Home-cooked meals evoke a certain sense of comfort, nostalgia, and even safety. But while meals prepared by family, friends, and community members may be delicious, "made with love" does not inherently mean "made without Salmonella" or other pathogens that can cause food poisoning. Pathogenic bacteria can be brought into the home on raw foods—such as poultry, fruits and vegetables, and others—that consumers purchase from the grocery store and then spread unknowingly around the kitchen through improper food handling and preparation procedures, which can lead to foodborne illness.
Food safety teams at food production and processing companies work to eliminate these pathogenic threats to home kitchens; however, as a microbiologist will say, "There is no such thing as zero risk" from pathogenic bacteria in the food supply. The reality is that home kitchens are not as hygienic as we would like or assume them to be. However, we can reduce risks in our home kitchens by providing people with solid science, education, and communication about home food safety.
Although food safety is not a new concept, foodborne illnesses are more commonly associated with commercial food production and manufacturing, and with restaurants rather than home kitchens. For instance, news about E. coli and Salmonella traced back to food storage and processing facilities pervades the headlines. In some U.S. cities, restaurants prominently display their sanitary inspection letter grades on their windows—an alarming or reassuring notice to customers.
Along these same lines, if you asked people to assign a hypothetical letter grade to their home kitchen, would those grades be alarming or reassuring?
Unlike commercial kitchens, home kitchens are often multipurpose in nature. Our countertops are where we cut our food, but they are also where we toss schoolbooks, tools, purses, and other things—without considering whether those non-food items last sat on a school bus seat or on an office, garage, or bathroom floor. Although home kitchens can be more of a breeding ground for disease than we realize, there is something each of us can do: with proper research, education, and guidance, we can take strides to reduce foodborne illness stemming from the home.
Addressing Food Safety Knowledge Gaps
Many people are unaware of the threat that foodborne illnesses pose in their own homes, studies indicate.1 Even when people seem to know about food safety in the home, there can still be a gap between best practice and actual behavior.2 The reasons for this gap are likely multifaceted—inadequate guidance, unclear food safety protocols, and a lack of education about home kitchen hygiene practices, even though this gap can affect the health of our friends and family.
Even if people abide by some hygienic practices, such as washing their hands after touching raw meat, they may do so inconsistently or inadequately. For instance, handwashing might happen only after contaminating the spice rack, the refrigerator door, and the sink faucet itself. People may leave potato salad in the sun for too long during a barbeque, skip washing fruits and vegetables, eat raw cookie dough, or take other actions without realizing the risks involved.
As we can see, our home kitchens are not inherently safe just because we are in control of how food is handled there. We need a clear understanding of which hygiene habits are most effective in mitigating food safety risks so that we can take appropriate action. For instance, what is the best way to prevent the spread of Salmonella after cracking eggs or preparing a steak? How long can leftover chicken be stored in the refrigerator before it spoils? What is the time limit for leaving a carton of milk on the kitchen counter? Different answers to these questions might come from different sources: family members, online articles, or perhaps even from school, although school education about this may be on the decline. Children have fewer chances to learn about safe food handling practices in the classroom as consumer science courses become less common, according to a literature review3 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Although we are not adequately preparing the next generation with the information needed to protect themselves from the foodborne illnesses they may be unwittingly cooking up at home, there are measures we can take to change this.
The Menu of Ingredients Needed to Change the Status Quo
To prevent foodborne illnesses, we need more education. To provide good education, we also need to build a clear and definitive body of research about good hygienic practices.
Specifically, we need to deepen our understanding about which hygienic practices most effectively reduce the transmission of foodborne illness at home, so that we can help protect our families, friends, communities, and ourselves. We need to develop a solid evidence base that makes clear how we can change habits to create safer food preparation and storage activities. We also need to define things such as how soon "promptly" is for the guidance "refrigerate promptly," and at what length of time and temperature food left out of the refrigerator "overnight" becomes a concern. Otherwise, we are left with educated guesses, gut feelings, and whatever knowledge might be gleaned from family, friends, and the internet.
People tend to be overly optimistic and confident about the safety of their home kitchens, perceiving that their personal risk of foodborne illness is lower than that of others. As the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health review3 notes, various studies find that consumers do not view the home as a likely source of foodborne illness, and even consumers who have suffered a foodborne illness are reluctant to identify home-cooked food as the issue. Evidence and education are important, but so are understanding and awareness. What people should change about how they handle food must be accompanied by an understanding of why making these changes is important.
Prioritizing the Prevention of Foodborne Illnesses
We can proactively prevent foodborne illnesses instead of merely reacting to them. This hinges on our ability to shape hygiene habits at home, in addition to actions taken by the commercial food industry.
The World Health Organization estimates that around 600 million people each year get sick after eating contaminated food, whether it is prepared at home or commercially.4 The gravity of this statistic cannot be overstated. Foodborne illness leads to more than 420,000 deaths per year, supply chain disruptions, economic losses, burdens on the medical system, and other negative outcomes.
The reality is that many of these cases stem from the home, despite the best intentions of people. An article5 highlights studies showing that food consumed at home may contribute to more foodborne illnesses than food from cafeterias, and that small outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in homes may be responsible for the majority of food poisonings.
When it comes to foodborne illnesses, or any illness, prevention is better than treatment. More science is needed to inform public health education—and public health education about hygiene should be enhanced rather than becoming less common. Knowing something is healthier is only step one; advocating for behavior change across generations and empowering home chefs with better habits requires investing in research, policy, education, and personal practice.
- Jevšnik, Mojca, Lucija Pirc, Andrej Ovca, et al. "A Multimethod Study on Kitchen Hygiene, Consumer Knowledge and Food Handling Practices at Home." Processes 10, no. 10 (2022). https://www.mdpi.com/2227-9717/10/10/2104#B1-processes-10-02104.
- Nesbitt, Andrea, Shannon Majowicz, Rita Finley, et al. "High-Risk Food Consumption and Food Safety Practices in a Canadian Community." Journal of Food Protection 72, no. 12 (December 2009). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0362028X2200583X.
- Byrd-Bredbenner, Carol, Jacqueline Berning, Jennifer Martin-Biggers, and Virginia Quick. "Food Safety in Home Kitchens: A Synthesis of the Literature." International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 10, no. 9 (2013). https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/10/9/4060.
- World Health Organization. "Food Safety." 2023. https://www.who.int/health-topics/food-safety#tab=tab_1.
- Redmond, Elizabeth C. and Christopher J. Griffith. "Consumer Food Handling in the Home: A Review of Food Safety Studies." Journal of Food Protection 66, no. 1 (January 2003). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0362028X2203023X.