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Millions of Americans with Dirty Hands Are Spreading Dangerous Bacteria

Posted by Adam Ghering, Public Affairs Specialist, Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA in Health and Safety
Aug 02, 2021
A person washing hands
Study shows people are unknowingly spreading bacteria all around their kitchen.

Have you ever seen someone handling food in a way that you would never do yourself? Maybe they were preparing raw poultry and then immediately handled lettuce without washing their hands. Or maybe they did wash their hands, but they dried them by wiping them on their pants. You would never do that, right? Then again, maybe there are things we all do that might increase our risk for foodborne illness.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) recently completed an observational study in which participants were recorded cooking in a test kitchen to see if they handled food unsafely while cooking. Preliminary results interestingly show that, participants did not do well preventing bacteria from spreading around their kitchen or verifying that their turkey burgers were safe to eat. Check out the list of top five food safety mistakes participants made that increased their risk of illness.

  1. Participants failed to successfully wash their hands 97 percent of the times they should have! Of the 1,195 recorded points when handwashing was necessary to control possible bacteria transfer, participants failed to wash their hands successfully more than 1,150 times.
  2. 48 percent of participants cross-contaminated spice containers due to lack of handwashing. Because they did not wash their hands adequately harmless tracer microorganisms that act just like human pathogens spreading throughout the kitchen. Campylobacter and Salmonella, bacteria found in poultry products, have been shown to survive on food contact surfaces for up to four and 32 hours, respectively.
  3. 5 percent of participants transferred bacteria to salads they prepared and would have immediately served if cooking at home.
  4. 66 percent of participants did not use a food thermometer while preparing turkey burgers during the study. Some participants used color and feel instead to determine if the burgers were safe to eat. Using a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature is the only way to verify meat and poultry are safe to eat.
  5. When participants did use a thermometer, 45 percent did not cook the turkey burger to the minimum safe internal temperature of 165°F. Not cooking poultry to at least 165°F can lead to bacteria, such as Campylobacter and Salmonella, surviving the cooking process.

The good news is that cooking food safely is in your hands and doing so can help keep you and your family healthy. Control the transfer of bacteria in your kitchen by always following the five steps of handwashing after touching raw meat and poultry. Know that you have destroyed dangerous bacteria in your meat and poultry by cooking to the proper internal temperature.

If you are cooking a burger, insert the thermometer through the side of the burger, and ensure the probe reaches the center of the burger, which is the coldest portion. Cook meat and poultry to these internal temperatures:

  • Beef, pork, lamb and veal (steaks, roasts and chops): 145°F with a three-minute rest.
  • Ground beef: 160°F.
  • Poultry (whole and ground): 165°F.

Once you have cooked your foods, make sure to pack the leftovers up and refrigerate them within two hours. In hot summer weather (above 90°F), refrigerate them within one hour.

For more food safety information, call the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1-888-674-6854, Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time, or email or chat at

Category/Topic: Health and Safety

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Sheila Stevens
Jun 29, 2018

I can't stand that people do not wash hands. Especially in my own home.

Jul 05, 2018

There is a disregard for where human hands are spreading and transfer dangerous bacteria. Any pharmacy I go to have a check out individual who is coughing, pens used at drive thru and check out is points of transfer.
Getting a prescription requires Hazmet protection. Imagine how many sick people touch points for each transition.
I would like to see a posted statement of the cleaning procedures at every pharmacy to identify the precaustions they take to avoid this breading area. And a bottle of Sanitizer is not a answer, it's a pretty lame action ot make you feel like there is protection for you.

Cyndi Unruh
Jul 05, 2018

Do you have information for children for successful hand washing?

Peter H
Jul 06, 2018

Training, Training and more Training!!!!
Hand Washing is so basic i'm upset just by reading this article.

ed rosa
Jul 07, 2018

Mary Mallon is not alone. Folks coming from certain overpopulated countries who are attracted to restaurant and hotel kitchens as cooks, chefs and short-order cooks, might be carriers of pathogens without knowing they could infect customers. Us and them must follow the guidelines above. These guidelines are designed and tested extensively to prevent the spread of
food borne illnesses, thanks to good personal hygiene procedures, cross contamination avoidance, time and temperature abuse prevention and cooking at temperatures that kill the pathogens.

Jul 10, 2018

Might as well just live in the bathroom.

Elaine Folga
Aug 01, 2018

Washing my hands thoroughly between food preparation is something I faithfully practice as well as throughout the day. It's unbelievable the amount of people who just rinse their hands (no soap) or don't wash their hands at all!

Dec 04, 2018

Interesting but for an article about hand washing, you don't go through the steps ? Working in food service I see the lack of hand washing WAY too much. Scary. Watch the movie 'Contagion' the end.