The winter holiday season may have ended, but entertainment season is far from over. With a series of football playoffs culminating in Super Bowl and post Super Bowl events, it's likely your kitchen will continue to be the hub for it's own kind of rushing, scrambling and snapping as you and friends gather to cheer a favorite team to victory. The aroma Buffalo Wings or (my favorite) Roasted Tomatillo Guacamole or any pizza, chili dish, or other football favorite may lead you to believe all is well in the kitchen. Take a second look and you may be surprised to discover the kitchen can be the most germ-infested room in the house.
In November, 2011, The Center for Science in the Public Interest publication, Nutrition Action focused their efforts on "how to keep your kitchen from making you sick." They cited a study by the non-profit NSF International, a watchdog group that was looking for sites in the home that support bacteria that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and allergic reactions. To everyone's surprise, after swabbing everyday items and sites throughout the home "the agency hit pay dirt most often in the kitchen!" Sponges, dish cloths, countertops, sinks and cutting boards were big offenders with germs also prevalent in refrigerators, freezers, microwave ovens and dishwashers.
So what's a good host and/or hostess to do? I offer six tips to jump start your effort to safely get through a year filled with celebrations without being insane.
- Clean the cleaning equipment.
Sponges are considered the number one source for spreading germs in a home. That's why you need to use a different sponge for kitchen, bathroom or other surfaces. Make it a habit to rinse sponges thoroughly to remove any soap then completely re-wet it before putting it in the microwave to "cook" until it's hot and steamy, but not dried out. This will zap any germs lurking inside. Warning: Don't microwave until the sponge dries out or you could have a fire on your hands. Also, don't remove a hot sponge until it's thoroughly cooled, then let it dry on a clean surface. If you use sponges or cloths to clean up raw meat juice, sanitize the sponge before using it elsewhere. Dishrags also spread germs so they should be dried and put with items to be washed the next time you do kitchen or bath towels and other items that are best washed and dried in high heat.
- Cut safely.
Invest in several cutting boards to avoid the possibility of mixing germs from various food sources. Use a separate board for each cutting duty. Use one for cutting raw meat and another for slicing or chopping ingredients for stir fry or salads and so on. According to University of Arizona microbiology professor, Charles Gerba, PhD., "the average cutting board has about 200 percent more fecal bacteria than the average toilet seat." (Bet that got you!) He urges disinfecting (wooden) cutting boards between each use. Plastic boards don't harbor as many germs as wooden boards, but both need to be cleaned regularly in super hot water.
- Kill the bad guys.
My mother, who had an aversion to sophisticated cleaning products depended on "natural alternatives" until I showed her a series of studies designed to test the claims of commercial cleaning products. Although baking soda and vinegar have their place for getting rid of grit, grime, and stains, commercial products used in the study killed 99.9 percent of germs whereas old fashioned methods killed 90 percent or less.
- Bring on the heat.
Other useful habits that go beyond the holiday season include being sure the food you serve is well cooked. Whether grilling or roasting a food thermometer can go a long way to assure germs are killed. Using a remote that reads internal temperatures of food is a great way to get everyone involved in assuring food is cooked and served at the right temperature.
- Wash and store appropriately.v
Raw salads and vegetables should be washed thoroughly in clean water to remove all traces of soil or pesticides. (Don't rely on organic grocery products to be germ free.) If you can't keep hot food hot or cold food cold after preparation, eat it immediately or store it in the refrigerator.
- Keep it Clean.
The best way to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others is to wash your hands thoroughly before and after preparing food, before eating food (especially at a restaurant), after using the toilet, after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing and after changing diapers or picking up animal waste. The temperature of the water isn't important. Using lots of soap is. Make a good lather and hum the "Happy Birthday" song from start to finish as you scrub between fingers and under nails for the recommended 20 seconds. Rinse thoroughly, then dry using a clean towel (paper is not pretty, but it's sanitary). Although hand sanitizers are not effective when hands are visibly dirty it will kill germs if you apply the product to the palm of one hand, rub your hands together and move the product over all surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry.
Chances are you know someone who seems paranoid about paying attention to expiration dates on food or not cutting cooked chicken on the same board the pre-cooked chicken was prepared, or who has an anxiety attack if food is not put away promptly. Agreeing that folks can go overboard you should know that one bacteria cell can become more than 8 million cells in less than 24 hours and it only takes a few to make some people sick. On the other hand (if you'll excuse the pun), all bacteria are not bad. Many, including those on various body sites, help keep things in balance. So, don't take the germ prevention to extremes. Simply be cautious, be smart, and enjoy the New Year!