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Kitchen Germs: How to Avoid Bacteria When Cooking

Quick tips to help keep bacteria and parasites out of your kitchen -- and your food.
By
WebMD Expert Column

Want to avoid severe diarrhea, fever, vomiting, and abdominal cramps that can span several days? Thought so. These are all symptoms of food-borne illness that can be caused by kitchen germs.

As if the thought of those kitchen germs giving you food poisoning wasn't scary enough, the CDC estimates that every year about 76 million people in the U.S. become ill from pathogens or disease-causing substances in food -- 5,000 of whom end up dying from it.

Invisible Germs in the Kitchen

The truth is you can't see or smell most of the kitchen germs that grow on your food. They don't even change the color or texture of a dish. That's one of the reasons why I am absolutely rabid about keeping the food I eat and prepare as bacteria-free as practically possible.

The way I see it there are three ways that bacteria can enter our kitchens (and therefore our mouths): before, during and after kitchen preparation and cooking:

  • Before: It's contaminated before we even bring the food home.
  • During: it's contaminated sometime during the preparation and cooking.
  • After: it's contaminated post-preparation and/or during storage.

The good news is there are lots of ways you can prevent bacteria from growing on your food, starting with these steps.

Step 1: Keep It Clean to Control Kitchen Germs

Face it, the way our mom's generation cleaned may not be the best way to keep kitchen germs from taking over. To start with a cleaner environment, here are a few tips:

  • Sponges and Towels: These kitchen helpers can provide a warm and moist environment, with lots of surface area, and they're tough to really clean and sanitize. A plastic-type scrub brush makes a good alternative, possibly resisting bacteria a bit better. If you're going to use sponges and towels, wash them weekly in very hot water.

The CDC suggests microwaving sponges each evening for 30 seconds or placing them in the dishwasher, practices that can kill more than 99% of the bacteria.

  • Countertops and Tools: Before you even begin to pull the food out to prepare, make sure all utensils and countertops have been cleaned with hot, soapy water before and after use. If you want to crank the sanitizing up a notch, wash them with a diluted bleach solution of one teaspoon bleach to one quart of hot water. And if you use antibacterial wipes to clean your countertops, throw them out after one use. 
  • Kitchen Sinks: You know that raw meat juice that you wash off your plastic cutting board and boning knife? It travels down the sink drain and into the disposal. So it's a great idea to sanitize your sink, drain, and disposal as often as possible using a diluted bleach solution of one teaspoon bleach to one quart of hot water.
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