Keeping Contamination Out of the Kitchen
With the closing of and restricted access to restaurants lately, we have had to do more of our own cooking. This means we must make sure the meals we cook are safe and will not cause illness. To keep us safe, our attention needs to be turned toward contamination prevention and sanitation in the kitchen. The following is a discussion of different types of contamination with a list of ways to keep it out of your kitchen at the end.
To start with there are various types of food contamination: microbial, physical, and chemical. Physical contamination can be a piece of plastic, metal, or any other item that winds up in your food. Chemical contamination can be from improperly used cleaning compounds, chemicals stored or on your hands at the time of food preparation or improperly used insecticides.
Physical contamination is fairly easy to keep out of the food. Make sure any utensils or cooking dishes are in good repair and don’t allow items in your kitchen that might get in food. If a dish or glass breaks, make sure it is carefully cleaned up and all the tiny pieces of glass are removed. Don’t eat any food that has been contaminated with broken glass. Most of the rest of the physical can be seen and it is just a matter of picking it out of the food.
Chemical contamination can come from using commercial cleaners/disinfectants on food contact surfaces and not rinsing properly. If you wash dishes by hand, it can come from the soap not being rinsed completely off the surface of dished. One may get a good case of diarrhea from the dish soap and the commercial cleaners can cause illness as well as long term problems if you consume enough.
The big contamination issue in the kitchen that everyone worries about is microbial contamination as it can make one very ill and even kill. This kind of contamination can invade you kitchen in two different ways: direct and indirect.
Direct microbial contamination happens when microbes come in direct contact with food. Perhaps some dish you have cooked and eaten from is left out to cool and you forget about it until 4 or 5 hours later. In that time, the food has had an opportunity to cool and microbes collected from the air land on it and begin to grow. Another way to directly contaminate food is to have it sitting on the counter near the sink and then clean utensils or cutting boards in that sink. Tiny droplets of water containing microbes could become aerosolized and since the food is nearby, could drop on it and contaminate it. The clean dishes in the dish drainer or stacked nearby could also be affected.
Indirect contamination happens when, for instance, you pick up a chicken, put it in the pan and then go open the refrigerator door without washing your hands. If the chicken had microbes on it, and studies have shown that more than 30% do, then everything your contaminated hand touches can be contaminated. By this example you can see how it can get our of control quickly. But don’t despair. Following is a list of things you can do to keep your food safe to eat.
1. Wash your hands. I can’t emphasize this enough. Plain soap is fine, but wash your hands before you start in the kitchen and before and after handling any raw food, especially meats. Keep those hands clean! Wash frequently.
2. Do not use your cutting board without cleaning and sanitizing it when you are going to use it for other classes of foods. I keep one cutting board just for raw vegetables and one for meats. If you are processing different species of meat or raw meat and then later cooked meat, clean and sanitize your board between each species or between raw and cooked meats. Do the same if you are using the same board for vegetables or raw vs. cooked foods.
3. Start with clean counters, utensils and cooking dishes. Clean off counters with your regular cleanser or dish soap, rinse then spray with a bleach solution to sanitize. The solution is 1 tablespoon of bleach to 1 quart of water. This solution can also be used to sanitize your cutting boards.
4. Refrigerate left over food promptly. Do not let foods sit out more than 2 hours before refrigerating.
5. Temperatures are important. Get a meat thermometer and use it to check the internal temperature of cooking meats. Poultry and other meats should be cooked to 165 degrees internal temperature. I suggest this for meat, and I like my steak and prime rib a bit rare. That was fine in the past but currently many processors use a needle machine to puncture and tenderize the meat. The problem is that before the needle machine, if there was contamination, it stayed on the surface where it was killed when cooked. With the needler, any contamination left on the outside of the meat can be transported to the inner parts where it will take more cooking to kill it.
6. Avoid placing a hot dish in the refrigerator until it has cooled. Let it cool to at least 80 degrees before refrigerating. The minimal temperature for most foods is 40 degrees. I keep my refrigerator at about 34 degrees and many meat plants keep theirs at 33.
7. Clean and sanitize your microwave, stove top, oven, and refrigerator on a schedule. These are jobs we forget easily or just don’t want to do right now. It is best to make a schedule or keep a calendar with cleaning dates circled in your kitchen, so this won’t be forgotten.
8. Keep sponges, dish cloths and other cleaning tools clean and sanitized. Sponges can be sanitized by zapping them in the microwave for a couple of minutes, soaking in a bleach solution, putting them in the dishwasher or just changing them out frequently. Dish cloths can just be changed out frequently and laundered.
9. Thaw foods in the refrigerator. This keeps the texture and more of the juices intact and does not invite contamination. Leaving food out to thaw is not safe. The temperature of the outer part of the food rises and can get warm enough for any surface bacteria to have a party. If you are in a hurry, put the food in a watertight container or bag and place it in a pot of 65-degree water. Change the water if necessary.
10. There are three ways of dealing with microbial contamination: dilute, disinfect and heat. I prefer to use the last two for the most part. A good disinfectant can wipe out most of the microbes and 160-degree heat will kill most bacteria. Keeping food at 40 degrees or lower will impede bacteria growth.
Ira White is a retired USDA food inspector. If you find this article helpful, you might like to visit his website and learn about his novel, We Won’t Forget You Mr. McGillicuddy: http://www.irawhite.net .