How to keep salmonella and bacteria out of the kitchen

Bacteria can be sneaky. But a well-prepared kitchen will have them beat.
by Erica Chayes Wida /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY

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Spraying down counters with disinfectant spray after handling meat and putting perishables away in the fridge immediately after grocery shopping are things everyone knows to do, but there could be germs lurking in another very surprising place in the kitchen.

Today's recall for possible salmonella-contaminated Ritz cracker products and a recent recall for a Kellogg's cereal contaminated with salmonella are wake up calls that even the most unsuspecting dry foods that are stored in pantries also have the potential to make people sick. That's why keeping clean and organized in all corners of the kitchen is a must for food safety.

In June, one classic, non-intimidating breakfast item was recalled for possible contamination with salmonella. The Food and Drug Administration reported Kellogg's Honey Smacks Cereal was at risk for the bacteria. And on July 12, the FDA announced the cereal was responsible for at least 100 salmonella infections in more than 33 states between March 3 and July 2. Thirty people were hospitalized so far and some stores are still selling the cereal, the FDA warned.

Salmonella is a sneaky bacteria that can make its way into unassuming places. The bacteria, which is often carried through animal feces, regretfully infects a lot more than foods like eggs, poultry and lettuce.

"Consumers are used to handling meat and poultry safely because of the risk of food-borne pathogens; with these products the pathogens are controlled by storing food in the refrigerator and freezer, and are killed by cooking," Marianne Gravely, senior technical information specialist for the United States Department of Agriculture, told TODAY Food.

She continued, "But these same pathogens are also present in the soil and water, so fruits, vegetables, and grains can also become contaminated. There are some pathogens that can survive for long periods of time on shelf stable products."

Cookie dough, for example, has long gotten a bad reputation for being too risky to eat off the spoon. This is not only a precaution to take against bacteria found in raw eggs, but also raw flour.

Making the refrigerator a safe space with meat and vegetables stored in the right place is only half of the battle. The pantry also needs to be tackled, whether it's already an organizational dream or a cool, dark cave of unsightly snacks. Regardless, these are the best practices to keep kitchen bacteria from blossoming.

1. Use air-tight containers.

The reason for this isn't just because they look pretty. René Nyfeler, vice president of food and beverage concepts for The Kessler Collection, said he is adamant about using air-tight containers and jars to store dry goods in the pantry. When foods like cereals or crackers are left in their cardboard boxes, it leaves the contents vulnerable to moisture and therefore mold and bacteria.

Nyfeler told TODAY Food to be sure containers are washed and dried thoroughly before and between uses. It doesn't matter whether the contents of the dry food are emptied by themselves or if the whole plastic bag of food is put into the storage container. Either way is going to help prevent old and bacteria.

2. Rotate everything.

It's hard to resist buying foods in bulk at Costco or stocking up on favorites when they go on sale at the grocery store. When there's quite a bit of something in the kitchen pantry, Gravely said to "rotate the items" to use the oldest foods first. If you've dug into a recent sale on canned tuna, make sure to transfer any opened leftovers to an airtight container and keep it in the fridge.

3. Pay attention to temperature.

Summer is lovely but it also creates more warm, moist breeding grounds for bacteria in many places in the kitchen. Gravely advised keeping all shelf stable foods in clean, dry, cool places. Canned and jarred foods should never be exposed to freezing temperatures or temperatures above 90 degrees. Even though a lot of these products are safe for long periods of time, Gravely said to "check the ‘use by’ or ‘best by’ dates to ensure using them while still at peak quality. After those dates the product could lose flavor or go stale.

This article was originally published on July 16, 2018 and has been updated with new information about a recall of Ritz crackers on July 23, 2018.

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