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.
Bazaco: We used data from the FSS and from related focus groups to conduct what we believe was the first study to investigate how consumers use personal electronic devices in the kitchen. That study, co-authored by Amy and me, along with our colleague Yi Chen, Ph.D., was published in February 2018 in the Journal of Food Protection. Each of us brought a different perspective to this work. Amy is a social scientist on CFSAN’s Consumer Studies Branch; Yi Chen is a microbiologist; and I’m an epidemiologist. Each of these disciplines is an important component in assessing how these popular devices may harbor and transmit potentially harmful bacteria.
I teach a class on emerging infectious diseases at the University of Maryland and like to ask the students how many use their cell phone in the bathroom. About 90 percent usually raise their hands. I then asked how many used their phones in the kitchen and a lot of the same people raise their hands. That was eye-opening to me so we decided that we wanted to look more into this.