Cooking at home has become a constant during the pandemic, and keeping it clean in the kitchen can protect you and your family from foodborne illness. But which hygiene practices while cooking and handling food will impact food safety and keep bacteria at bay?
The most important hygienic and protective action is to wash your hands.
Since COVID-19 requires more care and cleanliness as a part of daily life, perhaps you've gotten TMI about handwashing? Although there is not yet concrete data on how well and often we are currently washing hands, we weren’t doing a good job before the coronavirus. At least, we weren’t cleaning them properly or often enough, especially in the kitchen.
In late 2019, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency that is part of the USDA, gathered some information on how folks prepare food in their kitchens. A surprising finding was that 95% of the time, those surveyed failed to properly wash their hands.
It isn’t that people don’t try to wash their hands, says Meredith Carothers, a USDA food safety expert.
In the observational research conducted in test kitchens by the FSIS, about 72% of subjects washed their hands before starting to prepare a meal, but only 5% washed correctly.
Thanks to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), most of us now know that 20 seconds of lathering and scrubbing (the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice) is necessary for proper cleaning. But do you follow all five steps for effective handwashing?
- Wet: Use clean, running water, and apply soap. 💦
- Lather: Rub hands together, soaping the backs of your hands, between fingers, and under nails. 🧼
- Scrub: Work for at least 20 seconds to mechanically remove visible and invisible contaminants (like bacteria and viruses). 🧽
- Rinse: Use clean, running water to remove the dirt and soapy residue. 💧
- Dry: Choose a clean towel or let your hands dry on their own before you touch any surfaces. (Do not use an air- or jet-dryer. This method of drying blows the bacteria throughout the surrounding area. This is especially true of drying machines with a high-speed blower.) ✨
“With our research in the past three years, what we’ve found is that people will attempt to wash their hands but they won’t do it successfully with all five steps,” Carothers explains.
“Usually it’s because they’re not doing it for that full 20 seconds.”
She says that her Apple Watch, which has a handwashing timer, helps her scrub for a full 20 seconds.
“It can tell you’re washing your hands, and it will buzz and tell you to keep going until it’s been 20 seconds. That’s been really helpful for me personally; 20 seconds is a lot longer than I usually thought!”
WHEN DO I NEED TO WASH MY HANDS DURING FOOD PREP?
According to the CDC, you need to wash using the five steps throughout the food prep process, not only when starting meal preparation.
Wash before, during, and after throwing a meal or snack together.
Here’s the breakdown: Give your hands the 5-step treatment just before you begin to prep. Do it again after handling any food that may harbor bacteria.
That means raw chicken, beef, pork, eggs, shellfish -- any raw food of animal origin, and you should scrub again after cleaning produce if your hands have been in contact with the unwashed fruit or vegetables.
For example, let’s say you are scrubbing a cantaloupe with a brush? Wash your hands afterward since bacteria from the rind may have spread to your fingers.
“Whether it’s taking a product out of the refrigerator, slicing it, and putting it into a pan or putting it into a microwave, your hands are at the forefront of everything, so handwashing is absolutely huge,” says Carothers.
“Making the bacteria get off your hands before and after every step will ultimately help reduce bacteria being transported around your kitchen.”
(If you can't wash your hands, apply hand sanitizer. Although it does not confer as much protection as thorough washing, it is better than doing nothing.)
CLEAN TOUCHPOINTS TO PREVENT CROSS-CONTAMINATION
You also need to clean any surfaces these foods may have touched, i.e., countertops, sinks, cutting boards, knives, etc. This may be an obvious step since any item/tool that comes in contact with a food that may contain bacteria can deposit illness-causing pathogens. These are easily transferred to anything that touches that item/area afterward.
(For this reason, many cooks will devote cutting boards to a specific purpose, like prepping chicken, beef, pork, lamb, and any other game or poultry.)
After you have sanitized the area and touchpoints, removing any risk of cross-contamination, wash your hands again. Then, continue preparing other foods. You do need to soap up once again after you have completely finished with all the cooking activities.
In the recent FSIS research, side salads were contaminated 26% of the time after a person had been prepping raw chicken.
Carothers cautions, however, that consistent, thorough handwashing won’t prevent illness if foods aren’t cooked to safe temperatures. Click here for a safe temperature chart for foods.
“Even if you follow handwashing completely, cooking it to a safe internal temperature is still important,” she says.
FOOD SAFETY WITH FROZEN PRODUCE
Cooking to a safe temperature can be just important with frozen produce. She says, “It’s a huge misconception that the stuff is ready and can be thawed and used straight from the package."
Sometimes, people thaw frozen veggies like corn and peas and add them directly to cold salads. Before eating, they should be heated to 165 F to kill any bacteria. Consult the package for complete directions on preparing the item.
“Some frozen produce products might be considered ready to eat. Some definitely have only been partially processed and need to go through that heat-treating step before they are safe to eat.”
She explains that it’s important to follow any cooking instructions on the package and to use a food thermometer when cooking produce or meats to be sure they have reached a safe internal temperature.
