Kitchen utensils can be dangerous, but we’re not talking about sharp knives here. A recent study showed knives or graters used on produce (which can house bacteria) can spread germs to the next items the utensil is used on.
Consumers are likely unaware of this risk, says the study’s lead author, Marilyn Erickson, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s department of food science and technology.
“Just knowing that utensils may lead to cross-contamination is important,” Erickson says. “With that knowledge, consumers are then more likely to make sure they wash them in between uses.”
It’s a long-standing fact that home cooks who fail to use proper hygiene and don’t follow best practices for food preparation risk spreading food-borne illnesses. However, researchers are now pinning down exactly which behaviors in home kitchens are most risky. Previously, Erickson studied the transfer of norovirus, a gastrointestinal illness, and hepatitis A between produce and common kitchen utensils. She found that using a knife or grater on contaminated produce spread the contamination to other items the utensil was used on. Similarly, Erickson’s most recent study honed in on spreading common pathogens, such as salmonella and E.coli, among fruit and vegetables via utensils. Researchers learned that knives and graters spread the germs to the next piece of produce if they weren’t washed between items.
“A lot of the broken up material and particles from the contaminated produce remained on the graters,” Erickson says. “Then if you were to shred another carrot or something else immediately after that, it gets contaminated, too.”
Scrubbing produce using a brush or removing skin with a peeler is not only ineffective for removing germs, Erickson found. Depending on the pathogen and the type of utensil used, the utensil itself can become contaminated and spread the pathogen, even when the utensil is rinsed with running water.
Use stringent safety measures while preparing foods, Erickson says. “Once a pathogen gets on the food, it’s difficult to remove,” she adds.
Tips to Prevent Food Poisoning in Your Kitchen
- Use soap and hot water to clean utensils, dishes, and counters between each piece of produce or other food you’re preparing.
- Disposable paper towels are a convenient way to avoid contamination, because they are thrown away after they are used to clean. However, people who prefer cloth towels should wash them often in the washing machine using the hot setting. Kitchen sponges used for cleaning should be replaced frequently.
- Clean cutting boards with hot, soapy water after each time they are used. Rinse, then dry with a clean paper towel or allow to air dry. You can use one tablespoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of water to create a sanitizing solution. To use, cover the surface with the solution and let it stand for several minutes. Rinse, then dry with a clean paper towel or allow to air dry. You can use the dishwasher to clean cutting boards made of certain materials, such as plastic, glass, wood, or non-porous acrylic. Old, worn-out boards or those with deep grooves should be replaced.
- Dishes or utensils used with raw products should be switched for clean ones before serving cooked food. (Also, wash your hands with hot soapy water after handling raw food and before serving cooked food.)
- Wash fruits and veggies but not meat, poultry, or eggs. Thoroughly rinse fresh produce under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten. Packaged fruits and vegetables labeled “ready to eat,” “washed,” or “triple washed” need not be washed. Never use detergent or bleach to wash fresh fruits or vegetables. These products are not intended for consumption. Scrub thoroughly. Rub firm-skin fruits and vegetables under running tap water or scrub with a clean vegetable brush while rinsing with running tap water.
- Be sure to wash your hands the right way and at the right times. Apply soap to your hands along with warm or cold running water. Scrub well for at least 20 seconds, covering all areas, including the backs of hands, between fingers, and under your fingernails. Rinse under running water, air-dry, or use a clean towel. Wash your hands before you eat; before, during, and after food preparation; before and after treating an injury; before and after caring for a sick person; after handling raw foods or their juices; after you cough, sneeze, or blow your nose; after touching animals or their waste; after touching trash; and after using the restroom.