Our kitchens are the source of nearly 20% of foodborne illnesses. And the dirtiest places are not where you’d always expect. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness each year, with approximately 128,000 people being hospitalized and 3,000 deaths. Researchers have identified more than 250 foodborne diseases, which is pretty scary. The top five disease-causing germs in the United States are norovirus, salmonella, clostridium perfringens, campylobacter and staphylococcus aureus. There are several other germs that can also lead to hospitalization, including clostridium botulinum (botulism), listeria and Escherichia coli. But there’s no need to grab the hazmat suit yet.
Small, simple habits in the kitchen can help keep your food safe to eat. Some you probably already do, like not leaving perishable food unrefrigerated and washing your counters with soap and water – but there are others you might not have thought of. Below are four surprising food safety habits that could prevent you and your family from becoming sick.
1: Don’t rinse your meat before cooking.
Julia Child had a habit of rinsing her chicken before cooking, but is this food safety habit a good one? Dr. Jennifer Quinlan, an associate professor in the Nutrition Sciences Department at Drexel University, studies food safety risks of minority and low income populations. Through her research, Quinlan identified the common practice of incorrectly washing raw poultry by consumers of all demographics. Her findings led to the development of the “Don’t Wash Your Chicken” campaign. Washing raw chicken – or any raw meat – under running water in your kitchen sink can lead to bacterial contamination of surfaces. The campaign explains that “if germs were visible to the naked eye, you would see that washing poultry just splashes bacteria all over you, your kitchen towels, your countertops and any other food you have nearby, such as raw foods or salads.”
That contamination can make people sick, especially those with compromised immune systems, such as young children, pregnant women, older adults and those with compromised immune systems. Studies are finding an increase in antibiotic resistant bacteria in raw meats – all the more reason to be careful when cooking with meat. It’s recommended that you place raw chicken, turkey and other meats directly from the package into the cooking pan of choice. The heat from cooking will destroy any harmful bacteria that may be present. It’s also recommended that you clean up any juices that did splash and wash your hands with soap and hot or warm water.
2: Wash your avocado before slicing it.
Have you ever even thought about rinsing your avocado before slicing it open? In samples taken by the FDA from 2014 to 2016, almost 18% of avocado skins tested positive for listeria. In 2019, an avocado grower in California voluntarily recalled its product from six states due to concerns about listeria contamination.
Even though we don’t eat the skin of the avocado, the bacteria on the skin can be potentially transferred to the pulp inside when you cut the fruit. In July 2000, hundreds of people became ill after eating watermelon contaminated with E. coli at a restaurant in Wisconsin. Dozens of people were hospitalized, and one child died.
The Wisconsin Department of Health concluded that the outbreak was caused when an employee cross-contaminated fresh watermelon with raw meat. As a result, it now recommends that you rinse fruits that have a rough outer skin, like melon and avocado, before slicing. Before slicing or peeling an avocado, rinse it under running water, scrub it thoroughly with a produce brush and then dry it with a single-use paper towel or clean towel.
3: Wash reusable bags.
Ryan Sinclair, an associate professor at the School of Public Health at Loma Linda University, conducted a 2013 study on reusable shopping bags. He found large numbers of bacteria in almost all the bags tested and coliform bacteria in half. E. coli was found in 12% of bags. When meats were stored in bags (and subsequently leaked) and then stored in the trunks of cars for two hours, the number of bacteria increased tenfold.
If you are using reusable grocery bags, do the following to help prevent illness:
4: Don’t eat dry flour (in batters or other dishes).
Many folks know to avoid raw dough because raw eggs may carry salmonella. However, it’s not only the eggs that you should be worried about. Even dough made without raw eggs shouldn’t be eaten raw. This is because dry flour may contain E. coli or other disease-casing germs. In 2006, an E. coli outbreak linked to raw flour caused 63 people to become sick. And in the spring of 2019 alone, there were three recalls of flour – one for 40,000 five-pound bags due to potential E. coli contamination.
According to the CDC, flour is considered a raw agricultural product. That means it usually hasn’t been treated to kill microorganisms that can cause illness. The germs can contaminate the grain while it’s still in the field or during production. The bacteria are destroyed when the flour is cooked (like when you bake those cookies).
You can prevent illness from dry flour by never tasting raw dough or batter that is made with flour. In addition, although flour has a long shelf life and tends to be stored in your pantry for a long time (months or years), the recommended shelf life for white flour, for example, is six to 12 months unopened in the pantry, six to eight months if opened and stored in the pantry and one year if opened and stored in the refrigerator.