Cookbooks Aren't Doing Their Job When It Comes to Food Safety

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A new study found that cookbook information is often incorrect when it comes to safe food handling.

Canadian cookbook authors may know how to create great recipes, but they're lacking when it comes to food safety advice. A new study out of the University of Guelph found that 96 percent of newly published cookbooks in Canada "provided incorrect temperatures or failed to include minimum internal temperatures needed to determine if food is safely cooked."

The researchers came to this conclusion after analyzing how 19 newly published cookbooks handled seven food categories – fresh meat, seafood, eggs, poultry, pork, ground meat, and meat mixes. What they found was an alarming lack of information about how to handle these potentially risky ingredients.

Ten percent of the recipes "actually contained unsafe food preparation instructions in the form of thawing and washing," said study co-author and food science professor Jeffrey Farber. Only 8 percent recommended using a food thermometer. The rest of the time, home cooks are urged to determine doneness by look and time passed, but Farber says these methods aren't reliable or safe. He is cited in the Star:

"One good example, when you’re cooking ground beef — which has been implicated in a number of E. coli outbreaks — it can actually turn brown well before they reach the recommended 71 degrees Celsius. We usually use the slogan, 'Your burger is done at 71.'"

What does Farber want to see in new cookbooks? In a nutshell, hand-washing prior to cooking, different plates for raw and cooked meats, proper thawing techniques (in cold water or in fridge, not out on counter), thermometer testing for meat doneness, and no more washing raw meat prior to cooking (it spreads pathogens).

Forty-two percent of foodborne illnesses are contracted in the home, says Public Health Ontario, so although it's statistically less likely than getting it at a fast food joint, it's still a good place to encourage better habits.

The study does beg the question, is it the role of cookbooks to instruct home cooks in food handling? That's where I'm stuck because I'd be annoyed if a book told me to wash my hands repeatedly. Perhaps the amount of advice could be adjusted to the level of cooking ability reflected in the recipes; for beginner cooks, such guidelines may be necessary, but it seems silly to tell experienced cooks to swap a dirty plate for a clean one when handling meat.

Nevertheless, Farber and his colleagues believe this is an important point and want Canadians to realize that cookbook recipes "can't be relied upon as a tool for food safety education." There you have it. You've been warned.