Smartphones, tablets, other PEDs bringing bacteria into the kitchen

Smartphones, tablets and other personal electronic devices, known as PEDs, in the past decade have increasingly been found in the kitchen. The only trouble is cell phones are well known for harboring bacteria, including “opportunistic human pathogens.” That raises a question because research on pathogen contamination on smartphones in “nonclinical’ settings, including those involving food preparation remains limited. To fill that void, Amy M. Lando, Michael C. Bazaco, and Yi Chen of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Nutrition joined together with the research paper “Consumers’s Use of Personal Electronic Devices in the Kitchen.” Published in the Journal for Food Protection, the trio of Food and Drug Administration experts found smartphones, tablets and other PEDs were contaminated with the “bacterial species on fingers of randomly chosen study participants…” The trio conducted a study of 400 mobile phone users showing users in Nigeria and marketers and food vendors had higher contamination rates than students, teachers and public healthcare workers. They concluded that marketers and food vendors “had inadequate hygiene and sanitary practice. “Bacteria found on their mobile phones included Staphylococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia, Klebsiella, and Bacillus,” the trio said. “The level on smartphone screens declined with proper screening of screens.” “However, certain areas of mobile devices kept in a protective case are hard to reach during cleaning and may encorage biofilm formation, which may make cleaning and be sanitizing more difficult.” Based on these findings, the researchers set out to investigate how consumers were using these devices in the kitchen while preparing food. This part of the research was focused on the United States, taking into account English and Spanish speaking residents along with the African-American population. In addition to these populations, geographic areas included were Alexandria, VA; Atlanta, GA; Louisville, KY; and Los Angeles, CA. The survey work focused on whether a phone, tablet or some other computer was used while cooking, what was on the menu, and whether hand washing was observed. They found 49 percent reported using some kind of a personal electronic device while cooking. Of non-Hispanics with college degrees and earning $75,000 a year or more, 65 percent reported they were using their smartphones in the kitchen. In addition, many thought about how to best incorporate their personal electronic device into their cooking routines. Most were aware smartphones and tablets are dirty from daily use and worried about how they are used in cooking. “Therefore, many had developed their own strategies for not cross-contaminating the PED and food; washing hands after touching raw meat or chicken before touching the phone; using pinkies or knuckles to swipe the phone; waiting until a good time in the cooking process (such as only having to stir things after handling raw meat) to touch the phone, and putting the PED in a special holders and keeping it away from the food or sink,” says the trio’s research. People using devices in their kitchens expressed more concern about washing their hands after touching raw meat or chicken than when handling raw vegetables. Many reported cleaning their devices on a regular basis, using Clorox, Lysol, alcohol, baby wipes or screen cleaner or cloths. They said their No. 1 concern was transferring bacteria from their device to their food. “They did not want to get those ‘germs’ onto their food,” says the research paper. “Those who were more concerned about food getting onto the phone while cooking were concerned both about getting sick from bacteria from raw meat getting on to the phone, which they then put up to their face, and about residue from wet or greasy food making the phone dirty and potentially ruining it,” according to the report. Only a few participants hadn’t thought much at all about cleaning their phones or about the threat from the residue. About half of all users now rely on smartphones, tablet, or other PEDs in the kitchen. In the future, the authors said the actual risk to consumers needs to be measured by using PEDs while cooking. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)