About 9 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks occur in the home, but it’s almost impossible to tell where the bacteria may live with the naked eye.
A new study identifies the top kitchen items that are commonly cross-contaminated during the preparation of a meal.
Kansas State University researchers analyzed the food prep practices of 123 people. They divided the participants into two groups. One group received education on keeping kitchen utensils and surfaces clean, while the other group did not. Then they were video-taped while cooking a meal which included raw poultry or beef, paired with a fruit salad.
The researchers put a tracer bacterial organism on the raw meat in order to accurately track contamination.
Infectious disease specialist Susan Rehm, MD, explains what they found, and outlines the top kitchen contaminators based on the research.
1. Cloth towel
The study showed that like sponges, cloth towels were the most frequently contaminated article in the kitchen. Researchers observed many people using a contaminated towel, washing their hands, and then contaminating themselves all over again.
“One of the best ways to prevent cross contamination in the kitchen is to use paper towels,” Dr. Rehm says.
Other research found salmonella grows on cloths stored overnight, even after they were washed and rinsed in the sink.
2. Cell phone / tablet
Anything you touch in the kitchen following contact with raw meat can become contaminated. That includes the cellphone or tablet you use to follow a recipe or answer a call mid dinner-prep.
“Either don’t use it altogether, or wash it as frequently as you would wash your hands,” Dr. Rehm says.
You could also consider covering your device with clear plastic, or have a friend who isn’t cooking use the device instead.
3. Sink faucet, refrigerator, oven handle, trash container
Eighty-two percent of study participants also left contamination on the sink faucet, refrigerator, oven and trash container.
“During food prep, be aware that there are bacteria in food and touching it can spread it to other surfaces and potentially cause illness,” Dr. Rehm says.
Common bacteria found in the kitchen include e-coli, salmonella, shigella, campylobacter, norovirus, and hepatitis-A.
4. Cooking utensils
Heading into grilling season, being aware of how you use cooking utensils is important, too.
“When you use tongs or a fork to put raw poultry on the grill, you should wash it immediately afterwards if you plan to use the same tools to serve the meal,” Dr. Rehm says.
People in both groups were not washing their hands with the frequency or quality needed to reduce bacterial contamination.
“When preparing food, it’s wise to wash hands beforehand, frequently throughout, and afterwards,” Dr. Rehm says.
Each time you handle raw meat, wash your hands. Use a paper towel to dry them, and don’t re-use it. Throw the used paper towel away immediately after use!
6. Fruit and vegetables
When it came to the fruit salad, contamination rates were pretty alarming in both study groups.
“There was a very high rate of cross contamination in the prepared fruit salad,” Dr. Rehm says. “In fact, 90 percent of the time, they found the tracer bacteria in the fruit salad.”
If you’re not careful, the bacteria found could cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
“Cleaning up is less effective than not contaminating it in the first place,” Dr. Rehm says.