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The kitchen comes clean: How to keep your food (and yourself) safe

By Christie Aschwanden
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This article originally appeared in the July/August 2004 edition of Health magazine.

(Health.comexternal link) -- The wooden spoon was my undoing.

Sure, I had sliced the chicken on a spotless cutting board with a clean knife. I had even wiped away every trace of chicken juice before a single vegetable touched the board's surface.

But I'd forgotten about the spoon. The spoon I had used to stir the chicken around in the pan. The spoon I was now using to serve the finished stir-fry.

"Did you wash that?" my husband, Dave, asked with a raised eyebrow.

Some couples argue about money. My husband and I bicker about kitchen habits, namely mine.

Occasionally, in my haste to get the food from pan to plate, I become careless. Meanwhile, Dave, the son of a Swiss chef, performs every kitchen task with order and cleanliness -- habits that became even more ingrained after he suffered a bout of acute food poisoning a few years back.

The gastrointestinal distress came on suddenly and struck hard, forcing him to live in the bathroom for several days. We never did figure out what had hit him; no outbreaks had been reported in our area at the time. Try as he might, he couldn't even pin it on my carefree cooking: I hadn't set foot in the kitchen in days.

Eating would seem to be one of the safer things you do, yet 76 million Americans get sick and 5,000 die each year from illnesses caused by tainted food. Furthermore, a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2003 showed that people who develop food borne bacterial infections remain at increased risk of dying for up to a year after their illnesses.

And if you think your healthy low-meat, high-veg diet is any protection, we've got news for you: Produce is a leading cause of food borne diseases. Witness the spate of hepatitis A cases in fall 2003 that left more than 500 Americans sick and a few dead. The cause: green onions.

So is anything safe to eat? Unfortunately, the answer (yes, if you take the necessary precautions) is somewhat daunting.

"We're getting much of our produce from developing countries. If you were going to one of those places, I'd recommend that you boil it, peel it, or don't eat it," says Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., MPH, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

He says, and other experts agree, that all food should be suspect, no matter where it comes from.

I begin to think that maybe Dave is right to be a bit paranoid. But how anal do you have to be? Surely there must be easy steps that we can take to germ-proof our kitchen.

I decide to keep a meal-by-meal logbook of a typical day, and then ask a panel of experts to help me (and you) find a safe -- and sane -- balance between reckless endangerment and obsessive cleanliness. Here's what we came up with.

7 a.m.: Breakfast

I soak some raspberries in water for a minute and run them under cold water before sprinkling them on my yogurt. Then I cut a cantaloupe in half and scoop out the flesh.

The experts' advice:

  • Rinse all fruits and vegetables, even if you plan to peel them.
  • "I see that you didn't wash off the cantaloupe before you cut it," says Kelee Hansen, RD, formerly of the Safe Food Institute, a research organization in North Logan, Utah, when I show her my diary. Cantaloupes, she tells me, have been linked to several outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli. These are serious bugs; both can cause diarrhea, severe abdominal cramps, and in some cases death.

    It doesn't matter that I didn't eat the rind; cutting into a contaminated peel can drag the germs into the edible part, Hansen says. That goes for all fruits and veggies with rinds or peels, including grapefruits and carrots. And if I don't wash my knife and cutting board properly after they've touched unwashed produce, they can taint other foods in my kitchen.

    Hansen does award me high marks for my raspberry-prepping method, though. "Berries are hard to clean because they're so delicate. Rinsing them under cold water is your best choice," she says. If you want to be extra-cautious, soak them for about a minute in cold water before rinsing.

  • Be just as careful with produce as you are with meat (or even more so).
  • I should know this all too well: A few years back I went out for Mexican food with two colleagues. Two of us ordered salads and spent the next day on the toilet; our co-worker who had dined on chicken enchiladas was fine. "You can't tell where [produce has] been. The kind of water used on it, the hygiene standards of the workers picking the produce -- you just don't know," Osterholm says.

    12 p.m.: Lunch

    I pull some bean soup out of the refrigerator, ladle out a few scoops, and zap it in the microwave. It's been in the fridge for five days, so I nuke it a little longer than usual to make sure I've killed anything that might have taken refuge in there.

    The experts' advice:

  • Don't let leftovers cool before you stick them in the fridge.
  • When Dean Cliver, Ph.D., an investigator with the Food Safety Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, reads my entry, he shudders. He almost loses it entirely when I mention that the soup cooled in its original cooking pot the night it was made, providing a sort of cozy hot tub for microorganisms. "Between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit is the danger zone, and something left to cool in a big pot spends a long time in that range," Cliver says.

    Though my eco-friendly husband might object to making the refrigerator work extra-hard to cool piping-hot foods, you should chill leftovers right away (after splitting hot dishes among small containers that allow food to cool even more rapidly once it hits the fridge), Cliver says. Also, never allow leftovers to sit out for more than two hours.

    Still, reheating will kill the germs, right? Yes, Cliver says, but it won't destroy the toxin produced by staphylococcus bacteria, which can induce severe fits of vomiting.