Since the pandemic, data from the American Frozen Food Institute shows that people are purchasing more frozen foods, she says. Although she is not certain about the exact reason, she thinks that it may be due to limiting trips to the grocery store and having children at home with distance learning.
(For tips on efficient and sustainable cooking strategies that will maximize your groceries, read my post on home cooking during the pandemic.)
Although many cooks favor digital instant-read thermometers, dial-type thermometers also work fine. Inexpensive food thermometers are available at many grocery stores, Target, Walmart, and online.
Here is a link to thermometers at Target. I have used the first thermometer shown in the link and think it does a good job.
Click here to view instant-read thermometers available from Amazon. Note: as an Amazon Associate, I may earn a commission if you purchase a product through this link.
GLOVES FOR FOOD PREP
In commercial kitchens, food service employees put on a pair of disposable gloves after washing their hands. They change these gloves often and wash their hands each time they put on a new pair.
Home cooks sometimes like to slip on a pair of disposable gloves in food prep situations where there is a high risk of infection or because of the “ick” factor.
Raw chicken and other uncooked meats – particularly if butchering is involved – present this kind of situation.
Mom and community volunteer Rose Flanagan dons a pair of gloves to prepare chicken or ground meat. Flanagan says they eat chicken often in her household, and she has followed this practice since the mid-1980s.
“I’m big on cutting off the excess skin,” Flanagan explains. “I’m real big on separating the skin [from the meat] and putting fresh herbs underneath.”
Carothers said she worries that gloves might give cooks a false sense of security.
“Even if you’re wearing a glove and you’re making burger patties, you may not be getting that bacteria directly on your hands,” she says. “But what if you then use that glove to touch the faucet or touch a plate or something like that. You’re still technically transporting that bacteria from one place to another.
“You’re basically just protecting your hands, not necessarily everything else.”
SOURCING FOOD PREP GLOVES FOR HOME USE
Flanagan says that “It [purchasing gloves] was a problem when COVID started because I was almost out.” Her usual practice is to buy a box of 100, powder-free vinyl gloves at Walmart.
She also uses gloves when making items like meatballs from ground beef or ground turkey and when chopping peppers. The gloves keep the chemicals in hot peppers from getting into her eyes and bothering her contact lenses.
Of course, gloves can help save a manicure and keep the skin on your hands from drying out when frequent handwashing is necessary.
Target sells Smartly gloves for food prep that are blue and unpowdered in 30-count boxes. Their price varies from $3.59 to $4.69.
(Flanagan says she sometimes finds blue, unpowdered gloves at Walmart. Some people also like the powder-free nitrile exam gloves found in drug stores or the ones for hair color available at beauty supply stores like Sally.)
Amazon offers many options, including this box of 500 clear plastic polyethylene gloves from Kinglake that only costs $9.99.
You can also find Vegware compostable food prep gloves in boxes 100. These are made from PLA, polylactic acid, which comes from plants instead of petroleum. They are more expensive at $15.99.
WHEN TO CHANGE YOUR GLOVES
You need to change them or throw them away after cutting chicken, shaping ground beef, or washing dirty produce. After you finish your food prep work, wash your hands and put on clean gloves to clean up the sink, counters, and any items/tools that touched the food.
The best practice is to follow the 5-steps-to-perfectly-clean hands after you remove dirty gloves and before you slide on a new pair.
You can’t discuss hygiene and food safety in the kitchen without mentioning towels.
Kitchen towels are workhorses. They have a multitude of uses ranging from drying meat and produce to rolling up a sponge cake for a “swirl” or Buche de noel cake during the holidays.
The towels used to dry your hands need to be set aside for only that purpose. The hand-drying towel should not also be used for other tasks like drying dishes or foods.
Some research conducted on kitchen towels that had not been washed for a month found that they contained a scary amount of bacteria, such as S. aureus and coliforms (fecal residues). Another finding was that dry towels held fewer bacteria than moist towels – not a surprise since most bacteria do not thrive in dry conditions.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) recommends washing kitchen towels frequently in hot water. Sponges need daily disinfection. You can zap them in the microwave for a minute or put them in the dishwasher as long as your dishwasher has a drying cycle.
The bottom line is that designating a towel for the sole purpose of hand drying will promote food safety in your kitchen. Paper towels are another option but are at a premium since the advent of coronavirus. They are also not a sustainable choice.
Paper towels are a good choice for cleaning up countertops where raw meat has been prepped. If you use a dishcloth or towel for this purpose, be sure to toss it into the laundry immediately afterward so you don't use it for anything else.
MORE TIME AT HOME = MORE TIME IN THE KITCHEN
Targeted hygiene - keeping hands and surfaces clean - and careful towel use will help with food safety, as will cooking food to safe internal temperatures.
Carothers says that what will really prevent foodborne illness is following the four steps to food safety:
“We’re trying to prevent people from eating a bacterium on food that could make them sick. The four steps to food safety are going to target all aspects of that.”