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Could Your Smartphone or Tablet in the Kitchen Make You Sick?

Posted in Food Safety on September 19, 2018

We have all done it; a perfect recipe that you need to prepare but you can’t remember the recipe by heart because it is brand new. It was on the internet, maybe even on a best friend’s social media. You head to the grocery store and grab the ingredients while holding your phone and head back home to make your masterpiece.

Where had your phone or tablet been? What surfaces have they been on? And the big question: did you wash your hands? Not only are you exposing your food to the germs/bacteria that are on your phone, but you are exposing yourself to potential risks as well.

According to a study by the FDA, this is information we need to know about not only as consumers but also as home chefs.

Amy Lando, MPP in the Office of Analytics and Outreach at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), explains what they’ve learned, what they’re trying to find out, and what consumers can do to protect themselves.

Q: “What gave you the idea to study consumers’ use of personal devices in the kitchen?”

Lando: “This issue surfaced when we were working with colleagues at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on the questions for the 2016 Food Safety Survey (FSS), which FDA conducts in collaboration with USDA. As you know, smartphones, tablets, and other devices have become ubiquitous in our daily lives. We take them everywhere—work, the store, the bathroom, the gym, and many other places. It makes perfect sense to use them in the kitchen, and people are increasingly doing that. Why have 50 cookbooks when you can just look at your phone?”

“But we also know from previous research that bacteria that cause disease can survive on cell phones. So, this was a logical issue to include in the survey, which is conducted every three to five years to assess consumer attitudes, behavior, and knowledge about food safety.”

Q: “What did you learn in your initial study about how consumers use these devices in the kitchen?”

Lando: “We found that about half of survey respondents have used some sort of device while cooking. The most frequently used devices are cell phones, including smartphones. Only about a third of the respondents reported washing their hands after touching the device and before continuing cooking.”

Q: “What can FDA do to reduce the potential for cross-contamination of foods from personal electronic devices?”

Lando: “As we begin to better understand the risk associated with cross contamination from device surfaces to food, we can develop more specific advice to help consumers minimize any risk of cross contamination between devices and food, and therefore create a safer food preparation environment. New voice activation functions on personal electronic devices have the potential to allow less manual contact with these devices and that might help consumers minimize contact with their devices while cooking.”

What Have I changed?

Personally, I have invested in a tablet holder in the kitchen that I can wipe down with Clorox wipes when cleaning the kitchen. If I need to use a recipe more often than once I write it on a separate piece of paper and if it comes into contact with any food at all it is simply tossed in the trash. I save my recipes to Pinterest and make sure that I can easily access them when needed in case I have to write them down again.

I use magnets and other recipe holders when cooking to make sure that I can easily read the recipe but to also limit its contact with food.

I have limited talking on my phone while cooking unless using hands free talking or voice-to-text features that are common on most smartphones.

I frequently wash my hands while cooking any meals, but especially those involving meats and vegetables. Also, frequent surface washing in the kitchen including cutting boards is a really great thing to get into a habit of doing well as having separate boards for meats and vegetables.

In Other News:

Food scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have come up with a technique they say could make it a lot easier to avoid food poisoning.

The main piece of equipment? Your smartphone.

Currently, to identify the bacteria that can get you sick, like E. coli or salmonella, food scientists often use DNA testing.  They obtain samples from, say, raw spinach or chicken skin, by rinsing the food and collecting a tiny bit of bacteria from the water. Then they let that bacteria multiply over 24 hours to get a big enough sample.

According to NPR “Bacteria can be in the very, very low numbers, and cause illness,” said UMass microbiologist Lynne McLandsborough. “So that detection needs to detect low numbers.”  McLandsborough is working with UMass food science professor Lili He on what they say is a much simpler — and more accessible — tool to detect harmful bacteria in food: a smartphone app that uses a $30 microscope attachment.  The device works in conjunction with a chemically-coated chip that binds to bacteria, even in tiny amounts.  Dipping the chip into contaminated water for half an hour will reveal bacteria, as Adam Salhaney, an undergraduate in He’s lab, demonstrated.  “You can take this … microscope attachment for any smart phone,” Salhaney said, gripping the iPhone 7 they use as a prototype, “and you can clip it right onto the camera. “After pointing the microscope at a gold chip they’d coated with salmonella, Salhaney enlarged an image with a number of black dots set against the gold background of the chip. The dots were bacteria.  Since his hand was shaking a bit, Salhaney had to work to get the image into focus. “But I think the average consumer will be able to figure it out without much trouble,” he said.

While personally I may not be running out to get this microscope attachment, I know many consumers will and they can rest assured that their inner scientist can be fulfilled while checking out their surfaces for bacteria.

Side Note: Do not trust these devices alone.  It is still important to practice the proper food handling protocols for what you are cooking and always wash your hands as well. Remember average citizens are not trained to know what scientists and doctors attend school for years to learn.

By: Samantha Cooper, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)