SAN ANTONIO – If your kitchen were a restaurant subject to health department regulations, there’s a good chance the food inspector would shut you down.
That’s because 20 percent of you admit you don’t always wash your hands before cooking, 36 percent of you “double dip” to taste food you’re preparing, 57 percent of you sometimes put kitchen utensils away before they’re completely dry, and 70 percent of you cop to washing raw poultry in the kitchen sink.
Well, maybe not you.
But, yeah, probably you.
According to a survey by NSF International, 82 percent of Americans concede they’ve made at least one of these or other food safety faux pas when cooking at home.
And these were self-reported infractions. “There’s a possibility the actual number may be higher if people forgot what they did or reported falsely,” said Cheryl Luptowski, a home safety expert with NSF, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based independent public safety and health organization.
Not washing your hands or using a utensil more than once to taste food are, of course, textbook ways to spread germs. Utensils still wet when put away serve as welcome breeding grounds for microorganisms. And washing raw poultry in the sink very efficiently spreads whatever germs might have been on the surface throughout the kitchen.
Not that there aren’t already plenty of germs in most kitchens.
In an earlier study, NSF researchers swabbed 20 Michigan kitchens to reveal the surprising places where germs like to hang out.
Among the kitchen’s dirtiest denizens: refrigerator meat and vegetable compartments and ice and water dispensers, can openers, spatulas, even the rubber gasket at the bottom of the blender jar. These can harbor all sorts of nasties, such as salmonella, listeria, yeast, mold and E. coli.
Combine our penchant for making at-home food safety screwups with the germ-filled nooks and crannies in our kitchens and you’ve probably accounted for 20 percent of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates are nearly 10 million cases of food poisoning annually in the United States.
The more recent NSF survey found that 43 percent of respondents said they’d been sick or had an upset stomach after attending a dinner party or other event outside their home.
And while most healthy adults can fight off a bout of food poisoning, the elderly and very young, pregnant women and anyone with a compromised immune system are at much greater risk for serious complications.
Sending your guests home well-fed and – more importantly – healthy requires following the basic tips we all learned back in high school health class. These include:
Wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds in warm, soapy water, especially before cooking and after handling raw food.
Clean kitchen utensils in warm, soapy water, too, drying them completely before putting them away.
Keep hot foods hot, cold foods cold.
Don’t let perishable foods sit at room temperature for more than two hours.
No double dipping, even when cooking. If you must taste, use a different, clean utensil – and never your fingers – every time.
Under the weather? Stay out of the kitchen. You don’t want to spread what you have to family and friends.
The key to keeping kitchen germs at bay, said Lisa Yakas, an NSF microbiologist, is cleaning the places where they congregate. That often requires more than a quick once-over with a damp sponge.
She suggests removing meat and vegetable storage bins from the refrigerator and washing them in warm, soapy water.
Separate the spatula scraper from the handle to wash it thoroughly.