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Food Handling and Consumption Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behaviors of Young Adults and the Impact of a Food Safety Social Marketing Campaign

Foodborne disease (FBD) caused by microbial pathogens remains a significant public health problem in the 21st century. The importance of FBD is underscored by the fact that a quarter of the U.S. population is at increased risk for FBD. The discovery of pathogenic microbes not previously known to cause FBD has made cooking and eating practices that were once considered safe particularly dangerous because it's hard to convince consumers it's not safe to continue a behavior they have 'always done it and never gotten sick'. Lifestyle changes over the last quarter century also have contributed to the opportunities for FBD caused by mishandling and cross-contamination.

Although many consumers recognize their vital role in preventing FBD, most believe that food manufacturing facilities and restaurants are the most likely place for food safety problems to occur and homes are the least likely. In reality, food mishandling in home kitchens likely causes a significant amount of FBD. The need for consumer education is amplified by the fact that recent generations have not been taught about safe food handling at school or at home. Survey data indicates that food mishandling is more acute in some groups (i.e., young adults, men, and individuals with education beyond high school) than others. We do not yet know why certain groups are more likely to engage in unsafe food handling than others. In addition, there has been minimal research into consumer food safety knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors (reported and actual). However, the high rate and cost of foodborne illness indicate that something must be done to improve consumers' food safety practices. Study of the obstacles to adopting safe food habits, including food safety knowledge and factors affecting attitudes and behaviors, of those likely to mishandle food can aid us in gaining a better understanding of why they engage in risky behaviors. This understanding can help us improve food safety education interventions.

The purposes of this study were to:

  • Investigate obstacles to adopting safe food handling and consumption behaviors encountered by consumers groups who mishandle food.
  • Examine the impact and relative importance of demographic characteristics, food safety knowledge and psychosocial factors to food handling and consumption practices.
  • Develop recommendations for future food safety education interventions.
  • Use the recommendations to create food safety undergraduate course instructional materials and assess their impact on student knowledge, attitudes, and intended behaviors.
  • Test the validity of the recommendations by developing a social marketing campaign that meets the informational needs of this study's audience and motivates them to change their behaviors and, then, implementing and evaluating the impact of the campaign on 8 college campuses.


Key Project Team Members

Rutgers University

  • Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, Ph.D., RD
  • Donald Schaffner, Ph.D.
  • Jackie Maurer Abbot, Ph.D., RD

University of California, Davis

  • Christine Bruhn, Ph.D.

Funding Source

  • USDA National Food Safety Initiative