If a restaurant inspector barged into your kitchen tomorrow, would it pass the test—or would he threaten to shut you down? Clipboard in hand, he'd check the temperature inside the refrigerator. Warmer than 40 degrees? Violation. Raw meat stored above ready-to-eat food? More points off. Same goes for dirty, cracked eggs, and swollen, leaking, or rusted cans of food. And don't even think about smoking while you're cooking.
At least one in seven home kitchens would flunk a restaurant-type health inspection, a recent study by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health suggests, and only three out of five would earn an A or B. Since food consumed at home is the source of roughly half of the nation's annual 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses, that's worrisome. "Sometimes we get a little sloppy in our own kitchens," says Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian and nutrition professor at Boston University. "Whether you're bringing raw food into your home to prepare or leftovers from a restaurant, you have to do your part to help reduce the risk of coming down with a food-borne illness."
To protect those who dine out, restaurant inspectors scrutinize every square inch of a commercial kitchen—from floor to ceiling and all surfaces in between. Among other things, they look for workers who are sick or don't wash their hands, perishables that sit out, dirty equipment, and not cooking, storing, or reheating food at the proper temperature.
The health department won't be sending an inspector into your kitchen, of course. The inspector is you. But by imposing basic standards that commercial kitchens have to follow, you'll lessen your family's chances of joining the 325,000 people hospitalized or 5,000 killed each year by salmonella, E. coli, and other food-borne bugs.
All containers and utensils that touch food should be clean—and at least 20 seconds of soap and hot water will ensure that your hands will be, too. While restaurants require workers to wear caps or hair nets to keep stray strands from tainting food, tying long hair back will suffice when you're cooking at home. Use gloves if you have a cut, sore, or rash. Remove rings and bracelets, and keep your fingernails clean and trim, says registered dietitian Sarah Krieger, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Jewelry is dirty. Wash your hands and remove anything that could hold dirt." Even slick-looking fingernail polish can crack and collect germs, and long, artificial nails—which break easily—sometimes end up in food.
Multiple cutting boards—one for meat, poultry, and fish, a second for vegetables, and a third for bread—will prevent cross-contamination. Meat juices can linger in cracks and crevices, tainting anything else chopped on the same board. To further reduce cross-contamination, don't rinse raw meat or poultry, says Salge Blake. "If you're washing a chicken in the sink, you're spreading its bacteria all around," she says. "Then you put the chicken in the oven and start washing the tomatoes, and if one falls in the sink, it's just been contaminated."
Restaurant inspectors pay close attention to temperature. To meet their standards, poultry and stuffed meats must be cooked to about 165 degrees Fahrenheit (158 for beef and 155 for pork). Once cooked, hot foods must be kept at or above 140 degrees until served. A decent food thermometer makes sure meals are cooked until safe—Cook's Illustrated, the foodie's Consumer Reports, found several good ones under $20.
Food that's been partly cooked, like prebrowned meat, should be refrigerated immediately, says Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, who oversaw the study. Room temperature encourages the growth of bacteria, so minimizing how long food sits out—no longer than two hours, ideally—is important. A casserole, large pot of soup, lasagna, or other hot dish made for the week should be promptly divided among smaller containers to promote cooling and avoid heating up the other items in the refrigerator.
[Riskiest Foods: 3 Tips for Protecting Your Family From Illness]
In the refrigerator:
Setting the fridge no higher than 40 degrees Fahrenheit will discourage bacterial growth, says Salge Blake. This obviously depends on the accuracy of your refrigerator's thermometer, so be sure yours works. Thermometers should be positioned toward the front of the fridge, not the back, since the front warms up first when the door is opened.
Location matters in the refrigerator as much as it does in real estate. Drip-prone products like raw meat, poultry, and fish belong on the lowest shelves. Eggs and milk shouldn't go in the designated spots on the fridge door because that's where they're more likely to spoil. Surprisingly, the vegetable bin typically harbors more bacteria than areas where meat is stored, which tend to be cleaned more often; produce is generally dumped in without being washed, carrying contaminants inside. "When you clean the fridge, clean all of it," says Salge Blake. "We can't see bacteria, so even though something looks clean, it might not be."
It's a good idea to cover and space all refrigerated food at least a quarter inch apart, so air can circulate freely. And please, toss out products that have reached their expiration date. Leftovers generally hit their limit after three or four days. "You really can't go by the sniff test alone. Absolutely, if it smells bad, throw it out. But if it doesn't, that doesn't mean it hasn't spoiled," Krieger says. It's also not a bad idea to date-label leftovers to keep track of how long they've been around. Restaurants are required to mark all containers and food items with a description of what's inside and when it will be discarded.
Maintaining the kitchen:
Cockroaches, rodents, flies, and other vermin are unwelcome diners in any kitchen, and restaurant inspectors dock points for droppings and other evidence like holes chewed in bags—and for actual insects, of course. To prevent infestation, opened boxes of crackers and cereal should be tightly sealed with clips or twist ties. Sugar and other staples should be kept covered. "I keep flour, cornmeal, sugar, and all those things in the refrigerator," says Krieger. An inspector wouldn't want to see Rover or Fluffy in the kitchen, either.
To debug shelves and cabinets, fill the sink with hot water and a splash of bleach every couple of days and wipe down the surfaces (with a clean cloth, or there's not much point). Speaking of cleaning implements: "If your sponge doesn't look like a sponge anymore, buy a new one," says Salge Blake. "Dish rags should be washed every day, because you don't want to mop up chicken juices on the counter and then use that rag to dry clean dishes." Use paper towels to clean meat juices, and let dishes air dry in the drainer.
That chipped knife or rusty can opener you've been clinging to? Worth replacing. "When you have things that are broken or have bad nicks, it's harder to get in there and make sure they're clean," says Fielding. "Those spots can harbor germs. You don't have to be fanatical, but you do need to be careful."