Nearly All Cookbooks Have Terrible Food Safety Advice

A review of bestsellers shows few recipes offer accurate tips

Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Mar 29, 2017 at 12:04 PM ET

That new cookbook may teach you how to make a delicious lamb roast, but it probably won’t help you avoid food poisoning, finds a quirky new study published Monday in the British Food Journal.

Researchers pored through 29 different cookbooks on the New York Times bestseller list from September 2013 to January 2014, ultimately looking at nearly 1,500 recipes that involved raw animal ingredients. They found that only 123 recipes, or 8.2 percent, instructed people to stop cooking when the food had reached an internal temperature measured via digital thermometer, though one-third had still listed the wrong figure. Similarly, less than five percent included steps on how to properly handle food to avoid cross-contamination, such as not washing raw chicken. Only six recipes at all featured both kinds of food safety tips that were completely accurate.

“Cookbooks aren’t widely viewed as a primary source of food-safety information, but cookbook sales are strong and they’re intended to be instructional,” said senior author Ben Chapman of North Carolina State University in a statement.

Indeed, although most foodborne outbreaks are caused by eating out, at least 12 percent are caused by poor food preparation right at home, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And most of these errors involve undercooking, or accidentally spreading germs from raw foods onto prepared foods.

Instead of temperature, cookbooks largely relied on subjective indicators like the color of a steak or time spent cooking. But only a few signs of “doneness” — crispy bacon, brown ground beef, non-runny scrambled eggs — are backed up by any good science. And even with recipes that included temperatures, they nearly always included these subjective signs too.

Chapman notes that cookbooks have seemingly always been stewpots of bad food prep advice, and it isn’t much better when you look at how famous TV chefs dole out recipes either. “A similar study was done 25 years ago and found similar results — so nothing has changed in the past quarter century.” he said. “But by talking about these new results, we’re hoping to encourage that change.”

Among the easy changes cookbook authors could enact would be listing safe internal temperatures and avoiding popular but unproven food safety tips, like cooked chicken being safe to eat once the meat falls off the bone.