Every year, 76 million Americans get sick from food, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Nothing you can do will ever guarantee 100 percent protection against foodborne illness, but taking certain precautions can help reduce your risk. Some of these protective steps are common sense, like washing your hands before you eat. Others aren't so obvious. Read on to discover five surprising sources of foodborne "bugs" in your kitchen, we've written about in EatingWell Magazine, and how to protect yourself.
Kitchen threat #1: Your kitchen sponge. When participants in a study from NSF International (an independent public health organization) swabbed various items in their houses, the kitchen sponge was by far the germiest. In fact, it harbored 150 times more bacteria, mold and yeast than a toothbrush holder. "You pick up bacteria when cleaning, but because you rarely disinfect that sponge between uses, germs multiply," says Rob Donofrio, M.S., Ph.D., NSF's director of microbiology. While the majority of germs they found won't make you sick some, such as Salmonella and E. coli, can cause serious illness. The best way to de-germ your sponge: microwave a wet sponge for two minutes daily and replace it every two weeks.
Kitchen threat #2: Your fridge. Cold temperatures slow the growth of bacteria, so it's important to make sure that your refrigerator doesn't rise above 40°F. Reduce your risk of foodborne illness by keeping tabs on your fridge temp with a thermometer. You can buy a "refrigerator/freezer thermometer" at appliance stores, home centers (e.g., Home Depot) and online kitchen stores.
Kitchen threat #3: Cutting boards. Bacteria from uncooked meat, poultry and fish can contaminate cooked foods and fresh produce. An important way to reduce this risk is to use separate cutting boards for raw meat/poultry/fish and produce/cooked foods.
Kitchen threat #4: Uncooked eggs. If you enjoy eating eggs with runny yolks or snitching a bit of raw batter when you're making cookies, you're not alone. But the USDA recommends avoiding raw or undercooked eggs (especially for young children and the elderly) because of the possibility of foodborne illness, like Salmonella. If you can't keep your hands (or your kids' hands) out of the cookie batter or you're working with a recipe that calls for raw or undercooked eggs, consider pasteurized-in-the-shell eggs. They're no different than regular eggs except they've been heat-treated to kill any harmful bacteria-making them safe to consume raw or partially cooked. Look for them in large supermarkets near other in-the-carton eggs.
Kitchen threat #5: Recalled items. You should discard any food that's been recalled because it's associated with the outbreak of a foodborne illness. But according to a survey conducted by Rutgers University, only about 60 percent of Americans search their homes for foods that have been recalled because of contamination. Whenever there's a food recall, check products stored at home to make sure they are safe. For more information on food recalls, visit www.recalls.gov.