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Home is where the germ is: keeping bugs at bay in the kitchen.

How germ-conscious are consumers in the privacy of their own kitchens? "Not nearly enough," says researcher Janet Anderson of Utah State University.

Anderson and her colleagues videotaped 100 volunteers as they prepared a chicken, fish, or meatloaf entree and a salad at home. The participants were told that they were taking part in a market research study to see how people prepared their food. But the researchers were really observing the volunteers' kitchen hygiene.

"When we go into the kitchen to cook, most of us fall into old habits," says Anderson, who is an associate professor of nutrition and food sciences. "We're thinking about work or the kids or something else, and not about the possibility of food poisoning."

Among the safety oversights she observed:

* Less than half washed their hands before starting to cook. Of those who did, one in six didn't use soap.

* While food was being prepared, the typical hand wash averaged 4.4 seconds and didn't use soap.

* Six percent didn't wash their vegetables before handling them.

* 30 percent didn't clean cutting boards and other surfaces after they came in contact with meat, poultry, or fish.

* 82 percent undercooked the chicken and 46 percent undercooked the meatloaf. (Only one out of 20 checked for doneness with a thermometer. Everyone else used a knife, a different utensil, or another less-reliable method.)

* 24 percent failed to store raw meat, chicken, or fish on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator (to prevent any leaking juices from dripping onto other foods).

Despite the poor performance of Anderson's cooks, some people must be worried about food poisoning. Why else would companies market so many products that claim to help? Here's a quick guide to which ones work and which ones don't.

Alcohol Washes

What's the best way to get rid of germs on your hands?

For most purposes, soap and hot water will do just fine. But if your household includes people with weakened immune systems (due to cancer chemotherapy or HIV, for example or if there's some bug going around in your family, it's time to bring out the big gun.

"Use an alcohol wash, not an antibacterial soap," says Elaine Larson of the Columbia University School of Nursing in New York. "It quickly kills bacteria, it's convenient because you don't need water or a towel to use it, and there's not even a theoretical possibility of bacteria becoming resistant to it."

Most alcohol washes don't mention the word "alcohol" in their names. They're usually called "Hand Sanitizer." You know you've got the right product when "Ethyl Alcohol 62%" is one of the active ingredients listed on the label. (That's the minimum concentration that studies have found effective.)

Alcohol washes are so good at killing germs that in 2002 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that hospitals use them instead of antibacterial soap.

If you need to use an alcohol wash, here's how: Before and after handling food, wash your hands with soap (dirt, food, or anything else on your hands can make the alcohol less effective). Then put a dime-size dollop of the alcohol wash in the palm of one hand and rub your hands together until they're dry. (Since alcohol can cause dry skin, most brands also contain moisturizers.)

When you're traveling, take along a supply of individually wrapped antibacterial towelettes like Purell Sanitizing Hand Towels with Moisturizers, which you should be able to find on-line (at, for example) or at a well-stocked pharmacy or supermarket. Make sure "Ethyl Alcohol 62%" is one of the active ingredients.

Clean Cutting Boards

Ten years ago, wood appeared to take the lead over plastic in The Great Cutting Board Wars.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin reported that used plastic cutting boards could be cleaned and disinfected only in a dishwasher, while hot soapy water in the sink was enough for used wooden cutting boards. But no one has tried to confirm those results. (New, unscored boards are easy to clean, so studies on them aren't useful.)

To the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wood vs plastic isn't the question. "It doesn't matter what your cutting board is made out of, as long as you wash it properly," says Susan Conley of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Wash your boards--whatever they're made of--in the dishwasher if you can," she suggests. "Otherwise, clean them with hot, soapy water."

For insurance, you can rinse your cutting boards with a dilute bleach solution (one teaspoon per quart of water). "But that's not necessary if you wash them properly," says Bessie Berry of the USDA's Meat and Poultry Hotline.

The best wooden cutting boards are made from hard woods like oak, ash, and maple.

Some people keep one board exclusively for cutting raw meat, poultry, and fish and another board for chopping vegetables and other foods. To avoid confusing them, pick up a set of color-coded plastic cutting boards at a store like Bed Bath & Beyond or an on-line vendor like or

Cutting Sheets

It's for the cook who has everything. Saran Disposable Cutting Sheets are a convenient way "to help contain the germy mess left behind when cutting chicken, meat, fish, vegetables, and much more," says manufacturer SC Johnson, which also makes Windex, Ziploc, Pledge, and Raid.

The diminutive sheets (the cutting area measures less than 8" x 10") cost about 20 cents each. They're constructed of three layers: a "cut-resistant" top, an absorbent middle, and a "liquid protection" bottom.

