By: Kerry Bazany

 Once upon a recent time, two of my daughters were in college. I can remember vividly all the last minute instructions, save for one: how to properly prepare and store food. I was more concerned that they had food rather than how to practice food safety. I can also remember visiting their rooms on campus and being somewhat horrified at the leftover bits and pieces of meals and snacks: yogurt containers, sandwiches, half-eaten fruit, and almost-whole pizzas. I went into “mom mode”: clearing and throwing away any evidence that my child was not a vagrant, and had indeed been raised properly. Further investigation of the refrigerator revealed foods left uncovered, expired items, soured milk, and a profound, but colorful, mess, on the walls. This was an invitation for an intervention. My daughters would learn how to treat food the right way!

Not All College Students Have Gross Habits, But Most Do

 College students struggle with learning balance, especially in the beginning of their college careers. They finally have that long-awaited emancipation from the parents. Having no one monitor their eating habits often manifests itself in unhealthy food choices both at the campus cafeteria and at the dorm or apartment. College students, both male and female, often eat whatever is convenient, and that includes the repulsive pizza leftovers left to grow untold amounts of bacteria overnight because it was not refrigerated.

However, if your college student is a health major, you may not have as much to worry about. In a study conducted at Kansas State University, students were asked to complete a survey regarding their food habits, including the handling of food safely. Not surprisingly, food and nutrition, dietary consult, and hospitality students exhibited far better food safety practices, both in refrigerating food promptly and in safe food preparation. Yet if your student is the “typical” college student, another interesting study at Southern University Agricultural, Research and Extension Center in Louisiana surveyed a random sample of its students via questionnaire that assessed the food safety knowledge, beliefs, and food-handling practices of this population. These same students were then given a lecture by faculty about food safety: sort of a “food intervention”, if you will. Students’ belief and behavior changed significantly post intervention suggesting that they were positively impacted by food safety education. However, more studies are needed to determine whether recommendations offered during intervention are sustainable. In other words, students need to be observed, and behavior measured. Not an easy task with the collegiate set that are constantly on the move. I don’t think my daughters would have appreciated mom, or any other person for that matter, monitoring their culinary choices and whether or not they really refrigerated last night’s leftovers and made sure to separate the meat from the produce when preparing the meal. I suppose that is why there is not, to date, a follow up study on students following a food safety course. It would appear to be risky behavior on the part of the researchers!

The Importance of Food Safety and Food Hygiene (At Any Age)

Foodborne illness is a major health threat in the United Sates, resulting in an estimated 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States (Mead et al., 1999). Foodborne illnesses sicken approximately 48 million Americans each year and lead to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Paling in comparison to chronic illnesses, these illnesses are nevertheless highly preventable. Human activities play in an important role in the prevention of foodborne illness, and cannot be overstated. Simple practices such as washing hands and preparation surfaces often, avoiding cross-contamination by separating food, cooking to proper temperatures, and refrigerating food promptly are of critical importance in keeping foodborne illnesses at bay.

Tips for College Students

 When my daughters were in college, instead of expounding my wealth of adult knowledge about this topic, I simply typed up a list (in large font) that was similar to the following, provided by the knowledgeable folks at the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture).

  • Wash hands for at least 20 seconds before handling any food.
  • Wash cutting boards, counters, utensils and dishes as soon as possible after preparing food.
  • Rinse fruits and vegetables.
  • Use separate cutting boards for raw meats and poultry, and fresh produce.
  • Never place cooked food on a plate that was used to prepare raw meat or seafood.
  • Bring sauces and soups to boil; reheat.
  • Refrigerate food and leftovers promptly.
  • Do not let food thaw at room temperature, e.g. on the counter.
  • The refrigerator should ideally be kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

They May Act All Grown Up, But Your Advice is Still Needed!

Getting back to the proverbial leftover pizza, your newly-independent college student is busy and exhausted most of the time. Yet it is essential that they realize how dangerous it can be to neglect hygienic practices with food. That tasty pizza now congealing on the couch, floor, bedside, etc. should not be left out more than two hours, even if there are no meat products on the pizza. Foodborne bacteria grow fastest between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit and can double in number in those two hours. Other take-out foods such as hamburgers, chicken, cut fruit, salads, and party platters must be kept at a safe temperature. Perhaps the most important adage to tell your son or daughter is “Keep hot food hot, and cold food cold.”