Why You Should Worry About Germs in the Kitchen

Do you think about germs in the kitchen when you are making dinner? You probably should be.


Do you think about germs in the kitchen when you are making dinner? You probably should be.

How conscious are consumers about germs in the kitchen? “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 entrée 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 a clinical professor of nutrition and food sciences at Utah State. “We’re thinking about work or the kids or something else, and not about the possibility of food poisoning.”

Promoting germs in the kitchen

  • 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 under- cooked 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 germs in the kitchen and 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.

Germs on your hands

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 antibacterial soap. 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 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.)

Germs on cutting boards

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

To the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wood vs. plastic isn’t the question. For reducing germs in the kitchen, it doesn’t matter what your cutting board is made out of, as long as you wash it properly.  Wash your boards—whatever they’re made of—in the dishwasher if you can. Otherwise, clean them with hot, soapy water.

For insurance, you can rinse your cutting boards with a diluted bleach solution (one teaspoon per quart of water). But that’s not necessary if you wash them properly.

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.

Germs on sponges

Any sponge—sweet-smelling or not—may not be the best way to get rid of germs in the kitchen.

There’s a reason health departments don’t permit restaurants to use sponges where food is prepared.

Most restaurants use wiping cloths, which are easier to keep clean than sponges. 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.

If you can break the sponge habit, 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.