In Your Kitchen: Counter-Top Safety

With poor food safety practices, your counters can be crawling with bacteria and viruses. Prevent illness with these guidelines.

The last place you want to get sick is your own kitchen. With poor food safety practices, your counter-top can be crawling with bacteria and viruses. Luckily, there are simple ways to prevent these bad boys from making trouble.

The Issues

It’s a basic fact that our current food supply is tainted with bacteria. Even though every egg or piece of chicken may not contain salmonella, we still need to handle food as if they do. We do many tasks on our counters from chopping veggies to cleaning raw chicken to preparing our kids' bagged lunches. This gives the food bugs opportunities to hang out on our counter-tops. Cross-contamination and poor personal hygiene are two easy ways pathogens can get onto our counter-tops. A third way is allowing high risk foods (like raw chicken and cooked eggs) to sit on our counter-tops for a long period of time.

Here are some common examples of food safety faux pas:

  • Defrosting meat on your counter-top.
  • Not washing your hands after going to the restroom and preparing food.
  • Using the same cutting board and knife to prep raw foods like chicken and meat, then using the same area, board and knife to cut veggies for a salad.
  • Cleaning the counter-top with a wet sponge only.
  • Using the same kitchen towel to dry your hands, clean the counter-top, and then dry the dishes.
  • Someone with the flu or cold touching the counter-top where food is eaten or prepared.

The Solutions

Prevent Cross-Contamination

It’s easy to transfer bacteria from one surface to another. In order prevent illness from cross-contamination, use 2 separate surfaces, cutting boards and utensils when preparing raw food (like chicken and fish) and ready-to-eat food (like salad greens). Also, be sure to wash your hands before handling each different type of food.

If you have a small kitchen and only have one area to work on, you must clean AND sanitize the surfaces, cutting boards and utensils between tasks. One method is to rinse items, and then wash them with warm water and liquid dish detergent. You can also rinse items and run them through a dishwasher.

And don’t forget your counter-tops. Warm water will help remove visible dirt, but won’t do much to the bacteria or viruses. You’ll need to get out the big guns—a chemical spray or wipes. Many wipes require rinsing after use. But being a working mom with 3 kids, I like time-savers. Disinfecting wipes by Scotch Brite and Seventh Generation don’t require surfaces to be rinsed after using.

As for those sponges, it’s important to change used ones frequently. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Health found that microwaving sponges for 2 minutes destroyed more than 99% of germs. Some guidelines include:

  • Only microwave sponges that don’t contain metals like steel.
  • Be sure sponge is wet.
  • Only microwave for 2 minutes. You don’t need to do it longer.
  • Let the microwave cool before removing the sponge from the microwave.

You can also run sponges through your dishwasher. If you cook often, you may want to disinfect your sponges daily or at least several times a week.

Good Personal Hygiene

Washing hands properly is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs. Here are step-by-step instructions on how to do so. It’s also important to remember to wash hands after doing mundane tasks like using the restroom, talking or texting, scratching your head or nose or fixing your hair.

Controlling Time and Temperature

When you leave raw meat or chicken to defrost on your counter-top at room temperature, bacteria will have a party. They can multiply to such high amounts that the heat from cooking won’t be enough to destroy them. Besides defrosting, properly handling leftover food is important. Use our tips to help you out (hint: you’re not supposed to defrost on your counter-top!).

TELL US: How good are you at keeping your counter-tops safe?

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Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby's full bio

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