Is the Mexican-American Population More at Risk for Foodborne Illnesses?
A team of researchers at Cornell University helps shed some light.
When it comes to food poisoning, it’s an equal opportunity illness. Every single person consuming food has the unfortunate chance of getting sick from pathogens lurking inside.
But, for some groups of people, there’s a concerning trend toward higher risk of foodborne illness. This is the case with the Mexican-American population here in the U.S. And it’s caught the attention of a dynamic trio of dedicated researchers at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who are working to unravel the “why” and inspire Mexican-Americans to make preventing foodborne illness a priority in their everyday lives.
In our interview today with Drs. Michael Shapiro, Pilar Parra, and Robert Gravani, you’ll understand more about food safety challenges with Mexican-Americans, solutions they’re working on, and what you can do to help their efforts.
Editor’s note: All researchers contributed to our questions.
Q: First, please share some background on each of you.
A: In addition to teaching in the Department of Communication, Dr. Michael Shapiro is a published author of numerous articles. His research is focused on media psychology, particularly the psychology of narrative messages, including narrative health messages.
Reducing microbial hazards and risks throughout the food system and in the home is the research and outreach focus of the activities of Dr. Robert Gravani. In addition to being a Professor in the Department of Food Science, he’s also Director of the National Good Agricultural Practices Program.
With research focusing on testing and evaluating interventions to improve health of diverse ethnic groups and individuals, Dr. Pilar Parra, a faculty in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, is a Research Associate and Senior Lecturer in the Division of Nutritional Sciences.
Q: How did all of you come to work together?
A: Drs. Shapiro and Gravani teamed up almost 10 years ago to combine Shapiro’s interest in the impact of narrative health messages with Gravani’s interest in improving food safety in the home. Dr. Parra partnered with us when our projects began exploring home food safety practices among Mexican-Americans.
Q: Tell us about your research.
A: Our research is at the intersection of two previous projects.
Several years ago, Drs. Shapiro and Gravani created and tested several narrative home food safety public service announcements as part of a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant. More recently, all three of us conducted a number of focus groups and the first national survey of food safety practices and attitudes of Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants in New York and across the U.S.
This is important for a number of reasons.
First, Mexican-Americans are the fastest growing group in the U.S. And there are many indications that this population may have a higher incidence of foodborne illness than other groups and that outbreaks associated with Mexican ethnic foods may be on the rise. One contributing factor is that Mexican foods tend to contain more high-risk ingredients.
With respect to following safe food practices at home, our research shows people in this community believe their personal risk is low. One reason is because they seldom see serious health consequences of foodborne illness. First-person narrative messages have been effective in increasing the perception of other risks with Mexican Americans. But, these kinds of messages haven’t been tested yet for food safety in the Mexican-American community. Our goal is to create messages that feature Mexican-Americans who’ve been victims of serious foodborne illness, or had family members who were victims, telling their stories.
We then plan to test these messages. We’ll be looking to find the best ways to shape these emotional, personal stories with the ultimate aim of delivering effective messages that urge prevention without stirring up resistance.
Q: Was there a particular realization that led you to launch your research?
A: One key consideration is the increasing Mexican origin population in the U.S.
Since the 1990s, a continuous stream of immigrants have settled in the U.S., and they’re bringing their families or beginning their own. And we’re seeing some things food safety-wise that worry us.
In a recent focus group meeting, second generation children ages 12-15 who help cook after school noted the same poor food preparation behaviors as adults in other focus groups:
They defrost meat in the sink.
They don’t use food thermometers.
They don’t thoroughly wash cutting boards between uses.
They leave leftovers on the counter or stove for dinner for family members who come home late from work.
They tell us they learned these practices from their mothers. That’s important to know because we want to understand how we can most effectively motivate these youngsters, and their elders, to use safer home food preparation practices.
Q: Are there specific foodborne illnesses that appear more frequently in the Mexican-American community?
A: One recent foodborne illness report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that, when the pathogen could be identified, Salmonella and Clostridium were most common. Clostridium spp. seems to be more common in Mexican food outbreaks than in outbreaks involving other kinds of food.
