6 easy rules to keep foodborne bacteria out of your kitchen

Think you run a clean kitchen? Pardon us, but there's a pretty good chance you don't. In a recent study, when food safety experts observed people preparing meals at home, a whopping 96% broke at least one critical food safety rule. Almost all of us, it seems, are taking chances.

​Too bad, because a clean kitchen is our best defense against foodborne illness, say the experts. To minimize your risk of getting sick--or making others sick--make these six critical food safety rules into habits, starting today.

​"Think about what you're doing and take time to do it properly," says Robert Gravani, PhD, professor of food science at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. Pretty soon, these safe, smart habits will be second nature.

Rule 1. Wash Your Hands Like Crazy

"Hand washing is the single most important thing you can do to prevent spreading disease," says Robyn Gershon, DrPH, of Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health in Baltimore. "If your hands have 'bugs' on them, you're inoculating everything else you touch."

Most important, never skip washing at these key times:

  • before preparing or eating a meal
  • after using the bathroom
  • after handling raw meat, poultry, fish, or produce

Should you use a special antimicrobial soap? "By washing carefully with regular soap and water, you're going to get rid of as many bugs as anything you can use," says Dr. Gershon. Soap loosens dirt and microbes, then water rinses them away.

​But to get the benefit of hand washing, you need to do it the right way. (Yes, there is a right way.) To learn to wash your hands effectively, see "Recapture the Lost Art of Hand Washing" at right.

Rule 2. Wash Produce--Even the Prewashed Kind

All the experts we spoke with said that washing produce is critical, given the outbreaks of illness linked to lettuce, raspberries, fresh basil, and other plant foods.

Why wash prewashed produce? "Even if it says it's washed, I wash it again to be doubly safe," Dr. Gershon says. To make sure you use the most effective technique for different types of produce, see "How to Get Your Produce Clean" below.

You can now buy special commercial produce washes, but do they work? And are they necessary? There are two points of view:

"Why bother when just good old-fashioned water will work?" says Stuart Levy, MD, president of the American Society for Microbiology. "The physical motion of scrubbing and the force of running water is what carries the microbes away."

But if you know you wash produce hastily, commercial washes may be a good idea for you because they contain surfactants, substances that loosen any dirt and wax quickly, says Manfred Kroger, PhD, professor of food science at Pennsylvania State University in State College.

Produce-washing products include Fit Fruit and Vegetable Rinse and Organiclean Fruit & Vegetable Wash.

Rule 3. Use an Instant-Read Food Thermometer

This easy-to-use tool is the new kitchen essential. It is the only way to make certain your cooked food-especially meat-reaches temperatures high enough to kill dangerous microbes.

​Just checking the color of food is too risky. Ground beef with no pink left may still harbor unwelcome bacteria, experts say. Other foods-lasagna, for example-offer no color clues at all.

​So, start getting in the habit of taking the temperature of food you cook. (See "Is It Hot Enough?" below, for a list of safe temperatures.) Purchase instant-read thermometers at kitchen supply stores, in housewares departments.

Rule 4. Chill It Fast

Don't let foods linger in the "danger zone"-40degrees to 140degreesF-where they become virtual incubators for microbes. The following should be standard operating procedure:

  • Make sure no food sits at room temperature for more than 2 hours, including restaurant doggie bags. On a hot day or in a very warm room (more than 90degreesF), reduce that time to 1 hour. Best bet: Refrigerate right away.
  • Buy shallow containers (less than 2 inches deep) for storing refrigerated leftovers, so food can cool down faster.
  • Use an instant-read thermometer to occasionally check your refrigerator's cooling power. Hot food should reach a temperature of 40degreesF after 6 hours in the fridge. Room-temperature food should reach 40degreesF in 4 hours. If they don't, set the thermostat in your refrigerator to a cooler temperature.
  • Defrost foods in the refrigerator. Never thaw any food at room temperature. Allow 24 hours per pound of chicken or ground meat. Or defrost in the microwave.

Rule 5. Clean Work Surfaces with Dishwashing Detergent and Chlorine Bleach

Detergents help loosen dirt. Chlorine bleach kills bacteria effectively. Here's how to put this economical cleanup team to work:

  • Before every meal, wipe countertops and cutting boards using detergent and hot water. After using the cutting boards, scrub them well with detergent and hot water. (If your cutting board develops deep cuts, whether it's acrylic or wood, get a new one. Better yet: Get two-one for meat and one for produce.)
  • Once a month or more, sanitize countertops and wooden cutting boards thoroughly by washing first with detergent and hot water, then by dousing with a chlorine bleach solution (dilute 1 teaspoon chlorine bleach in 1 quart of water). Do not rinse, but let dry completely before using; the chlorine will evaporate. Run acrylic cutting boards through the dishwasher.
  • What about cutting boards (and other products) with built-in antimicrobial chemicals? See "Here Come the Antimicrobials" on p 131 for the pros and cons.

