Food & Water

Wash your Hands the Cool Way

June 29, 2017

Working on food projects is funstrating. Details and hassles are frustrating. But grasping for hope, connection and empowerment makes it fun. This funstrating paradox explains why so many people want to do food, despite the frustrations.

Let me give one example among many — from the field of food safety.

The latest science shows that people can handle or eat food with clean hands and a clear conscience after a quick wash with ordinary soap and water. No need to take a long time, use anti-bacterial soap, or wait for hot water. Amazing as it sounds, that research can make a news splash in 2017, even with Trump’s tweets going off all around us.

The study results are no small matter. More than water is cool about this story. The whole message is way cool and radical. It can give you a new handle on food issues, and lead to funstrating results. And give you a good sense of how a seemingly tiny food issue can connect to change at all levels.

Before I start with my analysis, let me link you to the formal research study.I’ll also link you to another article summarizing that research.

A little research can unravel a long tail of received truth and conventional wisdom. Hand-wringing pundits these days say we live in a post-truth era. This soapy story makes another point. It’s actually more accurate to say we live with an amazing number of habits that come from the pre-truth era.


Forgive me this first distraction, which explains my personal interest in a seemingly minor issue of food safety. I come from the wonkdom of food policy. When I worked for Toronto Public Health, my job was to
dream big policy dreams for the Food Policy Council. I often argued with Jim Chan, senior manager of the food safety inspectors, but his manner usually brought me up short. We have a workaday job to do, his body language told me. We enforce everyday practices that save lives. The older I get, the more I realize how wise he was.

This story is my effort to softsoap you with the idea that practices, not policies, are where the action is in food. Nursing is a practice, law is a practice, and food and fitness must be seen primarily as a practice. We don’t attach enough importance to practices, and underestimate their importance, especially relative to policies and technologies. In my book, practices can claim pride of place, ahead of policy and technology.

Proper handwashing is a perfect case in point on the relative importance of practice. It’s low tech — old-fashioned soap and cool and clean water are all that’s necessary to prevent a whole range of diseases — and does not rely on complicated policy. And it becomes effective by becoming habit-forming — that is, by becoming a standard practice.

And handwashing is so humble and lowly that it’s one of the few food-related issues that’s a direct responsibility of local governments and institutions. Local inspectors train and inspect most restaurants for food safety, including handwashing. Local utilities guarantee the quality of water, and save the money for local ratepayers when there’s a minimum of water wasted in the process. Which means that the means of citizen control are at-hand.

My first side note is over. If you want to know more about practices, the main thinker who influences me is Nevin Cohen, who’s linkable here and there about it.

Now, let’s return to the main thread of the story, and the Rutgers scientists.

They asked volunteers to wash for different lengths of time, and to vary their use of soap and hot water. Then their hands were tested for germs. This controlled experiment showed that 10 seconds of lathering, using a modest amount of regular soap and cool water, did the job. Not good enough for hands dirty from working a garden, or about to cut raw meat, but generally fine. (The gold standard for healthcare workers is stricter, as this report explains.)

When I told my wife, Lori, about this revelation of modern science, she gave me a verbal cold shower. That’s why I’ve always told you that hot water is only needed to cut grease, she said. If plain dirt and germs, not grease, is the issue, cool soapy water is plenty good enough. One trick, she said, is to wet the hands before applying the soap, because the surfactants in soap work with water.

Science experiments can’t match the powers of day in/day out observation, I realized. This was another vindication of the importance of practice. Doctors and yoginis refer to their work as a practice. I’d suggest food workers should too, as well as food policy experts.


Rutgers researchers may not speak with the voice of experience. But they speak with an authority that carries weight with government officials. If the officials listen up, some big changes are in store as a result of this study.

First, most food safety regulations and teachings favor washing hands with hot water. That’s true around the world. Such standards need to switch so we can conserve water and energy, and also protect food safety. This can be a big issue for cities.

Second, the changeover will cut utility bills for individuals and food businesses. Most people wash their hands ten times a day, and food service workers wash ten times a shift. When I run the tap to heat water to wash my hands, I run through ten US gallons of water a day. Multiply that water taste by the population of any city, and it comes to a lot of water down the drain. And the heat comes courtesy of fossil-fuels — not exactly a safe habit for a warming world. We can save a lot of money and prevent a lot of waste by modernizing an unexamined habit.

Before I get to the third and fourth impact of this study, I have to take you on a sidetrip, which sets up the third and fourth impacts.

There are a few possible explanations for why a straightforward study like this struck a chord in the media and general public.


One reason may be that the story reminded us how food depends on hands-on relationships. Humans evolved with magical hands so they could find food, prepare it and eat it. The human hand co-evolved with food realities. We handle food. We use hand tools. We hire farmhands. We rely on hand-eye coordination. Hands are pretty central to the whole operation. They’re as important as teeth and the human gut.

It’s important to know that we are what we ate — past tense. Much about our minds, bodies and souls has its origin in early food relationships.

As modern as our technology is, we still rely on old-fashioned hands to do most things with food. Charlie Chaplin’s hit movie of the 1920s, Modern Times, spoofed assembly lines. One scene stands out as the ultimate in human degradation and disempowerment. A machine forcefed a worker so his hands could remain free to handle the assembly line.

This unforgettable scene resonates with everyone who sees it. That says something about the connection between food and personal dignity. We want to own and handle responsibility for feeding ourselves. Our expectations and language resonate with the deep memory of food and evolution, and are registered in the way that compassion for people suffering from hunger is almost universal, and that the need for food is also widely recognized as a human right.


The handwashing story also struck a chord, I believe, because it confronted a legacy of social snobbery about dirt.