But Saran's sheets don't cut it. Or, rather, they do. Consumer Reports magazine found them too easy to slice through. If that happens when you're cutting raw meat or poultry, you end up with a mess under the sheet. Not so convenient ... or safe.

The package directions do warn against "excessively forceful cutting," but that's what it sometimes takes to hack through a raw chicken, for example. And even if they manage to hold up to your knife, the sheets aren't big enough to contain the juices from a whole chicken or large hunk of meat.

For the cost of a few packages of Saran Disposable Cutting Sheets you can buy a couple of extra cutting boards--and keep some plastic out of your local landfill.

Veggie Washes

"Removes 98% more chemicals and wax than water alone," say spray bottles of Fit Fruit & Vegetable Wash.

But check the fine print on the company's Web site ( "Because wax--and the dirt, soil, and residues that may get trapped underneath--is not removed simply by rinsing with water, water is not the best solution for clean produce," it explains.

Translation: Fit claims to remove more pesticides than water only if the pesticides are trapped under the edible wax coatings that are sometimes applied to apples, bell peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, nectarines, peaches, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and a few other fruits and vegetables. The wax traps moisture, which keeps the produce fresh longer. (The Food and Drug Administration requires supermarkets to label produce that has been waxed, but the rule isn't widely enforced.)

Does Fit really wash significantly more pesticides off waxed produce than water? No independent scientists have looked, and the government doesn't require anyone to test the cleaning power of produce washes.

One thing is clear, though. If you buy produce that hasn't been waxed--broccoli, spinach, lettuce, or strawberries, for example--"there's no reason to spend extra money on produce washes," says toxicologist Robert Krieger of the University of California at Riverside. "Water is just as effective."

Krieger and his colleagues took non-waxed fruits that had been grown using pesticides and washed them in water or treated them with Fit. (1)

"Using the produce wash didn't remove more of the pesticides than plain water," says Krieger. "The results aren't surprising, because water is a pretty effective solvent for removing chemicals from food."

(1) Bull. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 70: 213, 2003.


Did labels for 3M's O-Cel-O sponges imply that they killed germs on kitchen counters? Maybe. Maybe not. But in 1997, the company reached an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to modify its labels, "to make clearer that O-Cel-O sponges resist odors and kill germs in the sponge, but do not disinfect or kill germs on surfaces," 3M explained in a press release.

But any sponge--sweet-smelling or not--may not be the best way to keep your kitchen clean.

"There's a reason why the Model Food Code doesn't permit restaurants to use sponges where food is prepared," says Bessie Berry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Meat and Poultry Hotline. (The Model Food Code is the state-of-the-art guideline for restaurants that many states follow.)

"The Code recommends the use of wiping cloths, which are easier to keep clean than sponges," says Berry. They're also more likely to be rinsed out, used with soapy water, and dried in the air, which stops bacteria from growing. And, they can be thrown in the laundry.

Some people clean their sponges by running them through the dishwasher. "But dishwashers are designed to clean flat surfaces, not porous materials like sponges," Berry points out.

If you can break the sponge habit, she adds, "you're better off buying a bunch of wiping or dish cloths and using a clean one every day." If you use a dish cloth to clean up after handling raw meat or poultry, throw it in the wash right away.

Of course, you can play it safe by using paper towels to wipe up juices from raw meat, fish, or poultry. After tossing the towels, wash the cutting board or countertop with a dish cloth and hot soapy water.

Antibacterial Soap

Do antibacterial soaps get rid of germs better than plain old soap and hot water? Maybe.

Most contain a chemical called triclosan, which "many studies have shown can kill disease-causing germs," says Philip Tierno, director of Clinical Microbiology and Immunology at the New York University Medical Center. "And triclosan can remain on the skin for hours after washing," he adds, "where it continues to kill bacteria."

But things aren't that simple. "There are products out there that are no better than plain soap and water because they don't contain enough triclosan," says Tierno, who has consulted for soap companies. And even if the soap has enough triclosan, you've got to wash your hands long enough for it to work. "That means a 30-to-45-second scrub, followed by a rinse and another 30-to-45-second scrub," says Tierno.

What combinations of triclosan concentrations and washing times are effective? Companies haven't published most of their research. Ciba, triclosan's manufacturer, won't say. The industry's Soap and Detergent Association refuses to be pinned down. And most companies won't even disclose how much triclosan is in their soaps because it's a "trade secret."

So until companies make public their research and the levels of triclosan in their soaps, there's no way to tell which brands work.

Another wrinkle: could the widespread use of triclosan produce bacteria that are resistant to it or to antibiotics?

"That's theoretically possible," says Elaine Larson of the Columbia University School of Nursing in New York, who has studied triclosan. "But people have looked, and so far haven't found evidence that it's happening in the real world."
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Title Annotation:Food-Safety Watch
Author:Schardt, David
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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