6 Kitchen Safety Tips to Arm Yourself With

Do you know where bacteria live in your kitchen?  I learned some things this past year that I would like to share with you.

The kitchen is germ central.  A U.S. firm, NSF International, studied 22 families and swabbed all kinds of equipment and items for bacteria – from the pet dish to iPods.  The firm was looking for coliform bacteria (a sign of fecal contamination – YUCK!!), Staphylococcus bacteria (which like coliform, can cause vomiting and diarrhea) and yeast and mold (which can trigger allergic reactions).  The kitchen was the biggest culprit! We need to be more mindful if we have babies, small children and the elderly or people in your household whose immune system is compromised by other diseases. This group is more vulnerable than the average healthy people.

It’s impossible to control all bacteria.  Bacteria are everywhere and our bodies need to be exposed to some to help it learn how to fight invaders.  But too much of anything is a bad thing – I hear my mother’s words “everything in moderation”!  We all know that washing our hands thoroughly for 20 seconds (or as long as it takes to sing the birthday song) will help us to ward off illness.  But what else can we do?

1.  Sponges – are dirty and tough to keep clean. The NSF study found that 77% of sponges and dishcloths contained coliform, 86% had yeast and mold and 18% had Staph bacteria.  Food bacteria build up with food residues. And sponges have many nooks and holes in which bacteria can multiply.

What to do: I thought that rinsing a sponge or dishcloth out was enough.  Not so.  Try microwaving your sponge for one minute in the microwave.  That kills a significant portion of the bacteria.  The NSF ran them through the dishwasher in their tests and that killed almost as many bugs as microwaving it for one minute.  Be sure you don’t put sponges that contain any metal in the microwave and be sure that the sponge is wet so it doesn’t catch fire.  I also use a clean dishcloth or sponge everyday.

2. Kitchen Countertops – the NSF found that 32% of kitchen countertops were contaminated with coliform bacteria and 18% had mold and yeast.  We use our hands on countertops all the time and then we often wipe them with dirty sponges or dishcloths.

What to do: Soap and water cleaning of your kitchen surfaces is suitable for most average healthy people.  Soap or detergent and water cleaning physically removes dirt and germs from surfaces – it doesn’t kill them all – but it lowers their numbers and thus the risk of spreading infection. Disinfectants aren’t really necessary typically.  Apparently it’s more important to keep things clean than disinfected as cleaning removes 99% of the microorganisms and disinfectants don’t work unless the surface is cleaned first anyway!  Furthermore, products like Lysol, Pinesol and Clorox don’t kill viruses, parasites or all bacteria.  The only way you can get rid of viruses and parasites is to wash them away with soap and water.  Note though, that if you leave with immuno-compromised people, you might want to make soap and water cleaning first, with disinfectant cleaning afterward for your countertops and sinks.

The other important thing I learned was that for a disinfectant to work, it has to sit on the surface for several minutes in order to be effective.  The NSF’s testing noted that Lysol Disinfectant All-Purpose Cleaner or the liquid Clorox Disinfecting Wipes required 10 minutes to be effective.  The cost effective disinfecting solution that Health Canada suggests is a bleach solution of 3 cups of water mixed with 1 teaspoon of bleach.  I use the non-chlorine bleach by Seventh Generation.  And the right way to do it is to apparently flood your countertop with the solution and then let it sit for a few minutes, then pat with clean, dry paper towels and then allow it air dry.  Solutions made with vinegar and baking soda are not strong enough to disinfect, according to the University of North California.  The university did a study and found that “vinegar had little effect on the common food bug Staphylococcus aureus, while baking soda was no match for E. coli”.

3. Sinks – another place that dirt and food particles gather is in the sink drain and disposal.  It’s like a perfect storm of bacterial growth.  You can find things like Listeria and maybe even Salmonella – like from when you rinse off your poultry.  I had never thought about that before.

What to do: Sanitize your drain from time to time by mixing up a homemade solution of 3 cups of water with 1 teaspoon of bleach and pour it down your drains and disposal.

4. Cutting Boards – I learned that the most important thing about a cutting board is the integrity of its surface.  Cuts and slices into wood or plastic boards can harbor bacterium and it can become difficult to get into all the little nooks and crannies.  Wood has an advantage over plastic in that the wood can absorb bacteria from food into the interior of the wood and there the bugs will slowly die.

What to do: Clean your cutting boards with warm, soapy water.  I run my plastic ones through the dishwasher.  And wooden boards that will fit into your microwave can be disinfected in the microwave (warning: do not overheat your wooden board).

5. Refrigerators – Cold temperatures keep bacteria at bay but I learned a few specifics that I didn’t know before.  I bought a refrigerator thermometer to make sure that the temperature stays at 4 degrees Celsius or below.

What to do: Buy yourself a fridge thermometer.  You can find them at most kitchen stores and they are an inexpensive investment in the well being of you and your family. Although uncommon, Listeria is one concern that can be deadly.  Keeping your food safe is critical. To check your temperature the first time, the thermometer must have been in the fridge for 5 – 8 hours.  Eyeing your food or using the sniff test is not sufficient to determine if it’s bacteria laden.

The other thing to help keep food cold is to keep items in your fridge well spaced.  I am guilty of this one.  The cold needs room to circulate around the food items and keeps it cold more efficiently when it has breathing room.

An important note: I live in an area of BC that is quite prone to power outages in the winter due to several tall trees in the area.  When the power goes out, I have learned to keep the freezer and fridge doors closed as much as possible.  That keeps the cold air in.  Refrigerated perishables like milk, meat or leftover and deli foods should be thrown out after 4 hours without power.  For more information on food safety, checkout foodsafety.gc.ca

6.  Dishwasher – I began to really inspect my dishwasher and I have to admit, I was shocked.  I found that black dirt was building up around the seal and in cracks and crevices.  The food residues I began to notice here and there too were surprising.  Even though the heat of the washer and the soap do a very effective job of cleaning the dishes, you still need to pay attention to this accumulation.

What to do: If people in your house are immune compromised, wash everything in the dishwasher on the hottest setting and use the heat dry option.  Rinse your dishes soon after eating and before putting them in the dishwasher (my husband won’t like that part!!).  If the food begins to dry on your dishes, not only is it harder to get it off your dishes, it begins the process of growing bacteria and the harder it will be to clean the bacteria off.

And it’s important to clean the inside of your dishwasher – something I now do regularly.  I know, I know – like you needed one more thing to do!  Clean the rubber seals regularly with a disinfectant or bleach solution. The black I was seeing could actually have been black yeast.  “An international team of researchers sampled 189 private homes in 101 cities on six continents.  They found two nasty species of black yeast along the rubber seals of the doors in 56 % of the dishwashers they examined.  Black yeast are resistant to high temperatures and detergents.  The yeast can cause diseases like mycetoma, a rare skin infection.  They can also colonize the lungs of patients with cystic fibrosis, leading to respiratory infections.”

I hope these tips were as helpful to you as I have found them to be.

Until next time….