home. They found that Oregonians are doing better than in the past, but still not good enough.
When it comes to food safety, hamburger is just one of many potential problems. Food products of animal origin pose an inherent food safety risk because bacteria and parasites can be present. If these food products are not cooked adequately, they can cause illness. Bacteria in raw, or unpasteurized, milk has been linked to food poisoning. And raw fish, and rare or raw pork, can be sources of parasites.
Although the researchers found that Oregon food preparers increased their awareness of risks connected with undercooked or raw animal products over the last decade, they still underestimated the risks posed by raw fish and raw milk products.
Only 23 percent of the surveyed men characterized raw, or unpasteurized, milk and milk products as a high risk food compared to 69 percent of the women. And people with a higher level of formal education discounted the risk of eating raw fish. Respondents with a postgraduate or professional degree selected the "no risk" rating for raw fish.
The researchers also looked at another major source of food poisoning, perishable foods held at room temperature more than two to three hours. While 59 percent of the respondents wrongly considered mayonnaise to be a high-risk food, they underestimated the hazards of baked potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, sliced turkey and cream pie.
Mayonnaise, says Raab, is the victim of a myth that will not die. The acidity of mayonnaise inhibits bacterial growth. Salads that contain mayonnaise are sometimes implicated in food poisoning outbreaks because bacteria can contaminate the food during all the cutting and mixing.
"These bacteria especially love cooked foods that are high in protein and start to grow if these foods sit at lukewarm temperatures."
Botulism, the most serious and often fatal form of food poisoning, has been linked to foil-wrapped baked potatoes, sauteed onions, meat stews, and pot pies left at room temperature or in a warming oven overnight. Other types of food poisoning are also associated with cooked meat, poultry and ham, potato and pasta salad, refried beans and custard. In addition, soups and gravies that are cooled too slowly pose a risk. Perishable foods must be kept either hot or cold to prevent bacterial growth.
Raab and Woodburn also wanted to find out if home food preparers in Oregon used the safe handling instructions label now placed on all raw and partially cooked meat and poultry. They found that 83 percent of them had seen the labels, but almost one-third weren't following the advice on cleaning, cooking and cooling.
The disparity between food safety knowledge and actual practice indicates a need for continuing education about potential hazards, the researchers contend. People generally associate the lowest personal risk of food poisoning with food prepared in the home and perceive the greatest risk from food prepared by others.
"More illnesses are caused by unsafe food handling practices in the home than people are willing to admit. We want to motivate people to minimize the risks when preparing food at home," Raab said.
An estimated 9,000 Americans die from food poisoning every year. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 1 to 5 percent of food poisoning cases are believed to be reported. That translates into roughly six million to 81 million cases in the United States each year.