Hand washing seems to be a simple task but, once implemented, shows discrepancies between people. Some people diligently wash their hands for 30 seconds with soap, others simply run their hands under water, or wipe their hands only on a cloth or towel. The issue of hand washing is particularly important when handling raw meat, to prevent foodborne infections caused by pathogenic bacteria present on raw meat (Campylobacter and Salmonella in particular) via "cross-contamination" events. Indeed, these bacteria will be killed by the cooking of the meat, but they can infect consumers if they put their hands to their mouths after handling raw meat, or if they contaminate with their soiled hands a food eaten raw (a salad for example).

Do the Europeans really wash their hands?

Researchers from SafeConsume conducted a study in 5 European countries (Portugal, France, Norway, Romania and UK) by observing 15 consumers per country during the preparation of a meal from raw chicken and salad and by interviewing via Internet a sample of 1889 Europeans. Their results show clear differences between European countries in chicken handling and handwashing practices, although self-reported handwashing practices are similar between countries, revealing a gap between intentions and practices. These differences are associated with disparities in material aspects (kitchen equipment, type of chicken purchased, whole or filleted), know-how (cooking recipes, chicken washing, use or non-use of soap) and knowledge (microbiological risks associated with raw meat, importance of soap). The English and Norwegians are the good students here, since they declare that they know that raw chicken can make you sick and therefore wash their hands with soap after handling it. The poor performers, the Portuguese, French and Romanians, are only less than 2 out of 15 people who washed their hands with soap after handling raw chicken. Many of them do not seem to know the importance of soap for washing their hands, and just run them under water. Others use soap on different occasions during meal preparation, but not after handling raw chicken because they are not aware of the risks from raw chicken. Poorly equipped kitchens and inaccessible soap were also associated with not washing hands.

Good examples have to be followed

The study demonstrated that differences in hand washing routines across countries are related to a different perception of risks. While Norwegians and British are aware of Campylobacter and campylobacteriosis associated with raw chicken due to campaigns that have been run in these countries, French, Portuguese, and Romanian consumers are not. Food safety authorities should consider consumers’ knowledge, skills, routines, and risk perception when formulating food safety communication policies. The example of Norway and UK in informing consumers on the existence of emerging pathogens as Campylobacter should be followed by the other European countries. If an effective communication strategy is developed, food safety authorities can contribute to the improvement of consumers’ hand washing practices and consequently to the limitation of foodborne illnesses that are having the household environments as starting point.

The art and the way to wash your hands

Remember that to fight against the transmission of viruses and bacteria it is necessary to wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds.


A European study on hand washing

This study was conducted as part of the H2020 SafeConsume project (2017-2022, https://safeconsume.eu/), which aims to study and improve consumer practices related to foodborne risks. It combines the results of a large-scale online survey conducted in 2019 and anthropological surveys conducted in 2018 with consumers in their food shopping and preparation practices. The work is the result of a close collaboration between microbiologists and sociologists/anthropologists. This work was conducted prior to the CoViD 19 crisis, but the issue of handwashing has taken on particular resonance since.

Projet H2020 n° 727580


Pierrine Didier, Christophe Nguyen-The, Lydia Martens, Mike Foden, Loredana Dumitrascu, Augustin Octavian Mihalache, Anca Ioana Nicolau, Silje Elisabeth Skuland, Monica Truninger, Luís Junqueira, Isabelle Maitre. 2021. Washing hands and risk of cross contamination during chicken preparation among domestic practitioners in five European countries. Food Control. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodcont.2021.108062

* INRAE and Ecole Supérieure d'Agricultures d'Angers in France, the University of Keele in the United Kingdom, the Dunarea de Jos University of Galati in Romania, SIFO in Norway and the University of Lisbon in Portugal.