Standing somewhat impatiently in line at the grocery store this weekend with a cart full of goodies one of the Berkshire Boffins noticed something troubling. On the belt ahead, a customer had deposited a head of lettuce, a bunch of tomatoes on the vine, and a package of ground beef. The beef, sitting on a Styrofoam tray shrink-wrapped in cellophane, was oozing liquid. Over the conveyor belt and onto the produce. Yeuwww. And the worst of it was that neither the customer nor the checkout clerk noticed.
And apart from turning our coworker’s stomach, the incident made us all reflect on the role we play individually in contamination control. Because it not just about excellent cleanroom etiquette, adherence to guidelines and best practices, to protocols and HACCP, to cGMP and industry standards. Good food hygiene – the kind that does not result in foodborne illness and distress – is more than just the management of bacteria, microbials, pests, and fungal spores. It’s also about how we manage potential hazards in our own lives and homes too. So if we don’t have a whole set of codified protocols in place for how we separate our ingredients and the benefit of contamination control facilities to ensure our food safety, what is the absolute minimum we should be aware of? Let’s check out the basics…
If you are lucky enough to bag your own groceries – thereby avoiding the ministrations of the 15-year old gum-snapping teen who loads giant tins of dog food on top of your bag of organic summer squash – there’s an easy way to remember how to group your items.
Sounds simple enough. But according to findings by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the United Kingdom, consumers need better education on best etiquette when it comes to transporting their grocery haul home. Part of the confusion stems, it seems, from the well-intentioned drive to banish single-use grocery bags (a long-standing initiative in the UK) in favor of re-usable, recyclable alternatives. But what most consumers do not realize is that cross contamination may occur when bacteria are transferred from the outside of food packaging to the inside material of the bag. From there, the contamination comes into contact with other purchases and dangerous passengers such as E. coli and campylobacter which is responsible for almost 60,000 cases of lab-confirmed poisoning in humans in 2016 (the most recent year for which data are available) get a free ride to your home.(1) And this is not only the case when visible signs of product spillage are present. Per FSA advice, even a minimal degree of leakage can provoke severe gastro-intestinal distress as a result of campylobacter infection and, given that an estimated 20% of raw chicken is infected with samples of more than 1000 colony forming units per gram (cfu/g), it’s like playing a poultry Russian roulette.(2) And like E. coli, this infection is deeply unpleasant, resulting in nausea, vomiting, fever, headache, and abdominal pain in the short term with the potential for reactive arthritis or Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an incurable autoimmune condition, as potential long-term consequences.(3)
To make a long story short: keep raw meat bags solely for that purpose, keep non-food bags at hand for items like detergents, and make sure to have a variety of bags for tinned goods, produce, and other groups of grocery items. It’s simple and straightforward advice, so let’s move on.
Keeping potential contaminants in an at-home DMZ† is also more challenging than you might think. Raw meats – including red meat, poultry, and seafood – and eggs may contain pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella, listeria, and the aforementioned campylobacter. Contaminated soil may be a problem with fruits and vegetables, and dairy products may harbor the same pathogens as meat.(4) So what steps can we take to avoid cross contact?
Although it’s little more than basic food hygiene, it bears repeating that separation is the key to preventing the spread of contaminants. Raw meats, seafood, and eggs should always have dedicated shelves in the refrigerator – and their positioning is critical. Why? Because opting for a shelf that’s low down will ensure that any of those nasty ‘juices’ that escape from shrink-wrapped packaging do not drip onto items below them, rendering those gorgeous organic salad leaves utterly unsafe for consumption. In the same way that sanitation protocols for businesses outline procedures, policies, and practices that minimize the spread of environmental pathogens, having our own version of an HACCP will go a long way to protecting the health of our domestic environment. An HACCP? If you need a refresher, the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points protocol – or HACCP – is a set of guidelines to food safety that identifies and mitigates biological, chemical, and physical hazards in food production. It assesses where the dangers are and how to avoid them so that the final product is safe for consumption, and its strength lies in avoiding hazards early rather than compensating for them later. So what would our own domestic version of HACCP consist of?
In addition to being thoughtful about how we transport groceries from the store to our kitchen, and considering the best ways to store items that should be kept separate, we also need to look at food preparation techniques. Our kitchen equipment is a critical tool in minimizing risk and possessing multiple items that serve the same purpose is helpful in keeping problematic foods separate during preparation. Take cutting boards, for instance. While that souvenir glass cutting board your favorite aunt brought back from her trip to Budapest may have pride of place on your countertop, using it to prepare everything from slicing bread to trimming steak means it’s going to need to be thoroughly sanitized frequently. So it’s better to keep that particular ‘heirloom’ safe and use an alternative such as a plastic cutting mat instead. This inexpensive option also has the additional benefit that you can color code a variety of boards – red for danger foods like meat and green for fruits and vegetables. Easily available online and in most retail outlets, vibrantly colored plastic cutting mats are inexpensive, dishwasher-safe, and perhaps one of the best ways in which to ensure your leafy lettuce ‘romaines’ healthy…
Or if you’re not a fan of using plastic for chopping boards, invest in some good wooden or bamboo boards. Although on face value it might seem that plastic, with its non-porous surface and easy wipe-clean texture, is an ideal bet, knife cuts and abrasions from every day use can cause plastic boards to scar and allow bacteria to proliferate. Furthermore, according to a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wooden cutting boards – regardless of tree species – performed consistently better at combatting surface bacteria than their petroleum-based counterparts. In the abstract of his paper ‘Cutting Boards of Plastic and Wood Contaminated Experimentally with Bacteria,’ published in the illustrious Journal of Food Protection, Dr. Dean O. Cliver reports that four different types of bacteria were applied to the surface of both wooden and plastic sample boards. While the plastic boards allowed for recovery of the bacteria for up to twelve hours (with the individual cells proliferating if left overnight), bacteria from the wooden boards could not be recovered unless the sample application was greater than/equal to 106 CFU and, even in a high humidity environment, the bacteria also failed to proliferate.(5)
But isn’t there a question of sterilizing wooden boards after use? Yes, but washing equipment in hot water with a non-toxic soap – and perhaps even spraying down with a spritz of hydrogen peroxide followed by white vinegar – is an easy and environmentally-conscious way of keeping boards clean. And no matter what materials we use, what’s going to make the greatest impact in terms of our health and safety in the kitchen is the set of procedures we follow:
They’re the areas of our home that we use to craft that perfect evening meal for our families and friends. They’re the bags we toss into the trunk of the car to do our part in reducing plastic bag waste. They’re the reusable food coverings we opt for in preference to single-use shrink-wrap. And they all need to be approached with caution and with a commitment to doing our part in shouldering the responsibility for safeguarding our own health. Because, as the ad tells us, we’re worth it.
Do you have a set of protocols for maintaining a contamination-controlled kitchen environment? Do you avoid certain products because of their potential to harbor pathogens? We’d love to know your thoughts. Have questions, need training, or a free evaluation. Contact us today.