98 percent of us are forgetting to do it—leading to a lot of preventable sickness.
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To find out how effective their training videos are, the USDA put together a study—and the results are equal parts startling and disappointing.

About half of the study's participants (182) watched a training video on how to use a meat thermometer before cooking meat in a kitchen, while the rest of group (201 people) got to work immediately. The study was designed to find out how effective that training video was at teaching people to safely cook raw meat.

But USDA officials ended up discovering something they weren't looking for: Insight into why 48 million Americans end up victims of foodborne illnesses each year.

According to NBC News, not only did both groups end up failing to properly use the thermometers, an overwhelming number of cooks cross-contaminated multiple items in the kitchen after handling the raw meat and failing to wash their hands.

Carmen Rottenberg, a food safety official at the USDA, told NBC News: “There were many, many times in the course of the study that people had the opportunity to wash their hands—nearly 1,200 opportunities." But Rottenberg's team said that nearly 98 percent of volunteers failed to do so.

While 75 percent of those who had watched the training video tried to use a meat thermometer—twice as likely as those who did not, only 34 percent of these individuals used one—many did not use them correctly.

The USDA recommends using thermometers given that many undercooked foods, especially raw meat, can cause a multitude of illnesses, including life-threatening bouts of salmonella and E. coli.

Credit: Getty: skhoward

But the true cause for alarm for Rottenberg and her team came when they saw participants handling raw turkey meat and then touching other ingredients and items—including the salad greens—without even bothering to wash up.

For research purposes, Rottenberg and her team had added a strain of a harmless virus (often used in labs as a substitute for norovirus) to the raw turkey meat. The team ended up finding traces of that virus on kitchen surfaces, utensils, dishware, in salt and pepper spice containers, and even on the salad itself—five percent of the lettuce in the kitchen became contaminated in the process.

“If this had been at someone’s home, they would have sat down at the dinner table and enjoyed that salad and it would have been contaminated with bacteria,” Rottenberg told NBC. “They grabbed those spice containers and then put the spices on the burgers and then put the spice container back down. Now that pathogen is living on that surface for the next day and a half and so anyone who goes to get salt or pepper to put on their food is going to touch it.”

During the summer and outdoor grilling season, the lack of water and soap might lead home cooks to forego checking the internal temperatures of the meat they're cooking—but Rottenberg says a simple alcohol-based wipe will also work.

Using the data collected from this experiment, the USDA estimated how many people would get sick if every household prepared turkey burgers without properly washing their hands like the volunteers did. They estimate that 6 million households would contaminate their salads (sound familiar?) and 57 million people could have bacteria within their salt and pepper shakers, plus an additional 12 million people with deadly germs on their fridge door handles.  

If you're wondering which method of handwashing results in optimal safety in your own kitchen, the USDA has a handy-dandy guide right here—plus, they also list the target temperatures you need to hit when grilling outside this summer online as well.