Food Safety

Have you ever looked at the suggested expiration date for food in your fridge and wondered, "What's the worst that could happen?" Eating food that's gone bad is no joke, and in some cases, the consequences can be severe. According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, 1 in 6 Americans get sick each year, 1.2 million are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from contaminated food.

While people (particularly millennials) are now cooking less and less at home, the average person still spends roughly $300 every month bringing fresh food and groceries into their home. Even casual cooks should know the basics of standard food safety.

To help shine a light on the most common cooking habits, we surveyed over 1,000 people about their knowledge of clean surfaces and safe food preparation. We asked them about the frequency with which they clean kitchen surfaces (and their hands) before preparing food, how guilty they might be of cross-contamination, and how often they bypass the suggested expiration date. Read on as we expose some real kitchen nightmares.

Squeaky Clean?

Your kitchen might be where you cook family meals or sit down to eat, but that doesn't mean it's always the most sanitary. Research has shown the sponge you scrub your pots and pans with could have more germs than the average toilet seat, and even your sink, counters, and cutting boards could be crawling with germs like the kind linked to E. coli and salmonella.

If you assume your counters are always clean enough for prepping food, you could be putting your family at risk. The germs that cause food poisoning can survive in the hidden nooks and crannies of your kitchen and have the potential to spread without your realizing it. More than 1 in 3 people admitted to cleaning kitchen surfaces before preparing food only half of the time or less. Sixteen percent of people didn't always clean kitchen surfaces after preparing food, either – which was more common among men than women.

Keeping your kitchen surfaces clean isn't the only thing you should think about before and after cooking, though. Roughly 1 in 10 people admitted to not always washing their hands before handling food, and 8 percent of men and 3 percent of women said they sometimes didn't wash their hands after handling raw meat. While cooking meat destroys some of these harmful bacteria, raw meat may contain E. coli, salmonella, listeria, or other pathogens.

Heeding Food Warnings

Almost everything in your fridge has a sell-by date. Sometimes referred to as an expiration date or best-by date, they don't necessarily determine the last moment something is OK to eat. Or do they? In some cases, there are certain foods you should never consume past their prime. Of those, the date listed on soft cheeses, deli meat, raw meat, and fresh greens should be taken seriously to avoid potentially dangerous health concerns.

On average, most people were comfortable eating food up to six days past their sell-by date, but leniency was greater for foods that may actually go bad quicker than some people think.

On average, men and women were willing to give cheese nearly six days beyond the sell-by date and close to five days on bread. While 78 percent of people weren't willing to cook and consume raw seafood (59 percent for other raw meats) past its printed date, those who were didn't mind going nearly three full days beyond the suggested expiration time frame. Most raw meats have the potential to carry risky germs, and those germs start to multiply at an alarming rate the further past their prime they get.

Turning Groceries Into Garbage

Because the "expiration" date on your food is a sell-by date, you might not always feel rushed to throw things out just because they're past that time frame. While roughly 23 percent of people still used the printed date as an indication of food spoilage, 77 percent of people went by smell, taste, or the texture of their food instead.

Ninety-three percent of people said a food's smell was the best indication that it might have gone bad. This can be especially helpful for deli meats, where an off-putting smell is a clear indication that harmful bacteria are growing or have spread. Another 91 percent said they'd toss food if the mold were visible. With bread, especially, mold (even on one slice) is an easy way to determine something isn't good for consumption.

Another 82 percent used an unusual texture or coloring to help determine food spoilage – which was more common among women than men. This particular method can be helpful with raw meat, where a slimy coating is a sure sign that something isn't safe to eat anymore.

Taking a Chance

Whether you smell something before eating it, check for mold, and even look for a slightly different texture, other meals may go bad without exhibiting any of those signs. When all else fails, you might eat something past its expiration date regardless.

Millennials were the least likely to eat something after its expiration date. Perhaps because they might spend less time in the kitchen than older generations, millennials may also feel less confident in their ability to determine what's safe to eat. Comparatively, 40 percent of Gen Xers and 31 percent of baby boomers said they rarely or never ate certain foods past their sell-by date.

People who prescribed to a pescatarian diet (refraining from meat except for seafood) were the least likely to either often or always eat something beyond its expiration date, followed by vegans, vegetarians, and people on no diet.

Cross-Contamination in the Kitchen

If you're preparing a meal that requires both meat and vegetables, you should be cautious of cross-contamination and the dangers of spreading germs when using the same surface to prep more than one type of food. Even if you've washed your hands thoroughly and wiped down all surfaces, raw meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood should always be handled separately.

The same is true for cutting boards. According to our survey, 37 percent of men and 28 percent of women used the same cutting board for raw meat and produce when preparing meals. If you don't have more than one cutting surface, you should at least wash your cutting board in between preparing each food.

Keeping Your Kitchen Clean

Eating from home may require more time and consideration than eating out, but plenty of benefits help outshine the effort it takes to make a home-cooked meal. Not only is it less expensive, but also eating at home is typically better for your body and the environment.

If you want to recreate your favorite hamburger at home, it's important to understand food preparation safety tips. Even though most people said they often wiped down their kitchen surfaces before and after cooking, several (particularly younger at-home chefs) also admitted to using the same cutting board for raw meat and produce, and some even failed to wash their hands after handling raw meat. Just because the sell-by date isn't a hard requirement, it's important to make sure the food you're cooking has been cared for properly and isn't so far past its prime that it could make you sick.

Methodology

We surveyed 1,033 respondents about their perceptions and behaviors around the safe handling of food and cooking. Forty-seven percent of participants identified as men, 53 percent identified as women, and less than 1 percent identified as a gender not listed in our study. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 82 with a mean of 37 and a standard deviation of 12.1.

Fair Use Statement

Feel free to share the results of our survey with your readers for any noncommercial use. There's no sell-by date on our offer. We only ask that you include a link back to this page so that our contributors earn credit for their work too.