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'Top 5 germ hot spots' may spur you to clean the kitchen

can opener
Researchers found can openers are commonly infected with salmonella, E. coli, yeast and mold.

Admittedly, it doesn’t feel at all like spring this week in Minnesota, but that may be exactly why it’s the perfect time to do some indoor spring cleaning.

And a great place to start scrubbing (with hot soapy water) would be your blender, spatula, knife block, can opener and refrigerator (specifically, the meat and vegetable compartments). For those are the “top five germ hot spots” in your kitchen, according to a recent report from the non-profit NSF International, which, among its many activities, tests and certifies the health safety of various consumer products.

The findings from this report will undoubtedly get you reaching for your cleaning utensils. For the germs and other illness-inducing pathogens found in those hot spots are some of the nastiest ones around: salmonella, Listeria, E. coli, yeast and mold.

Each year, 48 million Americans (about one in six) contract a gastroenteritis illness from a foodborne pathogen, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some 128,000 of those individuals are hospitalized and about 3,000 die, mostly elderly adults and children under the age of 5.

Most Americans are blithely unaware that they’ve contracted a foodborne illness, however. They usually attribute their diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, joint or back ache, fever and other symptoms to a generic “stomach flu.”

A small study

The NSF International report stems from a small study the organization conducted. Its researchers asked 20 families to swab 14 kitchen items: blender gasket, can opener, flatware storage tray, the rubber seal of a food-storage container, knife block, microwave keypad, pizza cutter, spatula, strainer and five parts of the refrigerator (ice dispenser insulating seal, meat compartment, vegetable compartment and water dispenser).

The swabs were then analyzed in a laboratory. Here are the key findings:

  • E. coli — One quarter (25 percent) of items contained E. coli. Items with E. coli included the refrigerator meat compartment, rubber spatula, blender gasket, can opener and pizza cutter.
  • Salmonella — One quarter (25 percent) of items had salmonella, including the refrigerator vegetable and meat compartments, can opener, blender gasket and the rubber seal on a food storage container.
  • Yeast and mold — All 14 items (100 percent) tested positive for yeast and mold, six (42 percent) at concerning levels. The six items with concerning levels of yeast and mold were the refrigerator vegetable compartment, spatula, blender gasket, refrigerator ice and water dispensers, and the rubber seal on a food storage container.
  • Listeria — 10 percent of items tested positive for Listeria. The refrigerator vegetable compartment contained Listeria as did the refrigerator door seal.

From these findings, the NSF International researchers put together its “germiest” items:

1. Refrigerator vegetable compartment (salmonella, listeria, yeast and mold)

2. Refrigerator meat compartment (salmonella, E. coli, yeast and mold)

3. Blender gasket (salmonella, E. coli, yeast and mold)

4. Can opener (salmonella, E. coli, yeast and mold)

5. Rubber spatula (salmonella, E. coli, yeast and mold)

6. Food storage container with rubber seal (salmonella, yeast and mold)

Not cleaning thoroughly enough

Although the study's volunteers had correctly predicted (except for the blender gasket) which items they thought would be the “germiest” in their kitchens, they had nevertheless failed to clean them well enough to prevent illness — a warning for the rest of us.

“These actions may be unknowingly making themselves, family and friends sick,” note the NSF International researchers in the executive summary of their report.

“The lesson we can all learn as consumers is to follow manufacturer’s directions when it comes to cleaning and sanitizing kitchen tools and appliances. For instance, blenders need to be disassembled, and the gasket pulled apart from the base, to be cleaned. Refrigerator vegetable and meat compartments need to be cleaned and sanitized regularly. Like all kitchen tools, can openers need washing and sanitizing after each use and rubber spatulas that are detachable should be pulled off the handle to be cleaned. Lastly, rubber seals should be thoroughly cleaned.”

And what better time to start that thorough cleaning and sanitizing than this so-called spring week?

You’ll find more information about the study and detailed recommendations for cleaning kitchen items at the NSF International website.

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Comments (1)

Ewwww…

If nothing else, this confirms information I've read elsewhere that the "germiest" place in most households was the kitchen. For a variety of reasons, I'm not too concerned about most of the items listed. I shop frequently, and don't make much use of either the vegetable or meat compartments in my 'fridge because I consume the food pretty quickly.

The can opener, on the other hand, has been a concern for a very long time. I just haven't found a solution. Soap and water help, but don't usually reach levels of heat or toxicity to bacteria that promise to eliminate the potential threat. What I'd really like is a manual can opener with a stainless (i.e., non-rusting) blade that I could toss in the dishwasher. I've yet to run across one.