You’ve scrubbed the chopping boards, changed out the baking soda at the back of the fridge, bleached the drain, and mopped the floor with disinfectant. Everything smells nice, gleams, and doesn’t have any sticky film on it.
The kitchen couldn’t be cleaner or safer, right?
But also, unfortunately, no.
Here’s what I mean.
Each of the steps I’ve described above is a good basic measure to take in ensuring your food stays clean and you stay healthy. Food-borne illnesses can be some of the most unpleasant - and dangerous - to deal with, and no one is cavalier enough to willingly suffer food poisoning if they can help it. The 1 in 6 unlucky people in the US who end up with food poisoning each year probably wouldn’t recommend the experience.
The trouble is, many of the basic cleaning measures we take in our own kitchens are insufficient to protect ourselves.
So let’s have a look at what can.
What’s at Stake
You’ve probably heard that the average chopping board carries 200 times more dangerous bacteria, including fecal bacteria. But then, if this is the case and we rarely fall ill from it, surely that’s fine?
There’s certainly something to be said for exposing your immune system to diversity to strengthen your immune system. But many of the things you run the risk of catching from food waste or improperly prepared food are just as nasty as they are diverse.
Foods always have a chance of carrying any of the bacteria, viruses, or parasites that can ruin your day(s) whether it’s being cooked, prepared, shipped, or grown.
Here are some of the more common threats living on your counters and what each is capable of.
This is a good one to avoid, because it’s also the cause of typhoid fever, an illness which at one time was responsible for more deaths of soldiers than combat.
Usually, healthy levels of stomach acid can easily neutralize campylobacter, so it’s more likely to develop in people with stomach ulcers or other chronic digestive complaints.
Norovirus usually flourishes in outbreaks among people living in close quarter, such as Bronson Elementary School in Norwalk, Ohio (for which the virus is named), so it’s wise to watch out for it in crowded spaces such as offices and shared housing.
Luckily, these are all usually non-lethal, if exceptionally unpleasant, so except in extreme cases, they can usually be overcome with rest, water, gentle foods like crackers and rice, and a visit to a doctor just to be safe. Most cases of food poisoning will clear up within a few days without needing medicine or antibiotics.
But as the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
So how can you take steps to try to prevent these nasty things paying a visit in the first place?
There are several factors to consider when making sure your kitchen is as clean as possible to prevent illness. These include the types and conditions of the foods you bring into your home, the methods of preparation, the condition of your cooking equipment, cleaning practices, and the likeliest places for bacteria, viruses, and parasites to hide that you may not know about.
Common trouble foods for food poisoning are meats and livestock products like eggs and cheeses, unwashed vegetables including sprouting vegetables and leafy greens, raw seafood and shellfish, and - believe it or not - rice. Each of these tend to be grown, prepared, shipped, and handled in ways that increase the risk of naturally-occurring infectious organisms flourishing.
Especially dangerous are unpasteurized milks and cheeses. As appealing as the more ‘natural’ aspect of ‘raw’ milk may be, there’s a reason pasteurization has become the standard in most developed countries. Unpasteurized dairy products can even carry dangerous bacteria such as E. Coli, brucella, In the United States alone, dairy-related disease outbreaks increased by nearly 59% between 2007 and 2012, as revealed by the Centers for Disease Control in a 2012 study. Traditional cheeses calling for raw milk are similarly risky. It’s a good idea to be especially careful when handling or eating these products.
Washing these thoroughly by soaking them before cooking or eating can go a long way towards nipping food poisoning in the bud.
Poultry is especially notorious for carrying salmonella, which nest in the guts of ducks, chickens, and turkeys. While meats and fish like beef or salmon can usually be cooked rare and eaten safely, poultry should always be cooked all the way through to prevent illness. It’s also a really bad idea to wash poultry and other meats. Not only does it not remove contamination, it actually spreads it to other surfaces and foods, making it even more dangerous.
Kitchen Surfaces and Equipment
This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it gets overlooked. Of particular importance are cutting boards, waste disposal, and refrigerator cleanliness.
Think for a moment. When was the last time you replaced your chopping boards?
If the answer is more than five years ago, it’s time to consider getting new ones. Both wooden and plastic cutting surfaces gradually become scored and abraded with each uses, and the grooves left by knives are a perfect place for organisms to make their homes no matter how well you wash them. Best practices for cutting boards include cleaning them with food-safe disinfectants using a brush rather than a cloth or a sponge, and keeping separate boards for raw meats and dairy, vegetables, and ready-to-eat foods like breads.
Of course, there’s always going to be some dirt, no matter what. It’s a kitchen, after all, not a surgery. Other steps that can be taken are cleaning your hands properly (like a surgeon, even), washing each part with soap and slightly hot water for at least 20 seconds, before and after handling food.
You can also ensure that the kitchen garbage and food disposal is sealed and taken out regularly. A trash can full of old egg shells and vegetable peels is literally an ideal breeding ground for food-borne illness-causing organisms, so the more it’s kept clean and clear, the better.
And lastly, make sure your refrigerator is in good working order and clean. The perfect temperature for bacteria to grow and spread in your kitchen is 40–140°F (5–60°C), and that risk increases in the summer when heat and moisture peak. You can reduce your exposure considerably by immediately refrigerating food that’s not in use.
Those steps mentioned at the beginning of this article are great. Cleaning surfaces, floors, emptying bins, and watching out for suspicious odors are all terrific ideas. Keep it up. But know what to look out for to reduce your risk. While there’s no way to be completely risk-free when it comes to food poisoning, there are many steps you can take to ensure that your food is as safe and healthy as it can be, helping you to avoid a nasty few days the next time you cook a meal.