Kitchen Germs: How to Avoid Bacteria When Cooking

Quick tips to help keep bacteria and parasites out of your kitchen -- and your food.

From the WebMD Archives

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.

Step 2: Reduce Kitchen Germs at the Store

Before you get ready to whip up something tasty, try these tips to help keep bacteria at bay while you shop:

  • Meat: Wrap It Up: Put any meat you buy into a plastic bag before putting it in your cart. This keeps raw meat juices from dripping on the fresh foods in your grocery cart.
  • Juice: Don't buy a bloated juice bottle. Bloating is usually a sign that at some point the juice hasn't been kept at the proper temperature and it's now spoiled.
  • Produce: Some produce can become contaminated with salmonella, shigella, or E. coli during growing, harvesting, processing, storing, or shipping. It's particularly important that you wash your spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, and melons before handling or cutting them.
  • Canned Foods: You don't know where those cans have been, so wash the tops with hot soapy water before you open them. If you don't, whatever particles or bacteria linger on the lid will inevitably end up in the food as the lid dips down into the can contents during opening.
  • Perishables: If you have perishable groceries and you will be in the car more than an hour, take a cooler along with some reusable ice blocks to keep the cold food cold until you can get it into the refrigerator or freezer.

Step 3: Kitchen Germs and Food Prep

There's no reason to be scared of kitchen germs. Instead, be informed, and develop safe food preparation habits.

  • Wash Your Hands: Unwashed hands are the most common cross-contamination agent between raw meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, unwashed vegetables and ready-to-eat foods, according to a study on food handling behaviors published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Wash your hands longer and more often than you think you should. Scrub hands together vigorously for at least 20 seconds with hot soapy water. It takes that long for the soap and scrubbing to remove some of the germs.

  • Cutting Boards: Invest in three colorful plastic cutting mats, with one color for each type of food. For example, designate a green mat for cutting fruits and vegetables, a white mat for cutting fish, and a red mat for cutting up red meat products.
  • Raw Meat: Don't let raw meat bacteria travel to other food in the kitchen. Discourage cross-contamination by keeping the raw meat, and any kitchen tool that comes in contact with it, completely separate from all the other food.
  • Defrosting and Marinating: Marinate meat in the refrigerator -- not on the counter at room temperature. And defrost food the same way: in the refrigerator. You can also defrost food under cold running water, or in the microwave oven on the defrost setting.
  • Eggs: Eating uncooked eggs presents a risk for Salmonella Enteritidis. Eliminate the risk and kill the bacteria by cooking the egg or egg-containing foods, or use pasteurized eggs. Egg-substitute products that you buy in the store are generally pasteurized and therefore don't present a risk if consumed uncooked.
  • Wash Produce: Wash all fruits and vegetables under running water before eating, cutting or cooking, unless they're packaged and marked "prewashed." Produce with a tough outer skin, like melons and cucumbers, can be scrubbed with a clean produce brush and warm soapy water before you cut into them -- just in case there is bacteria on the peel.
  • Cook It Thoroughly: Finally, keep in mind that no matter what, thoroughly cooking food helps destroy the bacteria.

Step 4: Post-Prep Tips to Fight Kitchen Germs

After the feast, there are a few kitchen tips that can help keep those leftovers safe for another delicious meal:

  • Time It: Bacteria can multiply quickly on cooked food left out for more than two hours at room temperature. Refrigerate items in a timely manner.
  • Avoid Room Temperature: There's a good reason why the rule of thumb is to "keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot." Bacteria multiply rapidly between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees F. So it's best to keep hot cooked food at 140 degrees or higher, and cold cooked food at 40 degrees or lower.
  • Fridge and Freezer Temperatures: What temperature are your refrigerator and freezer? The refrigerator should be set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower and your freezer at 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Leftovers: Store leftovers in shallow dishes (divide large portions if necessary) so they can cool down more quickly and reach the desired refrigeration temperature faster. And avoid packing your refrigerator so there is little space left. In order to keep the food at a safe temperature, cool air needs to circulate.

There you have it, four steps that can help you keep kitchen germs at bay, prevent bacteria from growing on your food, and help keep you, your family, and what you eat as healthy as possible.

Show Sources


National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, NIH Publication No. 07-4730, May 2007: "Bacteria and Food borne Illness."

CDC: "Questions and Answers about E. coli 0157:H7 Outbreak from Fresh Spinach."

FDA Publication No. 02-1229, July 2002: "Can Your Kitchen Pass the Food Safety Test?"

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, April 2007.

Journal of the American Dietetic Association, February 2004; vol 104: pp 186-191.

Anderson J.B. et al. "A Camera's View Of Consumer Food-Handling Behaviors."

Fight Bac! Campaign.

American Society for Microbiology press release.

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