Shauna Henley doesn’t wash her chicken before she cooks it. In fact, she never has.
But she wants to know if you do.
Henley’s the Drexel University graduate student behind the “Don’t Wash Your Chicken” education campaign that’s appearing in media reports around the nation. It even has celebrity chefs talking about it.
Henley, adopted from South Korea when she was five months old, grew up in a rural part of Connecticut. She went to Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., for her undergraduate degree in biology, and got her master’s in nutrition and food science from the University of Vermont. She discovered her passion for food safety through her graduate research, and knew she wanted to pursue her PhD.
Drexel was a no-brainer option for Henley; she said it was one of the first schools she looked at. The stars aligned when she saw what College of Nursing and Health Professions Associate Professor Jennifer Quinlan was doing with research into food safety risks for minority racial and low-income populations. Henley began her time at Drexel in June 2010 working with Quinlan.
“We saw that campylobacter and salmonella are the two main bacterial agents leading to food-borne illness for minority populations, and we don’t really know why,” Henley said. “So one hypothesis was how they prepared food just because of different food cultures and traditions.”
Henley’s first year was spent conducting focus groups with African Americans, Asians and Hispanics around Philadelphia. It was a lot of legwork for Henley, literally. She biked everywhere.
While adapting to city life, she was also tasked with figuring out where to hold the discussions and how to recruit participants.
Another obstacle? The language barrier.
“One of the biggest problems I faced was trying to figure out who could help me translate our questioning route from English to Spanish and Chinese because foreign languages are not my thing at all,” she said.
Luckily, Henley met some generous graduate students from the Department of Biology who were willing to translate.
“Without their help to get me started I don’t know where I would be with this project,” Henley said.
She held nine focus groups throughout the city, gathering mounds of information on meal planning processes for certain demographics.
“The participants, they could talk,” Henley said, recalling the hours she spent transcribing the discussions.
After conducting the focus groups, Henley moved on to using a random digit-dial survey for people living in Philadelphia, which was outsourced to a data-collecting service that could administer surveys in Spanish as well as the Mandarin and Cantonese dialects of Chinese.
For the surveys, Henley and Quinlan modified a national consumer food safety survey from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration by incorporating elements from the focus groups that they wanted to investigate further. To avoid leaving out certain groups, the surveys were administered half by landline and half by cell phone.
Henley and Quinlan found that washing poultry was a common practice among all racial groups, and figured it would be a good food safety message to go after.
“The [U.S. Department of Agriculture] recommends not washing chicken, so do a bunch of other food safety agencies in other countries,” Henley said. “So we weren’t really telling people anything new, we were just bringing old information to new light.”
For the next phase of the project, Henley and Quinlan worked with collaborators at New Mexico State University’s Department of Media Productions to develop the “Don’t Wash Your Chicken” campaign’s photo novellas and mini-drama videos—education tools describing the negative effects of washing raw poultry.
Henley and Jacqui Van Grouw, a grad student in the Nutrition Sciences Department, distributed information on the campaign at four libraries and a supermarket in Philadelphia in April. They collected about 530 evaluation surveys to see if the intervention materials were working.
It was eye-opening, Henley said, to see the importance people still gave to washing their chicken. Some think they’re washing away bacteria, others think there’s dirt on the chicken or they don’t trust who packaged the chicken, Henley said.
“We only had a handful of people who said, ‘We don’t wash chicken,’” she added.
Now, Henley is interested in learning about what cuts of poultry people are more likely to wash before cooking.
“Are people more inclined to wash a whole Thanksgiving turkey versus a cut of chicken breast or chicken thighs?” she said.
Henley’s work throughout the past few years has not gone unnoticed. In 2012, she received a Drexel University Research Day Award and College of Arts and Sciences Research Day Award and this past May she received the Drexel University Alumni Outstanding Graduate Student Award, which recognizes leadership and involvement in the community. Most recently, Henley is seeing her name appear in media outlets across the country.
Although she plans to defend her work in October, Henley knows her PhD research will always make for a good conversation starter.
“It’s definitely interesting,” Henley said. “People are like, ‘What do you study?’ and I tell them about the campaign, and then they are compelled to tell me how they prepare chicken, if they do or don’t wash it.”
That’s OK, Henley said, “because you do learn some pretty good recipes through what they’re saying.”