The kitchen is the hub of most homes. Unfortunately, it’s also a hub for microscopic bacteria and germs. “The traffic that goes through a typical kitchen, with people coming and going – in addition to the food preparation and food storage that takes place there – really opens it up to all sorts of contamination,” says Randall Phebus, PhD, professor of food safety and defense at Kansas State University.
Most of those microorganisms won’t hurt you. But some, like E. coli, salmonella, and listeria, can cause serious illness – especially for young kids, older adults, and people with compromised immune systems. These dangerous pathogens can hide all over the kitchen, but there are also some specific places where they’re known to thrive.
These kitchen spots can become a breeding ground for bacteria and germs. Here’s the best way to clean (or replace) them for a more hygienic cooking space.
Preliminary research presented at the recent American Society of Microbiology meeting found that after a month of use, about half of the 100 kitchen towels tested were contaminated with pathogens with the potential to cause food poisoning, including E. coli.
What to do about it: Only use cloth kitchen towels to dry-clean things – like dishes, or your hands after you’ve washed them, says Phebus. If you’re wiping the counter or cleaning up anything food-related (especially if it involves raw meat or produce), use disposable paper towels, or toss those cloth towels immediately into the laundry. Washing and drying them in the sink doesn’t cut it, Phebus’s previous research has found.
When scientists search for germ hot-spots in household kitchens, sponges in or around the skin always turn out to be of the biggest reservoirs of disease-causing bacteria. “Preventing cross-contamination is one of the biggest issues in kitchen safety,” says Quinlan. “We know that when sponges are used all over the kitchen for multiple purposes, they can pick up and transport a lot of germs.”
What to do about it: If you do choose to use a sponge, make sure to sanitize it regularly, says Quinlan. “Either put it in the dishwasher with the rest of your dishes where it’s going to reach a high temperature, or put it moist into the microwave for a minute,” she says. And swap it out for a new one at least every few weeks.
Cutting surfaces in the kitchen make contact with lots of raw foods, whether it’s a whole chicken or lettuce you’re chopping for a salad. Germs can also linger there – and be passed onto other foods or to the person handling them – especially if there are deep cracks or grooves that are difficult to clean.
What to do about it: Buy cutting boards you can clean easily (Phebus likes plastic ones you can put in the dishwasher), and wash them between each use. If you have one that can’t go in the dishwasher, scrub it down after use with hot, soapy water. You should also have more than one cleanable cutting surface in your kitchen, so you can keep raw meat, unwashed fruits and vegetables, and ready-to-eat foods (like a loaf of bread) separate. “Multiple cutting boards are never a bad idea,” says Quinlan.
Sink and countertops
Research has shown that kitchen sinks tend to be dirtier than most bathrooms, with more than 500,000 bacteria per square inch, according to some studies. Culprits can include juices from raw meat or poultry, pathogens from raw produce, and even dirty dishes left for too long.
In addition to food-related germs, kitchen counters are also exposed plenty of other sources of bacteria, as well. “People don’t think about it when they put their purse or backpack down on the counter, but they could be leaving all sorts of bacteria behind – and then they eat off that same surface,” says Phebus.
What to do about it: Keep a disinfectant solution handy and use it regularly, says Phebus. “You can buy a pre-made kitchen cleaner, like Clorox or Lysol, and it will work just fine,” he says. “Or you can put a tablespoon of bleach into a spray bottle with water, and that will be just as effective as the high-dollar commercial brands.”
Handles, knobs, and faucets
“When you’re handling things like raw produce or raw chicken or meat, the potential exists to contaminate anything you touch,” says Quinlan. “So when your hands turn on the water, or you open the refrigerator or the oven door, you may have passed on that bacteria.”
What to do about it: Wipe down those handles and faucets every time you clean other kitchen surfaces. “It sounds obvious, but those places are easy to forget about,” says Quinlan.
Fewer Americans worry about getting sick from contaminated produce, but data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that fruits and veggies are a bigger source of foodborne illness than meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs combined. All types of fruits and vegetables can carry contaminants, and because they’re eaten raw, they carry an increased risk – a major culprit is pre-cut fruit.
What to do about it: Wash all fruit and veggies before eating, and scrub the surface of firmer produce (like melons or cucumbers) with a produce brush, says Quinlan. Washing won’t protect you 100% from germs, however, so it’s also important to pay attention to news about recalls and outbreaks.
You can also reduce your risk by preparing your own cut fruit, rather than buying it pre-packaged. Always use a clean knife or cutting tools, says Quinlan, and always wash the outside of the fruit, even if you’re not going to eat the rind or the skin. “We know now that the bacteria on the outside of the fruit can travel through when you cut it,” she says.