_SOCIETY Food Safety

_New Look at Food Safety

New Look at Food Safety
Drexel's Jennifer Quinlan is shedding light on an area of food safety research that has typically been underrepresented—and providing tools to combat unsafe practices.

_Jennifer Quinlan

Quinlan is an assistant professor of nutrition sciences. Her research focuses on the microbiological quality and safety of produce, dairy and meat products in differing socioeconomic areas.

Traditionally, most food safety research has occurred in food microbiology labs at land-grant universities often located in rural areas. When Jennifer Quinlan came to Drexel, she saw a need for food safety research that addressed the unique aspects of urban areas and their populations. She therefore set out to secure grants that would allow her to study food safety issues for minority and low socioeconomic populations, which are underrepresented in food safety research.

Quinlan’s first U.S. Department of Agriculture grant in 2005 allowed her to survey food quality in small urban markets in comparison with larger suburban supermarkets.

Data obtained in that SEED grant study allowed her to apply for and receive a larger USDA grant that she used to study 360 retail stores in a variety of Philadelphia neighborhoods—low socioeconomic, high socioeconomic and some composed of ethnic minorities. This study involved auditing stores for their food safety practices, such as testing temperatures inside the stores and determining the quality and safety of food available to populations of different demographics.

“[Rinsing raw chicken before cooking it] doesn’t kill or eliminate the bacteria, but does have the potential to further spray it around the kitchen area.”

Through these studies, Quinlan and her students found that in low socioeconomic markets, food is more likely to be old or spoiled. However, when it comes to food safety inspections, it seems that inspector bias may be at play when establishing standards for retail stores in low-income areas versus high-income areas.

“We saw higher violations in higher income areas…If you’re inspecting a large chain supermarket and they have all these resources [to maintain food safety] you hold them to a higher standard, but you’re not necessarily out to put every little guy out of business,” Quinlan says.

Quinlan’s research has been published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the Journal of Food Protection and Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

Quinlan’s research is based on data that shows foodborne illness is often found more in low-socioeconomic and minority populations, which begs the question: Do low-income populations have greater rates of foodborne illness because of retail access to food or because of consumer handling after the food is purchased?

Quinlan’s current USDA grant used focus groups and surveys to try to identify if there were any unique unsafe handling practices among minority ethnic consumers. Instead, Quinlan and her research team found an overarching habit held by people across all demographics—rinsing raw chicken before cooking it, a practice Quinlan explains “doesn’t kill or eliminate the bacteria, but does have the potential to further spray it around the kitchen area.”

Raw chicken has a high chance of being contaminated with salmonella or campylobacter, but cooking the meat appropriately will eliminate both forms of bacteria. Rinsing the chicken in water creates an aerosol spray that can spread the bacteria onto surrounding surfaces, increasing the risk of cross-contamination.

In response to this unsafe practice, Quinlan and her team have launched an awareness campaign using materials developed with their collaborators at New Mexico State University. The materials include a series of photo novellas designed to explain the dangers of rinsing raw chicken. Additionally, the photo novellas include recipes to encourage people to prepare meals from fresh ingredients rather than using frozen or processed foods.

This campaign includes a website as well—drexel.edu/dontwashyourchicken. In the coming months, the materials will be available for distribution at Philadelphia libraries in an effort to pilot the materials and educate the public about safe food-handling practices.