The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Young People Taking Risks with Food Safety

Young People Taking Risks with Food Safety

Food Safety Update

June 29, 2008

Young adults are engaging in risky behaviors like eating raw or undercooked foods of animal origin, according to a recent study published by the American Dietetic Association. The large-scale survey was conducted over a 10-month period, and asked young adults enrolled in higher education to answer important questions based on their eating habits.
Young adults are often overlooked as a population to be concerned with because they are typically not considered to be at risk for foodborne illness. But the true nature of this group’s risk level may be underreported, as symptoms of foodborne illness are often mistaken for flu symptoms. In conducting this survey, researchers found that young adults aged 18 to 29 – and with education beyond high school – are in fact more likely to engage in risky eating behaviors than individuals in other groups.
“Young people think they are going to live forever, and therefore, they are not fearful of most health issues,” says Joan Salge Blake, Clinical Assistant Professor at Boston University. “Older people, on the other hand, have experienced more sickness, and so their behavior tends to be less risky.”
Of the 4,548 students surveyed, 53% consumed raw, homemade cookie dough, 33% consumed fried eggs with runny or soft yolks, 29% consumed sushi, 29% consumed raw sprouts, 11% consumed raw oysters, clams or mussels, and 7% consumed raw hamburger. Men ate significantly more risky foods than women. White participants engaged in significantly more risky eating behaviors than non-white participants.
Interestingly, the majority of young adults surveyed had little exposure to food safety education. Sixty percent of them had never held a job serving food; 76% had never held a job preparing food. Seventy-seven percent had never completed a course in nutrition, and 88% had never completed a course in food science.
Although young adults are indeed taking risks, Americans in general are engaging in risky eating behaviors, consuming raw or uncooked products of animal origin. In 2006, almost 40% of Americans reported consuming raw eggs, while 20% reported consuming pink hamburger and raw fish. Consumers continue to engage in these behaviors, even as they are becoming more food safety-conscious.

Young adults are becoming more safety conscious too, and seem to be aware of the need to change their actions to engage in safer eating and cooking habits. Unfortunately, there tends to be a disconnection between understanding food safety – and then translating this understanding into behavior.

When compared to students who had taken food/science courses, there were no significant differences in risky eating between those who had taken food/science courses and those who had not. To address this issue in her class at BU, Salge Blake asks her students to describe the details of past food poisoning experiences. Hearing about these experiences first hand, she says, leads to behavior change in her students.

“Young people need a better understanding of the outcomes of risky behavior, and most of the time, they are not going to derive this information from a textbook,” says Salge Blake. “But if this information can be derived from their peers, it tends to have a greater impact on future behavior.”
Even with this disconnection between the obtainment of knowledge and behavior, some messages do appear to be getting through. Those young adults who believed food poisoning to be a legitimate threat tended to eat fewer risky foods. Those who were becoming more aware of their role as future caregivers of young children or aging parents tended to adopt safer food-handling and eating behaviors. Still, health educators have their work cut out for them in developing creative messages and programs that resonate with this unique population.
Salge Blake says that, for this group, food safety messages should be tailored and personalized to a young person’s experience. And textbooks should go beyond delivering accurate science – they need to show students how to incorporate safer practices into their lives. For their part, retailers can provide in-store education on good food safety practices, especially in high-risk regions of the store – like the sushi and raw meat departments.
“The earlier we can instill positive health messages into a population, the better off they will be later in life. If we can get young adults to embrace good hygiene and food safety practices now, they will be more likely to take these good habits with them into adulthood,” she adds.