June 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 3 // Ideas at Work // 3IAW5
Empowering Consumers: Hamburger Safety
Cooperative Extension empowers consumers by providing clear, concise, repeated messages. In Albany County, Wyoming a local food safety education project changed people's behaviors to reduce the risk of food borne illness from E.coli O157:H7. The community campaign utilized volunteers from traditional clientele group. An evaluation project was completed using youth and adult volunteers. Results indicated desired behavioral changes. The most effective education methods utilized media, point-of-purchase displays, and education through children.
Cooperative Extension plays a key role in empowering individuals. A food safety education and research project served as an example of empowering consumers to make decisions and empowering traditional clientele groups to take an active role in education and evaluation.
The project began when a local Extension educator and a City of Laramie environmental health inspector returned from a food safety conference that focused on communicating clear, concise food safety messages and emphasized the value of regulators teaming with educators. Upon returning home, the two formed a team to increase the public's understanding of prevention of E.coli O157:H7 in ground beef.
The campaign the team designed included three goals: (a) increase consumer awareness regarding ground beef safety (e.g., cooking contaminated beef to 160 degrees Fahrenheit will kill E.coli O157:H7), (b) increase use of a T-stick when cooking ground beef, and (c) help consumers understand why a person can consume a rare steak or roast, but not a rare hamburger.
During the eight-week community-wide campaign, the primary message was to use a T-stick to test ground beef patties for doneness. A T-stick is a small, disposable thermometer inserted into a beef patty near the end of the cooking process. The tip turns black when meat reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
The team created a large (3-foot diameter) hamburger costume to appear at educational events. Individually packaged T-sticks were purchased with the local educational contacts printed on the enclosed directions card.
Volunteers from 4-H, FCE (Family and Community Education), and Albany County CowBelles were trained to conduct five 2-hour hamburger cooking demonstrations using the T-stick at grocery stores. They reached a total of 215 people. The team conducted demonstrations and hands-on activities at after-school sites and area child care facilities reaching 924 children. Children received a coloring sheet as well as an information sheet and T-stick to take home to parents. Additional presentations to groups reached another 727 adults and 73 youth.
Nearly 9,000 T-sticks were also distributed through displays in grocery stores, athletic clubs, physicians' offices, a discount store, and flu-clinic. Volunteers stapled over 3,500 T-sticks to the school lunch monthly menus. At the annual University of Wyoming homecoming parade, the team designed and entered a float. Over 2,000 parade spectators received T-sticks.
Media played a large role in the campaign. The local television public access channel printed a bulletin board message for eight weeks. Local newspaper coverage included a front-page photo, five news columns, three individual photos, and a full-photo page (circulation 8,200). The university paper included an article and photo. Three radio interviews were broadcast.
Evaluation Design and Results
The team designed a process to evaluate the program as the cost of hiring a survey group proved prohibitive. Volunteers conducted a pre- and post-telephone survey locally and in a control community.
Youth and adult volunteers from 4-H, FCE, CowBelles, and the university student body were recruited to conduct the survey. Test surveys determined the youth were able to follow the procedures. During the survey process, site coordinators observed the youth actually completed more surveys and received fewer refusals than adult callers.
The Extension community development specialist designed and supervised data entry. The Hudson beef recall occurred shortly before the start of the campaign. Thus, national media included many reports on ground beef and E.coli.
Goal Number One. The campaign accomplished the goal and increased safe food-handling behaviors. The results suggest potential problems when consumers rely on national media to shape food safety attitudes and behaviors.
In the intervention group post-survey, more respondents used thermometers to test doneness of ground beef after the campaign (5.0% to 8.0%), and fewer respondents relied on meat juices as an indicator of doneness (59.4% to 52.1%,).
At post-survey in the control community, fewer respondents were concerned with E.coli (64.9% to 60%), and more felt able to protect their families from E.coli (79.3% to 85.7%). However, between pre- and post-survey, more control community respondents used color as an indicator of doneness (82.2% to 90.8%). This is a potentially unsafe practice and is no longer recommended by U.S. Department of Agriculture. National media attention alone provided people with the message to cook ground beef. However, the correct method of assessment (temperature) was not incorporated into behavior. Conversely, the intervention community received local, consistent, repeated messages and maintained their level of concern. Most importantly, they changed behaviors with more respondents using temperature to assess doneness in ground beef and fewer using meat juices.
Goal Number Two. The intervention community showed significant changes in awareness and use of the T-stick. In the post-survey, awareness increased from 9.6% to 46.8%. Use of the T-stick increased from 3.3% to 14.2%. The open-ended questions revealed the most effective forms of education were the newspaper, grocery-store displays and demonstrations, school distribution and demonstrations, and the Homecoming Parade. Familiarity and usage of the T-stick remained unchanged in the control community.
Goal Number Three. During educational events, participants frequently commented on the steak and roast beef comparison. One gentlemen said, "So, I can eat steak and roast again!" A lady at a demonstration said, "I have been cooking all my beef well done and I don't have to."
The project provided many insights: (a) consumers will make behavior changes to reduce food borne illness when given repeated, clear, concise messages; (b) national media alone for food safety education may fall short in convincing consumers to make correct changes to reduce food borne illness; (c) local teams of educators and regulators can empower consumers; (d) site-of-purchase is an important location for food safety education; (e) sending information with children home to parents is effective; and (f) utilizing traditional clientele groups in meaningful roles broadens impact.