Culinary and gastronomy researchers have found that a significant number of TV cooking shows featuring celebrity chefs from around the world frequently demonstrate unsafe food handling practices. Joseph Hegarty reports.

TV cooking shows featuring professional chefs have large audiences and are perceived by many as entertainment. But they could also be used as powerful tools for educating their viewers about safe food handling practices, both at home and in their places of work.

Most of the 100 cooking show episodes reviewed by Borda et al.(2014), focused on one dish at a time, but some chefs prepared several dishes simultaneously, thereby increasing the potential for cross-contamination. Hand-washing is a basic food hygiene principle, but none of the chefs shown were washing their hands before they commenced cooking. One chef mentioned hand-washing before beginning food preparation and half of the observed chefs did mention hand-washing after handling meat. Twenty one out of 24 chefs handled uncooked meat without washing their hands.

Other mistakes by chefs included adding food (79%), and sampling food (38%) with their bare hands during or after cooking, including when food would not be cooked further. Only one third of the chefs demonstrated safe chopping-board or surfaces use – others failed to wash chopping-board surfaces after cutting uncooked meat, or prepared uncooked meat and ready-to-eat foods on the same chopping-board. Most of the chefs (96%) used the colour of the meat to determine if it was cooked, while only six chefs (25%) used a thermometer as recommended by the SafeFood advisory committee. In addition, 88% of chefs gave recommended cooking times, and 58% commented on which texture would indicate that the meat was cooked.

Any of these improper behaviours demonstrated on television could lead to cross-contamination and food poisoning. The study recommends that TV cooking shows include basic communication and demonstration of safe food handling practices in order to promote good food safety habits at home.

The study reviewed 100 episodes of cooking TV shows hosted by 24 different chefs among 30 unique series of cooking TV shows (e.g. Jamie at Home, Nigellissima, Gordon Ramsay’s Home Cooking) available through a variety of sources. All episodes included the preparation of, at least, one meat dish (e.g. beef, seafood, chicken, pork). A questionnaire based on a list of food safety behaviours, both positive and negative, was developed to support the observations while reviewing the programmes.

Previous research revealed that TV cooking shows frequently demonstrate unsafe handling of food, or lack of measures to prevent food poisoning. A study from 2014 proposed that cooking shows should stick to recognised food safety standards (e.g. the five keys to safer food developed by the World Health Organisation) using the opportunity to introduce simple, but important food safety messages to mass audiences.

Food safety is a significant public health issue. Every year, more than 23 million people fall ill from food poisoning in Europe, resulting in about 5,000 deaths. Mishandling of food or poor safety practices at home are common causes of food poisoning.

Professor Dr. Joseph A. Hegarty
Professor Dr. Joseph A. Hegarty is a member of the SafeFood Advisory Committee, an inaugural Fellow of the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium 2016, and an international consultant in culinary and hospitality education.