    Next I move on to prep the salad, ripping open a bag of prewashed mixed greens and dumping them into a bowl. Dave has long scolded me for eating salad straight from the bag. But how many times must you wash a piece of lettuce before you develop a certifiable case of obsessive-compulsive disorder?

    The experts' advice:

  • Wash prewashed veggies -- just to be safe.
  • I ask Michael Doyle, Ph.D., director of the University of Georgia's Center for Food Safety, about my nonwashing ways. "More often than not, it's going to be OK straight from the bag," he says. "But there have been outbreaks associated with prepacked salads. I would wash it." There's always a possibility that some residual gunk made it through the industrial washing process.

    But wait, aren't the really scary salads the ones with more mayonnaise than greens? No, Doyle says. "Mayo by itself won't promote the growth of bacteria; that's an old wives' tale."

    Most germs die off in the commercial brands because of the vinegar they contain. After adding bacteria to foods made with mayonnaise, Doyle's team found that the condiment didn't speed microbial growth and in some cases retarded it. So topping a bowl of mixed greens with a vinegar-based dressing may actually slow the growth of pathogens, Doyle says.

    Before cutting up a red pepper to add to my salad, I scrub it with a soft-bristle brush under cold running water.

    The experts' advice:

  • Brush your produce.
  • Score one for me. "Always scrub fruits and vegetables with a brush, and trim any damaged or bruised areas where bacteria can grow," Hansen says, reviewing my notes. "Also, make sure you clean the brush in the dishwasher regularly."

    What about those fruit and vegetable washes? "They're basically an acid solution, and acid does help kill bacteria. But if you're rinsing properly, a special solution isn't necessary," she says.

  • Hold the sprouts.
  • I was on a roll until Hansen found out that I threw a handful of alfalfa sprouts on my salad. "Sprouts are just problematic all around. There is no good way to wash them and get everything off the surfaces," Hansen says. They've been linked to outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli: Alfalfa seeds are easily contaminated, and the warm, moist conditions required for sprouting them are an ideal breeding ground for germs. I'm swearing off sprouts.

    3 p.m.: Snack

    With friends stopping by, I decide to bake some cookies. I sample a smidgen of dough. (Isn't that part of the recipe?)

    The experts' advice:

  • Don't eat runny or raw egg yolks (even in cookie dough).
  • I have a feeling that Hansen won't like my dough tasting, and I'm right. She recites the party line: Eggs must be cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees (or until the yolk isn't runny). Otherwise, you risk incurring the diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps caused by salmonella.

    OK, but I nibble a little dough every time I make cookies, yet I can't recall any memorable sicknesses afterward. What gives? As it happens, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's FoodNet (http://www.cdc.gov/foodnet/external link) has seen a significant drop in the number of salmonella cases since 1996. The decline mirrors similar dips in other food borne illnesses, including campylobacter and E. coli infections.

    But I still need to be careful, Hansen says. Perhaps I've been lucky and bought only salmonella-free eggs. Or maybe I've been spared because my nibbling is generally just that: nibbling. "Food borne illnesses are dose-dependent," she says. "If salmonella is present, you're more likely to get sick if you eat a lot than if you just have a bite." And kids should never eat raw cookie dough. Because of their size, "they don't need a very big dose to get sick," Hansen says. The elderly, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are also especially prone to food-related ailments.

    6 p.m.: Dinner

    I rinse raw chicken breasts in the sink (I've heard this washes away germs).

    The experts' advice:

  • Don't rinse meat before you cook it.
  • This is more likely to spread contaminants around your sink than to get rid of them -- only proper cooking can kill pathogens, Hansen says. Her research team recently provided dinner ingredients to volunteers, then observed while they prepared meals in their homes. "We saw people rinse meat and then set their salad vegetables down in the sink," Hansen says. To keep your sink from turning into a germ spreader, scrub it with dish soap and hot water after prepping foods.

  • Assume that all uncooked animal products are potentially harmful.
  • In a 2001 study, researchers at the University of Maryland analyzed chicken, turkey, pork, and beef bought in 59 supermarkets in the greater Washington, D.C., area. The majority of chicken samples were riddled with campylobacter, which provokes diarrhea and can lead to life-threatening infections. (The bacteria was also present in the other meats at lower rates.) Meanwhile, E. coli was found in 21 percent of all the meat examined. The study's message is clear: Handle raw meat with care.

  • Don't guesstimate: Use a thermometer to make sure meat is done.
  • Meat can easily pick up E. coli and other pathogens on its way from farm to store. "The bacteria is not found in the muscle itself; it usually gets on the outer surface of the meat during the processing," says Will Hueston, DVM, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota's Center for Animal Health and Food Safety. "If you fry something like a steak or chicken leg, you put the hottest temperature on the surface, where the bacteria are most likely to be."

    Products like hamburger and sausage, though, are ground up and processed, giving microbes access to the inside. Having the butcher grind your meat fresh (or doing it yourself at home) offers some protection, but not a lot. Cooking meat, poultry, and fish to the proper temperature is the best strategy, and "the only way you can be sure that it is adequately cooked is by using a food thermometer," Hansen says.

