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Hygiene is all-important in the kitchen

Do you change your dishcloth frequently? Do you cover leftovers with foil before you pop them into the fridge? And how thoroughly do you clean your sink? When it comes to cleanliness there’s a huge range of attitudes in the household. So the kitchen in your home is still the number one source of infection. But it doesn’t have to be, because the germs that cause illness can be kept in check using quite simple methods.

The Robert Koch Institute has central responsibility for public health research and reporting in Germany. Every year on average the institute registers around 140,000 illnesses resulting from bacteria, viruses and parasites in food. Experts estimate the number of unreported cases to be far higher – for example, around one million Germans are thought to suffer stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting, etc. as a result of such an infection. While healthy people generally make a quick recovery, children, old people, pregnant women and people suffering from a chronic illness count as risk groups. So how do these unpleasant germs get inside our four walls? The answer is simple: we bring them in – in our shopping bags. Most of the germs are lurking in meat, especially chicken, that was contaminated by contact with the bird’s gut in the slaughterhouse. Raw fish is another food to be handled with care. And salmonella can take up residence on egg shells if there is any contact with the bird’s faeces. Even fruit and vegetables can carry the germs, lurking on soil particles, into our fruit and salad bowls.

Salmonella are the most prominent germs in our food and they feel very much at home in heated modern kitchens. So much so in fact that they can double their number every 20 minutes. Ten salmonella in a tiramisu, for example, can multiply to 80 in an hour and reach several million within just a day. Anyone eating this tiramisu is almost certain to suffer ill-effects, which can range in severity from vomiting to meningitis. This is why it’s important to eat food made with raw eggs or eggwhites on the day it’s made, or at least put it – covered – into the fridge as soon as possible. Most foods anyway taste better fresh!

Your most important weapon in the battle against microorganisms is absolute cleanliness. Today it seems that a lot of traditional wisdom in connection with hygiene, food storage and preparation has been forgotten. Alternatively people believe that the problem has been banished from elegant modern kitchens. But with food travelling long distances to your table, it’s worth thinking about this essential know-how.

A clean and tidy fridge

Cleanliness is critical. You should clean your fridge regularly. Raw food, especially meat and packaged products where the package has been opened, should be stored apart from each other and always covered. In addition, you need to make sure that the temperature inside your fridge is low enough. Especially in the warm summer months, make sure that the temperature is a steady seven degrees celsius. It’s also worth checking the temperature at other times of the year, using a reliable thermometer.


Stay away from the party hedgehog!

It’s easy to get rid of microorganisms in meat – simply cook the meat well at a good temperature. But some meat dishes are made of raw meat, for example, the “party hedgehog”, which is made of raw mince, and these represent a real risk. Most infections caused by enterohaemorrhagic coli bacteria are the result of eating raw mince. While adults usually recover without any long-lasting effects, children can suffer permanent serious kidney damage. And then there are the germs that have developed resistance to antibiotics because factory-farmed animals have been regularly treated with low dosages of medication. Eating their meat poses a risk for people because it can reduce the efficacy of these antibiotics when they’re desperately needed to treat an infection.


The low-down on your chopping board

The first rule is to wash your hands well before you start cooking. If you’re using wooden chopping boards, be aware that that germs, for example from meat, can quickly establish themselves in the fine cracks and crannies in the surface of the wood. If you then use the same board to prepare raw vegetables for a salad, you’re running a big risk of contamination. You can certainly reduce the risk by using different boards for different types of food. You should also remember to wash your knives well with hot water and detergent between uses. Chopping boards with smooth surfaces, made of, for example, glass, can sharply reduce the risk.


Keep changing your dishcloths

Within an amazingly short time, your dishcloth can harbour up to ten billion microorganisms. This makes it a huge risk, because the germs can be quickly transferred to your hands and to the rest of the kitchen as you work. To eliminate this risk, change your dishcloth every few days and either wash it at 60 degrees or heat it in the microwave for at least a minute.


Good dog!

Don’t let people tell you that feeding your dog in the kitchen is a big risk. The contrary is true, dogs saliva is very efficient at killing germs. Even if your toddler sometimes finds Rover’s food bowl more interesting than his own, it’s not a disaster. If your dog is healthy, you don’t have to worry, because he will have licked his food bowl virtually free of germs.


Useful microbes

But don’t get it wrong: not all the microorganisms in and on our food are bad for us! Any natural product is colonised by microorganisms and contact with them is important for training our immune systems. They’re also useful in other ways too, they change milk into cheese, make sourdough rise and cause beer to ferment. Without bacteria we’d have to do without around a quarter of all our processed foods.

Author: Hendrik Jürgens