Rule 6. Wash Your Sponges and Dishcloths

Moist sponges and dishcloths are the perfect places for germs to breed and get transported all over your kitchen. Follow these easy rules:

  • Throw sponges into the dishwasher once a day, as they do at Dr. Levy's house. Alternatives to this practice would be to boil them on the stove top in a pan of water for 1 to 2 minutes; or place them in the microwave for 2 minutes on high while moist.
  • Put dishcloths in the laundry after each use. It's okay to combine them with other laundry. But use your washing machine's hot water cycle and add chlorine bleach (not a nonchlorine bleach). Sponges can be washed this way too.
  • Replace them often. "People use their sponges and dishcloths to death," says Dr. Gershon. She replaces her sponges after one week. To save money, she cuts new sponges in half.
  • Use paper towels, detergent, and hot water to clean cutting boards; then toss the towels.
  • Use separate sponges, dishcloths, and towels for washing dishes, wiping counters and tables, wiping hands, and drying dishes.

You're wise to follow these food safety rules, but be sure to keep your concerns in perspective. "It's a case of awareness and doing the right thing versus paranoia," says Dr. Gravani. "Don't get so hung up that you lose the dining experience."

​Rule 1. Recapture the Lost Art of Hand Washing

​Instead of giving your hands a 2-second pass under running water, make hand washing-your best defense against bacteria-really count.

1. Remove rings and bracelets. Bacteria lurk underneath, studies show. A ring holder by the kitchen sink keeps rings safe.

2. Lather up with soap and warm water. Cold water works too, but warm water helps soap do its job faster.

3. Keep a nailbrush at the sink. Use it to scrub under your nails.

4. Rub your hands together vigorously for a minimum of 20 seconds. Don't ignore knuckles and backs of hands. (To be sure you're scrubbing for a full 20 seconds, count "One Mississippi, two Mississippi....") The soap and friction of scrubbing combine to break the bonds between the bacteria and the surface oils on your skin.

5. Rinse well under cool running water. The physical force of the water carries the loosened bacteria down the drain.

6. Dry hands with a paper towel. Cloth towels that are reused can harbor germs.

​Rule 2. How to Get Your Produce Clean

​Take time to wash produce thoroughly; then, don't store the clean produce in the same package it came home in. Here are the procedures that the experts recommend:

  • Firm produce such as carrots and peaches: Hold under running water and rub all over with your hands or a brush.
  • Head vegetables such as lettuce and cabbage: Discard the outer leaves; vigorously swish the remaining leaves around in a colander under running water.
  • Berries, cherries, and grapes: Place in a large bowl and soak in several changes of cold water.

Rule 3. Is It Hot Enough?

​Use an instant-read food thermometer to make sure your cooked food reaches these safe temperatures:

Whole cuts of beef, veal, and lamb


Ground beef, pork, and casseroles with eggs


Leftovers or take-out food


Ground poultry


Chicken breasts


Whole poultry and thighs


Source: USDA

​Here Come the Antimicrobials

​Are the new antimicrobial products-sponges, cutting boards, sprays, hand lotions, and soap with built-in disinfectants-worth the extra money?

​There are studies showing that antibacterial sprays and disinfectants reduce dangerous bacteria. One study found that when medical personnel used antibacterial soap, the number of staph infections among hospital newborns declined.

​But in households with healthy people, they're probably not necessary, says the president of the American Society for Microbiology, Stuart Levy, MD. Here's why he thinks so:

  • Soap and detergent are just as good. So far we have no research showing antimicrobial products actually prevent illness better than traditional cleansers and elbow grease.
  • You may wind up taking chances without knowing it. Antimicrobials work by killing bacteria over time, but consumers think they kill bacteria on contact. So, for example, you might be lulled into using the same sponge to wipe your antimicrobial cutting board and then clean your counter. In fact, you could be spreading dangerous microbes.
  • Resistant bacteria could thrive. Dr. Levy, who directs the Center for Adaptation, Genetics, and Drug Resistance at Tufts University in Boston, worries that widespread use of antimicrobial products may increase the number of bacteria resistant to disinfectants. "Then when we really need to disinfect our homes and hands-when a family member is very sick-we won't have an effective weapon."

After marinating raw meat, toss out the marinade. Or boil it for 5 minutes before using.

​By Martha Schindler, Prevention