kitchen-cleanliness

Is your kitchen making you sick?

April 24, 2012 at 8:22 AM ET

Ryan Mcvay / Getty Images stock /
Your kitchen may not be as clean as you think it is.

By Nancy Kalish

Prevention

Most of us like to think we know the basics of kitchen cleanliness, whether it's how to handle raw chicken or that veggies should be thoroughly washed before eating. But restaurant kitchens are held to much more exacting standards than most of us ever impose on ourselves.

We decided to see what we could all learn, so we sent a kitchen-cleanliness expert, Mark Nealon, to scrutinize the kitchens of two Prevention families as they prepared dinner on a busy weeknight. A former New York City restaurant inspector, Nealon now helps restaurants institute the very best food-safety practices to avoid being slapped with health-code violations. These two moms, both of whom consider themselves quite safety conscious, were shocked, as you'll be, to discover where their kitchen habits fell short.

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Case Study #1: Stacey Glick and Jeremy Zirin, Haworth, N.J.

Food preparation is often a hectic family affair for Stacey, 40, a literary agent; her husband, Jeremy Zirin, 42, an equity strategist; and their daughters, Samantha, 7; Alea, 5; and identical twins Chelsea and Talia, 3. All six of them crowd into the kitchen to help out. Under Nealon's watchful eye, Stacey and her family put together a quick pizza, using premade crust from the supermarket, and a salad.

Stacey says she tries to avoid obvious food safety mistakes, such as letting her kids share eating utensils. But she adds: "I don't have time to sanitize everything, and I know I'm probably overlooking some dangers." Her biggest worry: the state of her two jam-packed refrigerators. (She keeps one in a nearby closet to accommodate all the food she buys.) "I know I overbuy food, and things get forgotten until they're moldy. Then I worry about bacteria from spoiled food contaminating the other food we'll be eating."

What Stacey is doing right:

She keeps the dog out of the kitchen: Oliver, a Shih Tzu, is not allowed in during meal prep and dining, mostly to keep him out of the way. The inspector's advice: "This is actually an important safety measure," says Nealon, who has a dog himself. "Petting an animal or feeding him scraps could contaminate your hands with dangerous germs." And never let cats jump up on your counter. Their paws carry lots of bacteria, which you want to keep off your work surface. In fact, keep cats away from all food-preparation areas.

She uses plastic containers for storage of dried foods such as rice and cereal: This keeps critters out of foods. The inspector's advice: To avoid chemicals leaching into foods, be sure containers are made of food-grade plastic. Look for those bearing a seal from NSF International, a safety certification organization.

She keeps her kitchen sponge upright in a holder: This allows it to dry completely between uses, Nealon says, whereas damp sponges breed bacteria. His advice: At the very least, wash sponges with antibacterial soap after use and wring out well. You can also sanitize a sponge by microwaving it for 30 seconds or running it through the dishwasher. No matter what method you use, make sure the sponge air-dries completely.

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What Stacey is doing wrong:

Her fridges are too warm: When Nealon measured the temperature in both the kitchen fridge and the second one, they were 52 degrees Fahrenheit and 53 degrees Fahrenheit, dangerously high! "Your fridge should be set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below," he says. "Above that, bacteria start to grow, and you risk serious sickness." The inspector's advice: Buy a digital refrigerator thermometer and check it often.

Her fridge is overloaded: In fact, both refrigerators were jammed full, which prevents proper air circulation and cooling and can hasten food spoilage. The inspector's advice: Leave more space between items. Less crowding will also help prevent food from being pushed to the back and forgotten. Crowding does not affect the freezer, however. In fact, a full freezer cools more efficiently.

She keeps food too long: After a sniff to check for spoilage, Stacey was going to top her pizza with fried eggplant slices she'd bought a week and a half before. "But just because something still smells fine doesn't mean it's safe to eat," says Nealon. The inspector's advice: Toss the eggplant; as a general rule, cooked vegetables aren't good after 3 or 4 days. "Remember that your fridge doesn't stop the growth of pathogens, it just slows it down," he says. Date food before refrigerating; if you have any doubts about freshness, don't eat it.

She stores food that could be tainted: Stacey's kids love to scatter cheese on the pizza…and eat some from the bag, which transfers bacteria from their fingers to the contents. When the bag goes back in the fridge, bacteria multiply and could make them sick the next time they eat the cheese. Nealon's advice: Place some mozzarella into a bowl for the kids, and toss what remains.

Case Study #2: Kathleen and Richard Egan, Valley Stream, N.Y.

Kathleen, 35, a science teacher, and her husband, Richard, 41, a police officer, take food safety seriously. "Richard will clean up immediately after we eat, sometimes while we eat," laughs Kathleen, who at the time of the inspection was pregnant with the couple's second child. On the other hand, Kathleen confesses to sometimes letting her daughter eat a morsel that's fallen to the floor. "I've heard it's okay if it's within 5 seconds. Is that true?" she asks. "It is usually safe to follow the so-called 5-second rule," says Nealon. "Bacteria haven't had a chance to grow. But don't wait longer than that, or put the food back in the fridge." That aside, it didn't take Nealon long to discover some serious mistakes the Egans were making while they prepared pasta, chicken, and salad.

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What Kathleen is doing right

She washes her hands for a full 20 seconds before handling food: This is key to preventing contamination. The inspector's advice: "Work up a lather with antibacterial soap, get under your fingernails, and then dry your hands with paper towels, not a dirty dish towel that might have been used to wipe up food spills."

She defrosts chicken in the fridge: Thawing poultry, meat, or fish in the fridge is the safest bet. Nealon's advice: If you need to defrost more quickly, do it in the microwave or under cold running water in the sink. Never leave a partially frozen protein food to thaw on the counter, where it can grow bacteria by the time it's completely defrosted.

She uses a fresh spoon to serve cooked chicken: A spoon that has touched raw poultry could contaminate the food with Salmonella. The inspector's advice: Even rinsing a spoon under hot water won't kill germs, so keep clean ones on hand for serving.

What Kathleen is doing wrong

She defrosts on the top fridge shelf: No matter how well wrapped, raw poultry, meat, or fish can easily leak juices and contaminate foods below. The inspector's advice: Always defrost and store raw protein foods on the lowest shelf in your fridge.

She hand-washes her plastic cutting board: Immediately after slicing the chicken, germaphobe Richard scrubbed the board with hot water and soap before chopping vegetables on it. But that's not enough. The inspector's advice: Cutting boards need to be sanitized by having boiling water poured over them or being run through the dishwasher. This should be done even after cutting vegetables, which have been linked with Salmonella outbreaks.

She serves her family home-canned tomato sauce: Kathleen wanted to top her pasta with a jar of sauce a friend had canned. But home-canned goods, even from a farm stand, can be tainted with botulism, despite looking and smelling fine. The inspector's advice: Realize that cooking does not destroy botulism. Never eat food you haven't canned properly yourself, especially if the seal doesn't pop audibly when you open the jar.

She stores half-full sippy cups in the fridge: Once the germs from a child's mouth are in the liquid, they will multiply, even in the fridge, and could make her sick when she drinks again. The inspector's advice: Dump leftover liquids and start fresh.

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