Germy Spice Containers

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I bet you’ve done this. You’re cooking and need a spice out of the
cupboard or spice rack…so you search for it and then use it without
thinking about washing your hands or washing the spice jars. Yikes! This is
potentially cross contamination and a recent study proves this.
It’s estimated at one in five cases of foodborne illnesses are acquired at
home. Self-reported and observation-based studies show that consumer
can both knowingly and unknowingly engage in risky food safety behaviors
when cooking at home. Some of these potential risky behaviors include:
not washing hands, not using a thermometer, not reading safe handling
instruction and cross-contaminating surfaces. Researchers at NC State have
been looking at how people cook and if they really do have some of these
risky behaviors.

The researchers and authors of the study include Dr. Don Schaffer from
Rutgers University and Professor Ben Chapman from NC State. These
Extension Food Safety Specialists are the producers of the Risky or Not and
Food Safety Talk (two of my favorite podcasts about food safety.) The
purpose of the study was to look at cross-contamination of kitchen surfaces
during meal preparation.

Researchers at NC State recruited the 371 participants from Johnson and
Wake counties here in NC. These participants were asked to test recipes
making seasoned raw ground turkey patties. They were not told that the
researchers were looking at their food safety habits. This is a little
“sneaky”, but the people cooked normally as if they were at home and weren’t biased because they knew food safety experts were watching. The
people were later told the true nature of the study and gave the
researchers permission to watch the video taken of them cooking to
evaluate their food safety behaviors.

To determine if cross-contamination happened, a “tracer” microorganism
was added to the raw ground turkey. This tracer can mimic a foodborne
pathogen, but is not dangerous to human health and it’s safe for
consumers to handle. After the cooking, the researchers swabbed the
kitchen for this “tracer” on surfaces—places the cooks may have touched
with their “contaminated” hands or utensils.

It’s interesting to note that overall, cross-contamination occurred in 81% of
the observations and (surprisingly) 48% of the spice containers were
contaminated. Cutting boards and trash can lids were the second and third
most contaminated. Other places they looked were soap dispensers,
refrigerator handles, faucet handles, dish cloths and cell phones.

Spice bottle hadn’t typically been thought of as high risk for cross-
contamination in the past—now they are.

So, what does all of this mean to us? Dr. Schaffner said “In addition to
more obvious surfaces like cutting boards, garbage can lids and refrigerator
handles, here’s something else that you need to pay attention to when
you’re trying to be clean and sanitary in your kitchen.”

What can you do? Wash your hands before you reach for the spice jar.
Another way to avoid dirty spice jars is to find and measure all the spices
into a separate dish before beginning to mix with other ingredients. This
would avoid touching the jars with potentially contaminated hands. If you
do touch jars while cooking, think about wiping them down with a soapy
cloth and finish with a disinfecting kitchen spray after cooking.
Dr. Chapman did say that this study may show people in a “worse-case”
scenario as it involved making seasoned turkey patties by hand. You may
not get this much contamination with other recipes. Chapman also
reminds us that many pathogens become less potent on surfaces.

But it does give us one more thing to think about.

Resources:

Cheryle Syracuse wrote these articles and similar ones for the Family and Consumer Sciences Column in the Brunswick Beacon. Syracuse is an FCS team member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center, 910-253-2610. or by email at clsyracu@ncsu.edu.