Celebrity Chefs Are Lousy Role Models

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Research suggests cooking show hosts often engage in less-than-sanitary behaviors while demonstrating their craft.

By Tom Jacobs

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Rachael Ray. (Photo: D Dipasupil/Getty Images)

Chances are you’d rather not poison your dinner guests this holiday season. So here’s a tip as to how to prevent food-borne illnesses in the dishes you prepare: Don’t watch any cooking shows. Or, if you do, don’t assume that you can follow the habits and behaviors of celebrity chefs and all will be well.

“Celebrity chefs are simply not demonstrating good food-safety behaviors” on their television programs, according to a recently published study in the Journal of Public Health. The researchers — Curtis Maughan and Edgar Chambers IV of Kansas State University, and Sandria Godwin of Tennessee State University — cite, among other things, a lack of hand-washing and the hosts’ unsanitary tendency to eat while cooking.

When some viewers “see that behavior modeled by someone who is more experienced than they are,” they may decide that it is either “fine, or not that important,” they write. They add that this remains true regardless of whether the chefs are being sloppy, or their proper practices are being edited out.

During the first 10 months of 2015, the researchers watched 100 episodes of cooking shows shown on cable TV and/or online services such as Netflix and Hulu. The programs featured 24 high-profile chefs, including Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, and Bobby Flay.

They focused specifically on recipes that contain meat (including poultry or fish), “as it is relatively easy to cross-contaminate the bacteria from meat during its preparation.” All of the episodes featured at least one meat dish, while some contained as many as five.

“Almost all of the chefs — 21 of the 24 — were observed handling uncooked meat without washing their hands during an episode,” the researchers report. While half of the chefs “verbally mentioned that hand-washing should take place after handling the meat,” only seven of the 24 were shown doing so, “and not every time they touched the meat.”

Nineteen of the 24 chefs were shown “adding food using their hands when they cooked further. Half of the chefs ate while cooking at some point during their programs, and 38 percent sampled the food using their hands either during or after cooking.”

“Combined with the lack of hand-washing shown after touching raw meat, this could lead to food-borne illness if consumers followed the example of the chefs,” the researchers write.

“Safe cutting-board use, either changing or washing the cutting surface after cutting uncooked meat, was only demonstrated by 33 percent of the chefs,” they add. And only one-quarter used the temperature of the meat to determine when it was fully cooked (as the United States Department of Agriculture recommends).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that approximately one in six Americans is sickened by a food-borne illness each year. Given that reality, a rigorous approach to food-preparation safety is essential, and these big-name chefs are not modeling it.

Really, it’s enough to make you sick.

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