Have you ever had a bellyache or bout of diarrhea and blamed it on last night's Chinese takeout? Oftentimes, the takeout isn't the culprit – and the offender is actually hiding in your own kitchen. Folks don't usually pay close attention to food safety, but being careless in the kitchen can have grave consequences. Below is a list of kitchen tools and gadgets that can lead to foodborne illness.
Wooden or plastic: Which is best? If you choose a wooden cutting board, it should be made from hard wood, such as oak or maple. Hand wash wooden cutting boards under warm soapy water using a stiff bristled brush to get in between the cracks and crevices. Plastic cutting boards are often preferred since you can run them through the dishwasher. If you choose to hand wash them, use warm soapy water.
In order to avoid cross-contamination, your kitchen should have at least two cutting boards – one for raw meat and poultry, and the other for ready-to-eat foods like fruits and veggies. Whether you choose wooden or plastic, once a cutting board is worn with too many cracks, it's time to replace it.
[Read: How to Disinfect Germ Hot Spots.]
The NSF International is an accredited organization that develops standards and tests products to ensure they meet set standards. According to their recent germ study, kitchen sponges harbor more hazardous microorganisms than any other place in your home. In order to ensure that your sponges are clean, follow these guidelines:
• According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Health, more than 99 percent of germs are destroyed by microwaving sponges for two minutes. When microwaving a sponge, be sure the sponge doesn't contain metal and is wet before placing it in the microwave. Let the sponge cool before removing it from the microwave to avoid injury.
• Run sponges through the dishwasher. The more often you use the sponge, the more often it should be run through the dishwasher.
• Replace used sponges often.
Oftentimes the kitchen towel is used to remove hot dishes from the oven, dry hands, wipe dirty counter tops and dry dirty dishes. The side towel wasn't created to "do it all" and using it in this manner can lead to cross-contamination of germs throughout your kitchen.
If you choose to use kitchen towels, use different colors to indicate various tasks (such as green for drying hands and red for removing hot trays from the oven) and be sure to wash them often.
Other Worst Kitchen Offenders
According to the NSF International's 2013 Germ Study, the 6 "germiest" items in the kitchen that contained salmonella, Listeria, yeast and/or mold included:
1) Refrigerator vegetable compartment
2) Refrigerator meat compartment
3) Blender gasket
4) Can opener
5) Rubber spatula
6) Food storage container with rubber seal
The study demonstrates that many everyday kitchen appliances and tools, which come in direct contact with raw meat, seafood and poultry, aren't been properly cleaned. Refrigerator compartments should be regularly cleaned with hot soapy water. In addition, kitchen appliances like blenders should be taken apart to be properly cleaned. Same goes with the rubber spatula and food storage containers – oftentimes folks don't separate the parts (when applicable) and clean them thoroughly.
Invest in a Thermometer
Using your eyes to determine if your meat is "cooked through" doesn't guarantee that pathogenic microorganisms have been destroyed. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1 out of 4 burgers will turn brown in the center before they reach the proper cooking temperature required to destroy harmful bacteria. This is especially worrisome if the burger is being consumed by young children, pregnant women, older adults or anyone with a compromised immune system. To be safe, always use a thermometer to make sure your meat is properly cooked.
Dial and digital thermometers are widely available, easy to use and relatively inexpensive. You can also purchase a meat thermometer (prices vary) with a list of cooking temperatures built right in.
The Importance of Good Hygiene
Good hygiene also plays a key role in keeping your kitchen safe. Proper hand washing must be done after using the restroom, talking on the phone, eating, helping kids with homework, and any other task that can contaminate hands. Teaching kids to do the same helps establish good hygiene practices from a young age. Hands should be washed using soap and water and lathered for the appropriate amount of time (singing Happy Birthday twice is a good rule of thumb).
[Read: Bachelor Pad Kitchen Must-Haves.]
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Toby Amidor , MS, RD, CDN, is the owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition and consults and blogs for various organizations including FoodNetwork.com's Healthy Eats Blog and Sears' FitStudio.