February 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 1 // Research in Brief // 1RIB2

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Change in Safe Food Handling Knowledge and Practices of 4-H Members

To improve food handling knowledge and practices of children (ages 9-11), a multi-media curriculum was developed and tested by 4-H volunteer leaders. After using the lessons, members' knowledge improved significantly. However, change in related practices was not as great and puts youth at risk for illness. Nutrition education programs need to continue to provide information, support, and opportunities for youth to apply safe food handling practices to their daily eating situation.

Patricia Hammerschmidt
Program Leader
4-H Youth Programs
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan
Internet address: hammersc@msuces.canr.msu.edu

Sandra Andrews
Extension Specialist
Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition
Michigan State University
Chemistry Instructor
Grand Rapids Community College
Grand Rapids, Michigan

Anne Murphy
Nutrition Education Evaluation Consultant
East Lansing, Michigan

June Youatt
Associate Professor
Department of Family and Child Ecology
Michigan State University

Carol Sawyer
Associate Professor
Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition
Michigan State University


Foodborne illness affects millions of children each year, but is almost 100% preventable (Centers for Disease Control, 1990). To meet the instructional needs of volunteer leaders in assisting youth to decrease their risk of foodborne illness, a curriculum was developed by an inter-departmental research and outreach team at Michigan State University. This food safety education program, Operation RISK, supplies leaders with background information for themselves and activities for use with youth ages 9 to 11 to teach them the what, whys, and hows of safe food handling.

This article summarizes the evaluation that was conducted to determine whether this food safety education program met its objectives to improve safe food handling knowledge and practices of 4-H members. The acceptability of the new materials regarding use and perceived effectiveness was also conducted with members, leaders, and parents and is reported separately (Hammerschmidt, Murphy, Youatt, Sawyer & Andrews, 1994).

Instructional Materials

Operation RISK uses a detective theme to involve youth in fun-to-solve cases based on typical food-related situations of 9-11 year olds. Curriculum components that were pilot tested with 4-H members and leaders include four lessons, a hypermedia computer game, and two take-home lessons for use with family members. An audiotape and videotape, which are components of the Operation RISK curriculum, were developed after this pilot test project. A leader's guide provides background information, recommendations for conducting the lesson, and suggestions for additional activities to extend and support the lessons.


Surveys were developed to assess member knowledge about safe food handling and safe food handling practices of members. The materials are also suitable for use by teachers in a classroom setting. Operation RISK, in addition to the 4-H pilot, was tested with 413 fourth grade students. These surveys were reviewed for content and construct validity and included in the pilot test materials.

The pilot test materials were mailed to seven leaders who agreed to use the instructional materials with members (n = 54). The surveys were administered before and after implementation of the program to determine the effectiveness of Operation RISK to change safe food handling knowledge and practices of youth. Procedures for leaders to follow in administering the surveys and using the materials were included. Two 4-H clubs (23 members) completed the pretest and posttest surveys, but did not receive any instructions (control group).

Results and Discussion

The demographic data indicated that participating members were primarily third through fifth graders (mean age = 9.7 years) and included more girls (n = 60) than boys (n = 17). Most members (80%) took a lunch to school at least once per week; 40% usually took a lunch from home five days per week. Of the students that took a lunch to school, 44% packed a lunch themselves. Although 70% of participants reported they were with a care provider/parent after school, 85% prepare their own after-school snack. These findings indicate that youth are involved with food preparation and, therefore, need to know how and why to safely pack a lunch or prepare a snack to reduce personal risk of foodborne illness.

Change in Food Handling Knowledge

The results of the knowledge assessment indicated a need for improvement in food handling information of members. Before program initiation (pretest), members were not knowledgeable (mean score of <70%) about: how or why to wash hands, why cold foods needed to be kept cold, how foods packed in a lunch could be kept cold, or how to identify unsafe foods. Posttest survey results showed significant change in the knowledge of members in all these areas except about why cold foods need to be kept cold. Statistically significant change was also noted in areas which members were already knowledgeable about (had high pretest scores) before participating in Operation RISK. These included identification of safe foods, why food that falls on the floor is unsafe to eat unless it is washed, and why a food that might be unsafe to eat should not be tasted. No significant change in scores on any items, or for the knowledge survey as a whole, resulted for the control group.

Change in Food Handling Practices

Self-reported practices of members before they received safe food handling instruction indicated that only about 1/3 washed their hands "every time" before packing a lunch; 41% washed them each time before eating at school. Handwashing practices were better at home, yet only 48% reported that they wash hands "every time" before eating at home. Some change was reported in frequency of washing hands every time before eating at school (2%) or at home (8%), but no improvement in washing hands before packing a lunch was reported.

Besides infrequent handwashing, other food handling practices of members were inconsistent with food safety recommendations: 70% reported not using a freezer pack every time it is needed, 32% eat leftover foods from an unrefrigerated lunch, 97% eat unwashed fruit, 40% do not throw away unsafe food, 30% eat food that has fallen on the floor without washing it first, and 22% taste food that might be unsafe. Some positive change resulted in these food handling practices, decreasing the gap between what students should do and reported doing. For example, on the posttest, more students reported that they use a freezer pack in a packed lunch (12% more), never taste a food that might be unsafe (8% more), never consume leftover meat, eggs, or dairy foods from an unrefrigerated lunch (6% more), or throw away unsafe food (22% more).

Conclusions and Implications

This research indicates that 4-H members were not knowledgeable about basic food handling principles (handwashing, how and why to keep food safe, and how to evaluate the safety of food) before instruction, but that significant improvement occurred (p<.0001) after participating in Operation RISK.

Food handling practices of members before involvement in this program were inappropriate and put them at risk for foodborne illness. Improvement in many practices was reported following instruction. However, infrequent handwashing (before packing a lunch, before eating at school or home) and tasting food that might be unsafe (such as unrefrigerated food left from lunch, unwashed fruit, and food that fell on the floor) still were reported to occur and could cause illness.

4-H leaders have the opportunity to help reduce the risk of foodborne illness in children. First, they can use accurate and "fun" materials to teach youth how they can ensure their own health by implementing safe food handling practices within daily eating situations. Second, they can reinforce information taught by modelling appropriate practices such as proper handwashing every time before preparing, serving, or eating food. Additionally, because food preparation and/or consumption is often a part of the meetings, leaders can provide the opportunity and support for members to "try out" proper food handling practices learned in the instructional part of the meeting. In these ways, leaders can join other health educators to help youth learn and apply safe food handling recommendations with the potential benefit of reducing the incidence of foodborne illness in this high-risk population.


Centers for Disease Control. (1990). CDC surveillance summaries (Vol. 39, No. SS-1). Atlanta, GA: Author.

Hammerschmidt, P., Murphy, A., Youatt, J., Sawyer, C., & Andrews, S. (1994, October). Evaluating curriculum effectiveness by asking the users [7246 bytes]. Journal of Extension [On-line serial], 32(3). Available E-mail: almanac@joe.org Message: send joe october 1994 ideas 4

Author Notes

Inquiries about this curriculum and surveys can be directed to the first author. This project received support from the USDA (Special Project No. 91-ESFQ-1-4009).