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Need a Hand With That? Take Both, and Scrub Well

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March 23, 2000 (Washington) -- Throw warm water, not cold, on this one. And forget about "splash-and-go." Handwashing will never make the list of official Olympics competitive events, but it is important enough to be featured as such Thursday at a national conference of food processing officials.

Washing our hands might be something we all learned in kindergarten, but it's often neglected. People don't clean their hands nearly as often as they say they do, according to a 1996 survey cited by the FDA.

Dirty -- and even inadequately washed -- hands can easily transmit germs to others. That's what perks up the ears of those in the food industry. According to the FDA, "The considerable number of illnesses transmitted by food worker contamination of food demands rigorous intervention measures."

The CDC has reported that foodborne diseases may cause 325,000 hospitalizations each year, 76,000 gastrointestinal illnesses, and 5,000 deaths. An FDA review of 81 foodborne illness outbreaks since 1975 found that food worker illness was a factor in almost all. And in 35 of the outbreaks, hand contact was identified as a specific factor.

At Thursday's "Olympics" at the National Food Processors Association's summit on food safety, contestants first rubbed their hands with a germ-simulating liquid, then washed and dried their hands. Whatever "germs" remained showed up under a black light.

The food processing professionals did well in their handwashing, Kimberly-Clark official and event emcee Clay Mahaffey tells WebMD. "These people are pretty good -- they know about getting around the cuticles and getting between the fingernails."

But Yoseline Torres, a restaurant quality assurance technologist for a restaurant firm whose eateries include Ponderosa and Bennigan's, tells WebMD that two of her nails had residue, even after a thorough scrub. "I thought I had done it perfectly, and I was competing, so I wanted to make sure that I was doing it right. Can you imagine at a restaurant -- how thoroughly are they doing it?"

Torres is putting together tougher handwashing guidelines to minimize the risk of potential foodborne illnesses from her restaurant workers.

Keeping employees' hands clean is a cottage industry all its own; a handful of vendors at the food processors' meeting touted and hawked various high-tech devices to clean workers' hands -- and verify that the employees had done their cleaning.

In various handwashing outreaches, government officials have also targeted the general public. Attention-grabbing programs have included a Pennsylvania county's campaign which used bathroom posters that parodied literary classics, and a West Virginia school initiative that may have been so health-promoting it improved attendance among youngsters.

Before we wash our hands of this affair, a few final pointers. Remember to wash before, during, and after handling food. You should also wash after handling any animal and after using the bathroom. And if you wash, don't just soap up with warm water -- make sure you scrub. A government consumer guide recommends that you scrub for 20 seconds, or the length of a little tune you can hum to yourself.

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