Many Mexican dishes combine meat, fresh produce, and dairy — both cold, raw items and cooked, warm items. This tends to make bacterial growth more likely. Our work indicates that problems with raw eggs, and, in some parts of the country, raw milk cheeses, seem to pop up more with Mexican meals.
Q: Have you found any differences between Mexican-Americans born in the U.S. and those born outside the U.S. as far as food safety practices go?
A: Our findings show people born in Mexico are less likely to follow safe practices thawing meat and poultry and handling leftovers compared to Mexican-Americans born in the U.S. Those born in the U.S. are generally more aware of food safety risks and safe home food preparation practices.
We’ve also seen that Mexican-Americans born in the U.S. are more skeptical of the food industry, but this may be associated with education.
It’s important to keep in mind that some differences we notice can be related to food preferences. For example, our research shows those born in Mexico to be more likely to favor traditional stews in which meat and poultry are thoroughly cooked. Using a food thermometer is not particularly useful or necessary preparing those dishes. On the other hand, as Mexican-American cooking includes more American-style meat and poultry, food thermometer use is very important.1
Q: Are there common poor food safety practices within the Mexican-American community that need improvement?
A: Our focus groups and large national survey identified unsafe thawing practices, gaps in knowledge about cross contamination, and risks related to raw eggs and raw milk cheese to be of particular concern. The proper use of microwave ovens for heating food is also an issue. Keep in mind that these are also problems outside the Mexican-American community.
Q: For people who get involved in your research, what do they do?
A: Our current work with research participants has three stages.
The first stage is identifying Mexican-Americans who’ve been the victim of a serious foodborne illness or had a family member who was a victim. We’re enlisting these folks to be recorded telling their story.
In stage 2, we’ll test those stories with focus groups.
In stage 3, we’ll conduct a series of experiments to explore which messages are effective and why.
For the second and third stages, participants will be Mexican-Americans who regularly cook for their families.
Q: How can STOP’s members help you?
A: By helping us identify and engage Mexican-Americans who’ve been affected by foodborne illness, either personally or through a family member’s sickness or death. We’re looking for people like this who’d be willing to tell their story.
This is the most difficult part of our project.
We’re reaching out to a number of organizations, but we know STOP members are some of the best people to connect with given your diverse community of victims and affected loved ones.
Once we’re working with an interested candidate, we first have a brief, informal discussion (in Spanish or English) to make sure they understand what’s involved, answer questions, and see if the person would like to come on board with us. If he or she does, we then record an interview of the person sharing his or her story.
ARE YOU A MEXICAN-AMERICAN WHO’S INTERESTED IN SHARING YOUR FOODBORNE ILLNESS STORY?
Drs. Shapiro, Gravani, and Parra would love to hear from you.
You can send an email to principle investigator, Mike Shapiro, at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 607-255-6356.
To speak Spanish (Para Español) please email Pilar Parra at email@example.com or call 607-255-0063.
On behalf of this passionate team of researchers, thanks so much in advance for considering participation in their work preventing foodborne illness in the Mexican-American population.
1 Parra, Pilar A., Kim, HyeKyung, Shapiro, Michael A., Gravani, Robert B., & Bradley, Samuel D. (2014). Home food safety knowledge, risk perception, and practices among Mexican-Americans. Food Control, 37(0), 115-125. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.foodcont.2013.08.016.
About Drs. Shapiro, Gravani, and Parra
Dr. Michael Shapiro is a Professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University.His research is focused on media psychology, particularly the psychology of narrative messages, including narrative health messages. Dr. Shapiro grew up in Detroit, MI but has lived in Ithaca, NY for more than 30 years. He teaches a course in the Psychology of Entertainment Media so he can tell his wife he’s working when he watches TV.
Dr. Robert Gravani is a Professor in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University and Director of the National Good Agricultural Practices Program. His research focuses on reducing microbial hazards and risks in industry and in the home. Dr. Gravani enjoys the outdoors and keeping fit by jogging, bicycling, kayaking, and sailing when the weather’s warm and, in winter, he likes downhill/cross country skiing and ice skating.
Dr. Pilar Parra is a Research Associate and Senior Lecturer in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University. Her research focuses on testing and evaluating interventions to improve the health status of cultural groups and individuals. When she’s not working, Dr. Parra enjoys volunteering with a church in Upstate New York that serves the immigrant Hispanic community.