  • Be choosy at the meat counter.
  • With the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States, I wonder if I should just avoid meat altogether. Hueston thinks that stance is a bit extreme: The risk of contracting the human form of the illness from eating beef is very low. Still, "we continue to learn new things about this disease," he says.

    That's good reason to weigh your butcher-counter options carefully. Boneless cuts like chuck steak and filet mignon are fairly safe; sausage and ground beef are riskier, though, because they may have been processed in machines that came in contact with the nervous system tissues in which the mad cow protein is concentrated. Beef that's labeled "100 percent grass-fed," "certified organic" or "vegetarian diets" is a good choice; these terms mean the animals weren't exposed to the mad cow protein in their feed, says biologist Michael Hansen, Ph.D., of the Consumers Union's Consumer Policy Institute in Yonkers, New York.

    7:30 p.m.: Cleanup

    Sated and free of illness, we head to the kitchen to wash up. After we were married, I threw out Dave's raggedy T-shirts. He threw out my kitchen sponge and replaced it with a thin, scrubby dishrag that I couldn't imagine was better.

    The experts' advice:

  • Swap your sponges for dishrags.
  • The Safe Food Institute's Kelee Hansen sides with Dave on this one: "We don't like sponges. They get bacteria in those little pores." Dave's rag is better, as long as he rinses it well after each use. Compulsive cleaning actually can spread germs if you swab your counter with a dirty dishcloth, Hansen says.

  • Sing "Happy Birthday" (to yourself, please) while washing your hands.
  • That takes about 20 seconds -- the amount of time that ensures you won't spread bacteria. "The recommendation is 20 seconds in warm, soapy water and dried with a paper towel, but [in our research] we saw people putting their hands under the water for about 4 seconds," Kelee Hansen says.

  • Use a fresh kitchen towel daily.
  • "If you're not washing your hands adequately and you're wiping them on a cloth towel, pretty soon that cloth towel is covered in germs," Kelee Hansen says. She advises changing dish towels daily and washing them in the hot cycle. You can also cut the risk of germ transmission by using paper towels. "Of course, it's not the most environmentally friendly habit. In my house, I use paper towels after handling meats and clean cloth towels for everything else," Hansen says.

    Wrap-up

    After everything I've learned, I can't help but think that at some point this all gets a bit neurotic. Isn't there a way to keep germs out of your food to begin with?

    Yes, says Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority (S.T.O.P.), a nonprofit advocacy group. She says most instances of contamination could be prevented with better meat-processing methods and stronger government regulations, as well as more-extensive testing and mandatory recalls of tainted products.

    "If we handled air pollution the same way we deal with food safety, we would be asking people to wear gas masks all the time and then blaming them for getting sick if they didn't do it," says S.T.O.P. Executive Director Karen Taylor Mitchell.

    But even with tougher rules, food will never be risk-free. The best I can do is find out how microbes sneak in and plug the holes without going mad. After putting my kitchen habits up for expert review, I've conceded that maybe Dave is the cleaner cook. He's not just a meticulous chef, he's a talented one, so who am I to protest if he wants to prepare my meals?

    Contributing Editor Christie Aschwanden gobbles up the vegetables from her garden after giving them a good rinse.


    story.kitchen.cleaning.jpg

    Sing "Happy Birthday" (to yourself) while washing your hands -- it takes about 20 seconds, enough time to ensure you won't spread bacteria.

    SAFETY TOOLS FOR COOKS

    Four items that should be in every kitchen (and how to use them).

    1) Dishrags: Wash, rinse, dry, repeat

    Ditch your sponge and buy a thinner, less porous, nubby-textured dishrag. Rinse with warm water after each use. Drape it on your dish rack or over the faucet -- any place it can dry completely.

    2) Produce brush: For the soft scrub

    Fruits and vegetables should be washed with a scrub brush under running water. The type made for cleaning dishes is OK; just be sure the bristles are soft enough that they won't damage the produce. Run the brush through the dishwasher regularly.

    3) Cutting boards: It's not the kind, but the cleaning method that counts

    For years a debate raged about whether plastic or wooden cutting boards were more difficult to disinfect. Dean Cliver, Ph.D., an investigator with the Food Safety Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, tested the question in the lab with a wide range of wood and plastic boards. Verdict: The cleaning method is more important than what a board is made of. Cliver advises scrubbing vigorously with hot water, dish soap, and a scouring pad, or running the board through the dishwasher after each use. Discard any board that becomes marred with deep gouges; these cuts can provide refuge for bacteria.

    4) Meat thermometer: Just to be sure

    Choose one with the temperature gauge at the tip to easily test burgers and thin cuts of meat for doneness. Insert the thermometer and wait at least 30 seconds to ensure an accurate reading. Beef, lamb, and veal should reach an internal temperature of at least 145 degrees; pork and hamburger, 160 degrees; whole poultry, 180 degrees; poultry breasts, 170 degrees; ground turkey or chicken, 165 degrees; seafood, 145 degrees; and ground seafood, 155 degrees.

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