People called “sanitary reformers” waged a campaign against dirt and germs, throughout the period from 1850 to 1950. Cleanliness was next to godliness, was the watchword of their campaign. Many of today’s public health regulations, and many of today’s public attitudes, date back to this campaign.

Before this campaign, most people were indifferent toward dirt and ignorant about germs. Everyone owes a lot to these sanitary campaigners. Thanks to them, we don’t have spittoons where men hork in public, as casually as people smoked in restaurants until a few decades ago. We owe flush toilets to them. We owe the habits of brushing teeth and washing hands to them. We owe garbage pickup, street cleaning, restaurant inspection and water filtration to them. They ingrained these practices and habits of clean minds in clean bodies across society.

They also ingrained the notion that such protective measures were essential core services of governments, and that they had to be universally applied to all — otherwise, communicable diseases could not be controlled. There was little talk of the “nanny state” invading personal space. Public health acquired the same high stature as the other scourge of early cities — fire protection. Both were key services upon which the wellbeing of all members of society depended.

We still need to build that profile for collective actions against chronic disease and environmental disorders.

Many of these sanitary reformers came from the upper classes. Many campaigns reeked of prejudices against the great unwashed. Dirty became an insult, often directed at dirty immigrants and dirty radicals. Of course, sex was also dirty, as were dirty jokes. (Google “sanitary reformers” to find hundreds of publications. If you look hard enough, you will find chapters from my PhD thesis.)

Uptightness about hands went hand in glove with these social prejudices. Elegant ladies wore white gloves to show off their spotlessness. Manual workers were low class. Eating with your hands was as bad as talking with your mouth full. Those who didn’t save money would suffer a hand-to-mouth existence. Finger foods were foreign, as were street foods.

The language used to promote cleanliness was heated, if not aggressive and violent. We must scour out filth, and kill germs. Sterilizing (also used to describe forced castration of “mental defectives”) was essential. The ‘cide of homicide or suicide applied to herbicides and pesticides.

We have not yet cleansed our language or thinking of this legacy. Nor have we rethought our relationship to food. Today’s debates about chickens in the city and street food tell us old thinking is still alive.

So it’s newsworthy when researchers show scalding heat and scrubbing aren’t essential to safety. I like to think the media response reveals a healthy new attitude toward cleanliness.


Part of cleaning up our act requires renewing respect for plain old soap and water. This will be the third impact of this study on soap and cool water.

There’s no need to escalate confrontation with germs. Low-tech solutions are plenty good enough for routine food handling. Anti-bacterial soaps and plastic gloves should stay on the sidelines. They both harm the environment.

Respected environmental groups expose the dangers of anti-bacterial soaps in items such as this and this.

US federal authorities favor plastic gloves when handling ready-to-eat foods. That makes them standard fare in most junkfood and chain restaurants. But a 2007 study in a leading food safety publication says soap, water and elbow grease are usually good to go. The study cites experts who worry that plastic gloves cover up the problems of employee speed-up. If workers are too rushed to wash their hands, plastic isn’t going to do much good.

We’ve come some way since this 2007 study. Now we know plastic is unsafe for people and the environment. It’s also wasteful. Evidence on this is overwhelming, but here are one or two places to start.

Governments will likely open safety regulations to favor washing with cool water. They should tighten up plastic glove rules at the same time. No reason to keep bad safety practices that enable junk food operators.

Widespread use of plastic gloves exposes an often-hidden problem of mega-corporations. As a champion of small and midsized entrepreneurs and artisans, I want to draw attention to it. Washing hands well takes each worker about six minutes a day. For a small business, that’s hardly worth worrying about. For a corporation with thousands and tens of thousands of employees, it’s a huge cost. Far cheaper to go with plastic, and turn up the speed. By sidestepping the real problem, these huge companies pass on their problem to the public. The name for this is externalization — a no-no of good government regulations. The problem is that some companies are too big for their safety britches.


The fourth impact of the Rutgers cool findings could be to give us all a wake-up. Food safety wins the food prize for least sexy topic to talk about on Valentine’s or any time. But the sheer numbers of people and the sheer costs of mistakes cry out for attention.

Moreover, food safety thinking needs updating. It’s a hundred years out of date. Most rules and thinking predate three big changes.

A: we no longer have dirty minds like the old sanitary reformers did. We don’t see immigrants, radicals or sex as dirty.

B: we now know not to subject all germs and microbes to search and destroy missions. Some microbes and germs are beneficial. They need to be in balance, like the balance in our guts, now flying high with its high status as the microbiome.

C: many of us are not as narcissistic as before, and realize that safety is not a matter of us versus the bad guys. We also have to consider the environment, so it doesn’t become a casualty.

When we take a fresh look at food safety, we will see many things.

We will see how many people suffer from lack of food safety.

Foodborne illnesses sicken 48 million people a year, says one US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report . Of these 48 million people, 128,000 spend time in the hospital, and 3000 die. US costs for this are over $15 billion a year, says another recent report.

A Master of Science thesis from University of Guelph compares costs in different countries.

Hand washing and hygiene rank high as causes of foodborne illness, says another report from the Centers for Disease Control. An informed Canadian article claims hand washing “is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.”

If food safety got the attention it deserves, improved practices could save a lot of pain and a heap of money.

By focusing on practices, we can put power in the hands of people.

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Wayne Roberts

Dr. Wayne Roberts is best-known as the manager of the world-renowned Toronto Food Policy Council from 2000 to 2010. But he did lots before (see his Wikipedia entry) and has done lots since. Wayne speaks, consults, coaches, tweetslinks inFacebooks, and Read more.

Tags: building resilient food systems, food policy, food safety regulations