Only Three Percent of People Wash Their Hands Correctly (Blech!)

The rest of us are just gross. 

woman washing hands

Photo by Michael Garland

Photo by Michael Garland

This article originally appeared on Food & Wine.

Anyone who has ever had a serious foodborne illness will tell you that there’s nothing worse than a serious foodborne illness. Though contamination can occur at any step in the (often extremely long) path from farm to table, even in our own kitchens, poor handling of food can be a major concern — and one that many of us might not be taking seriously enough. According to a new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 97 percent of consumers failed to wash their hands properly when preparing a meal.

The government study brought 383 people into six test kitchens in North Carolina, some located in the Raleigh-Durham metro area and others in the more rural area of Smithfield, and asked them to prepare turkey burgers and a chef’s salad. Though participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups — one that watched a three-minute USDA food safety video and a second control group that did not — one behavior was seen to be lacking across the board: handwashing. To be fair, the safety video didn’t address handwashing, but after these results, maybe it should.

During the meal preparation, there were several points where the participants should have stopped to wash their hands, but they only did so about a third of the time. Even then, the group that watched the safety video only properly washed their hands two percent of the time. Meanwhile, the control group washed their hands properly less than one percent of the time.

What went wrong? “The most common reason for unsuccessful handwashing was not rubbing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds,” the study states, “followed by not wetting hands with water.” For those who need a handwashing refresher, the CDC lists its official recommendations on its website, but the gist is wet your hands with clean water, add soap, lather – including “the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails” — and then scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. “Need a timer?” the CDC asks. “Hum the ‘Happy Birthday’ song from beginning to end twice.”

As a result of this carelessness, the study also found that, “Approximately 48% of control group participants contaminated spice containers (e.g., salt and pepper shakers) they touched during the preparation of the preformed turkey burgers, and 5% contaminated the lettuce used to prepare the salad, a ready-to-eat food.” The study added that though five percent might not seem like much, it “could be a significant area of concern when extrapolated nationally.”

“As a mother of three young children, I am very familiar with the mad dash families go through to put dinner on the table,” Carmen Rottenberg, Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety at the USDA said in a statement. “You can’t see, smell or feel bacteria. By simply washing your hands properly, you can protect your family and prevent that bacteria from contaminating your food and key areas in your kitchen.”

So do it to make sure you don’t get your kids sick. Also, not washing your hands is just kinda gross, which should be a decent enough motivator in and of itself.