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Kitchen Germs and How to Beat Them

How well do you really know your kitchen? We conducted a swab test to find out where the nastiest germs hide in the heart of the home – and how to get rid of them for good.

The bathroom often gets a bad reputation for the dirtiest place in the home, but turns out, it’s actually the kitchen that harbours the most germs. It’s no wonder, really, as the kitchen is often the entry point for the home – groceries come in from the outside world and bring with them a myriad of other surprises.

We swab-tested British kitchens to discover where we should be putting more TLC into our cleaning routines and enlisted lab technician, Dr. Jonathan Hughes for his expert insights.

How germs get into your kitchen

If you’re wondering how on earth these germs get into your kitchen, it’s usually through raw meats, unwashed vegetables and bad hygiene. Cross-contamination happens when you have barehand contact with raw ingredients, or fail to clean your cookware and utensils.

Pathogens like Salmonella, Escherichia coli (E. coli), and Faecal streptococci (FS) live in the intestines of livestock or humans, and can be directly passed into the meat – however these are killed if cooked properly. Others like Bacillus cereus (B. cereus) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (P. aeruginosa) are found in soil, water and vegetation. FS is found in the intestines of humans and animals, so traces of these germs suggest faecal contamination – basically, not washing your hands properly after the bathroom.

Cleaning covers both your kitchen as well as your personal hygiene. Ensure that you wash your hands both when you start and finish in the kitchen. Hands should be washed with hot soapy water for at least 20 seconds.

Dr. Jonathan Hughes

The experiment

We had volunteers across different demographics offer their kitchen for inspection – and the results were interesting.

In the battle of the sexes, the male house-share proved to be the germiest with 10 detections of bacteria across eight appliances. This included the oven handle, countertop and sink testing for both P. aeruginosa and FS. The female house-share, on the other hand, only had seven detections of bacteria – so it appears the stereotype of men being less vigilant cleaners has some merit to it.

One commonality between all the volunteers is that none of the kitchens tested positive for Salmonella, which reduces the risk of food poisoning. Cheers to that!

Apparently having spare time (or perhaps a professional to help) can decrease your germ count. Our retired volunteer couple, as well as the volunteer who employs a professional cleaner, had the least bacteria count. Both only tested for five detections of bacteria, and they both had the cleanest ovens with no traces of pathogenic bacteria.

For the average person in good health, these bacteria will either be neutralised by the immune system before they can cause an issue – or at worst – lead to an unpleasant bout of food poisoning. Typical symptoms include nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, fever or diarrhoea.

Dr. Jonathan Hughes

The dirtiest areas of the kitchen

Sponge

We asked our volunteers where they thought the most bacteria lingered in their kitchen. The most common answers? The bin, the extractor fan and salt shakers. All excellent guesses, however, the germiest item of the kitchen is the sponge. In fact, 88% of sponges had P. aeruginosa, 25% tested positive for FS and 12% for E. coli. To avoid unknowingly using your sponge to spread the bacteria around, make sure to replace the sponge every week or two in order to keep these germs at bay. Oh, and that saltshaker that was thought to be the germiest tested for 0% pathogenic bacteria.

Sink

From washing dishes to dirty football boots and everything in between, your sink sees a lot of action. So, it shouldn’t be a shock that the sink is chock full of microbes and bacteria, and some more harmful than others. In fact, 100% of sinks tested positive for P. aeruginosa and 25% FS. Incorporating a thorough cleaning routine is the best way to beat these bacteria and keep your sink clean.  

Fridge

Although our fridge houses all kinds of delicious foods, new bacteria is introduced every time we fill it up. This cross-contamination can be from food packaging, exposure to raw meats or unwashed vegetables. We found that 88% of fridge shelves tested positive for P. aeruginosa. Nasty pathogens like this breed quickly in warmer temperatures, so your fridge needs to keep your food at the optimal temperatures of between 0°C –and 5°C.

The cleanest areas of the kitchen

The oven handle, even though it is often in the firing line for grease splatters from the hob, has the lowest bacterial count in the kitchen. We discovered that 50% of oven handles had no trace of bacteria at all. That said, the other half had traces of P. aeruginosa, and 13% of those handles had FS. Lesson here? Don’t leave the oven handle out of the daily clean. Hughes urges that, “As part of your weekly deep clean, clean and disinfect the outside surfaces of appliances that you use, particularly those you handle frequently like fridge and oven door handles, and microwaves.”

We discovered that the floor, despite bearing the brunt of the bottom of your soles, is actually cleaner than your sponge. Even though 100% of the floors tested positive for P. aeruginosa, sponges tested for both P. aeruginosa and FS. Still, we would reconsider applying the universally-acknowledged ‘five second rule’, to any food slips and spills…

Kill them with cleanliness

The best way to get rid of these food-borne pathogens is by incorporating a thorough cleaning routine.

Cleaning with hot soapy water after each use, combined with a weekly clean using a disinfectant such as a dilute bleach solution. This is sufficient to maintain a hygienic kitchen with very low bacterial levels.

Dr. Jonathan Hughes

Cleaning properly is a fine art – but thankfully, there are tips and tricks to getting rid of bacteria effectively. Here are some of them:  

  • Cleaning products need ‘kill time’ – Leave the bleach solution cleaning sprays to activate for a minimum of 3-minutes on surfaces before wiping them down with a clean cloth. This is called the ‘kill time’ in order to ensure complete disinfection. Always follow the instruction on the packaging.
  • Clean before you cook – Clean your kitchenware, utensils and surfaces before you start cooking.
  • Wash your hands – Use antibacterial wash before and during cooking to prevent the further spread of any bacteria, especially after handling meat and vegetables.
  • Don’t wash raw meat – All germs in raw chicken will be killed when cooked thoroughly, so skip washing the meat and avoid splashing bacteria on your hands, clothes and surfaces.
  • Cook food thoroughly – Ensure all meat is piping hot and cooked right though after you reheat it to properly kill bacteria.
You cannot specifically target different types of bacteria; these treatments remove and kill both the potentially hazardous bacterial strains and the non-harmful bacteria.

Dr. Jonathan Hughes

Methodology

We conducted an experiment with eight volunteers, where we tested eight areas of their kitchen to see where the most bacteria live. The bacteria that we tested for are Escherichia coli, Clostridium perfringens, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Salmonella, Faecal streptococci, Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus cereus. This data is also supported by desk research of several scientific studies.

Sources

www.nsf.org/newsroom_pdf/2011_NSF_Household_Germ_Study_exec-summary.pdf

sfamjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1046/j.1365-2672.1998.00598.x

www.foodprotection.org/files/food-protection-trends/JAN-FEB-15-sneed.pdf

www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-06055-9

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3790245/

Dr. Jonathan Hughes

Trained in the field of molecular biology, genetics, microbiology, plant physiology and conservation science, Dr. Hughes currently supports the teaching of these fields to undergraduate and masters students – including working with, and the appropriate handling of, category 2 microorganisms. These are commonly associated with food poisoning in the home such as Bacillus cereus, E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes.

Phew! That might be a lot to take in, but keeping your kitchen clean can help you to enjoy your environment so much more! One of the ways to help you and your family get the most out of your kitchen is by opting for state-of-the-art kitchen appliances. Discover the best oven, the best fridge freezer and the best dishwasher for you at Currys PC World and enjoy a cleaner kitchen in no time.