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Cuttin' It Up in the Kitchen: Cutting Boards and Food PoisoningBy Vicki McClure Davidson
Cutting boards are an essential in the frugal kitchen, since the frugal home chef cuts up more food items than the lesser-frugal cooks who buy pre-cut (thus, more expensive) foods.
I have several cutting boards and use them according to what kinds of foods need to be cut up. I have a large wooden board, shaped like a pig, that I use for cutting up large quantities of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Two other ones—a heavy-duty plastic and the other with a durable, stone-like ceramic cutting surface—I use for cutting raw meats. And I have a large rectangular, textured glass one that I use when I have large meat items to bone or cube, or when I want something classy to show off to company, because it's decorated with a really cool, rustic montage of antique French vinegars and oils.
After each and every use, I thoroughly clean the cutting board. While wood has been decried because it can absorb minute traces of food or blood and drippings, I've had the pig board for more than 15 years and use it several times a week. We've never gotten sick from harmful bacteria on it, mainly because I don't ever use it for raw meats. But then, even if I did, experts now say that boards that are properly cleaned soon after use don't harbor the residual bacteria that used to be a serious health hazard.
Older, beat-up boards are no longer suspect. Even new cutting boards can be toxic hazards if they're not cleaned properly. It is how you sanitize the board after use—and not its age—that determines if it is a carrier of dangerous, toxic bacteria like E. coli, Staphylococcus, Listeria, Campylobacter, and Salmonella.
Every year, approximately 40,000 people in the United States are reported ill with Salmonella, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—many more cases are believed to never be reported. There have been several recent high-profile outbreaks of food-borne illness in the US, including a strain of Salmonella carried by peppers from Mexico that sickened 1,400 people during a five-month period in 2007; an E. coli epidemic in 2006, traced to California spinach, that killed three people.
In a recent MSN article, according to Brenda Wilson, Ph.D., an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a cutting board can be kept indefinitely, provided that it's sanitized after each use. Even a cutting board with deep cracks or grooves is safe if it's sanitized properly after each use.
Here is the recommended procedure to keep cutting boards bacteria-free: Wash the cutting board with detergent and hot water (as hot as possible); then rinse and flood it with a solution of 1 part full-strength, distilled white vinegar to 4 parts water, then let it sit for 5 minutes. Rinse with clean water, pat with a clean towel, and let it air dry. After my wooden pig cutting board is cleaned, it is hung up on a nail so that both sides can quickly air dry.
When cutting different food items, be extremely careful of cross-contamination. Raw poultry, fish, or other meats cut on a board should not then be used for cutting foods that will be served uncooked, like vegetables or fruits. The normal bacteria levels found on raw meat quickly multiplies to harmful levels when exposed to room temperature for any length of time. Cutting up carrots and broccoli for a salad on the same non-sterilized board used earlier for dicing raw chicken thighs will transfer the chicken's drippings and blood (and bacteria) to the raw carrots, contaminating them. Since the carrots won't be cooked, they will become a nursery for millions of potentially harmful bacteria that can cause food poisoning.
When in doubt, either sterilize the cutting board after each food item is cut, or simply use a different, sanitized board. Remember to use a different knife as well, or sterilize the one you've been using cutting raw meats before using it to dice up fruits and vegetables.
Food-borne illnesses should not be taken lightly. It is estimated that between 24 and 81 million cases of food-borne diarrhea disease occur each year in the United States, costing between $5 billion and $17 billion in medical care and lost productivity. Bacteria-related food poisoning is the most common.
By taking a few simple precautions, the food you prepare will not only cost less because you're cutting it yourself, but it will be in a environment safe from food-borne bacteria.
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Fox, Maggie, Reuters website, "Salmonella Outbreak Sickens 388 Across U.S.: CDC," (www.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUSTRE5066E420090108), January 8, 2009.
MSN Health website, "Healthiest Time to Toss Common Kitchen Items," (health.msn.com/health-topics/slideshow.aspx?cp-documentid=100210793&imageindex=1).
Wagner, Al B., Jr., Extension Food Technologist, Texas Agricultural Extension Service website, "Bacterial Food Poisoning," (http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/extension/poison.html).