When it comes to cross-contamination in the kitchen, there are more things to avoid than just getting chicken juices on your carrots. If you have people in your home with allergies and food sensitivities, you will want to be even more careful.
From allergens to pathogens, it’s essential to keep your kitchen clean and to do what you can to prevent cross-contamination. That may mean cleaning counters and cutting boards numerous times during food prep, and it also means being more aware of possible contaminants when you’re still picking out ingredients at the grocery store. To avoid this threat and cook more safely at home, follow this guide.
The main rules here apply to everybody, but if you have a severe food allergy in your household, make sure you read the allergy-specific section at the end.
Why It’s Important to Avoid Cross-Contamination
When you hear about a food recall, it’s most often due to cross-contamination. Cross-contamination is more than just getting one food mixed in with another—it’s a risk to people with severe food allergies, and it’s one of the biggest causes of food-borne illnesses.
By carefully purchasing, storing, and prepping your food items, you can prevent cross-contamination in your kitchen at home.
Avoiding Cross-Contamination in Your Kitchen
Cross-contaminating foods is as easy as having raw meat come into contact with your ready-to-eat food items. It’s also as simple as cooking something for someone with a food allergy in the same pan that was used in the past for preparing foods containing that allergen.
If you want to keep a safer and healthier kitchen, here are the steps you should take.
Before You Get Your Food Home
When you’re at the grocery store, take precautions with the foods you buy. Use plastic food bags for raw meat products (even if they’re already in plastic—those seals aren’t the best, and you don’t want the juices from the meat getting on your other foods). Put fresh produce in bags as well; otherwise, they’re open to all the elements.
When you place your items on the belt at checkout, organize the foods. Bagged items, like your head of lettuce, stay protected from germs in the cart and on the belt. Keep all the raw meat separate from your raw produce. Make sure your grocery clerk bags meats separate from ready-to-eat items and produce.
Store Your Food Properly
There’s more work to do when you get your food home. How you store food in your refrigerator may increase the risk of cross-contamination as well.
Some simple tips to remember when it comes to proper food storage include:
- Keep raw meats on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. If there are any leaks, this helps prevent the contamination of foods stored above.
- Store raw meats, including poultry and seafood, in sealed containers. Avoid storing meat in plastic bags, which are prone to leaking.
- Don’t store raw meats next to ready-to-eat foods. Keep them on different shelves for safety.
Food Prep and Cross-Contamination
Keeping your counters and cutting boards clean and sanitized are two of the best ways to prevent cross-contamination during food prep.
Cleaning your kitchen counters is as easy as wiping them down with soap and water. Sanitize them using a sanitizing spray or bleach and water. Let them air dry, and then rinse with hot water.
How you clean your cutting boards depends on the type of board you’re using. Some may be washed in the dishwasher, while others should be hand-washed. Some, like cutting boards made from wood, shouldn’t be left soaking in water.
You shouldn’t cut raw meats on wood or other porous cutting surfaces. While wood boards might be traditional, the juices from the meat can get trapped in the pores of the wood and cause bacteria growth that increases your risk of food-borne illness. It’s best to use a glass or plastic cutting board for meat.
Don’t use the same cutting board you used for raw meats for cooked or ready-to-eat items. It’s handy to have completely separate cutting boards dedicated to meat and your other food items.
If you have someone in your home with food allergies or sensitivities, but you still cook food items containing those allergens, have separate prep ware, cookware, serving dishes, tableware, and silverware. This is the only way to ensure that your family member doesn’t come into contact with an allergen that may make them sick, or worse. Such prep work and separate kitchenware might seem like a drastic measure, but for people severe allergies, it’s the difference between an enjoyable meal and a life-threatening experience.
Wash Your Hands
The final most important thing you need to remember when it comes to keeping your kitchen cross-contamination free is to wash your hands.
Wash your hands before you start food prep, after you handle raw meat, in between handling different varieties of raw meat, and when you’ve finished cooking.
Always use hand soap and hot water to wash your hands. Consider investing in an antibacterial hand soap to use in your kitchen, too. Although avoiding cross-contamination can take a little more time and effort, it’s well worth it to protect yourself and your family from the risk of illness and allergic reactions.
Dealing With Serious Food Allergies
Editor’s Note: my 3-year-old daughter has severe allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, and eggs, and ingesting any amount will cause an anaphylactic reaction (translation: she’ll stop breathing). I’ve had to become an expert on food allergies, and so I’m sharing my knowledge with you here.
The number one thing to realize is that food allergens are literally physical bits of food, and even tiny amounts that you can’t see can cause a reaction in some people. If your hands are dirty from handling peanuts, your hands are coated in allergens. If you touch a soda can, now your soda can is coated in allergens. If you wash your hands, and then pick up that soda can again, your hands are now covered in allergens again.
The procedures for severe food allergies are significantly more strict, and a lot of people don’t understand what you need to know.
- If your child or guest has severe food allergies to peanuts or tree nuts, it would be wise to simply get rid of all nut-containing products from your house. It’s not worth the risk.
- Check food labels carefully: a lot of food is made on shared equipment that processes nuts. For example, a lot of soy milk is made on the same equipment that makes cashew milk, which many people with peanut allergies are also allergic to. This depends a lot on the level of allergy; some people are okay with a little cross-contamination, others are not.
- Antibacterial soap or Clorox wipes are great for killing germs, but they do nothing extra to get rid of allergens. The only thing that will get rid of the small bits of food allergen is the physical action of cleaning with soap combined with water rinsing it away.
- Washing your hands regularly is critically important. But don’t use the same dirty towel as everybody else—ideally you would want to use paper towels.
- Food preparation and serving should be done on completely different cookware, tableware, and silverware. When you’re washing the separate set, make sure the sink is clean ahead of time, and use a clean towel or paper towels for drying. Use a dedicated safe sponge for washing. And remember: your dishwasher might get hot enough to sanitize germs, but that does nothing for allergens.
- Make your guests wash their hands when they come in the door. You might not be serving nuts, but there’s a solid chance they just ate them before they came over, and didn’t wash their hands.
If you follow these steps you can be successful in keeping yourself and your family safe. It’s a lot of extra work, but once you get it down into a routine, it’s really worth the peace of mind.