Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cross Contamination

A couple days ago, I was sitting on the restaurant deck eating lunch with the art director of a magazine after a photoshoot—we couldn't let all that good food go to waste, now could we?—and during the course of our conversation, he asked, "How antagonistic is your relationship with the Health Department?"

His question seems to be informed by books he's read and stories from the city where he lives. I think I surprised him when I replied that I had never found the Health Department to be against us, that they have always approached me and my restaurant from the perspective of giving us guidance about how to handle food safely, about how to apply the ivory tower "Health Code" to real world restaurant conditions.

We seem to have a really good working relationship, even though we've had the occasional skirmish over the years. The relationship with each inspector has been different, but each has operated from the perspective that we are not trying to handle food badly, that we really do have a vested interest in not harming customers. It has never been an us versus them thing.

It was my guest's turn to surprise me by asking, "Restaurant kitchens are a lot safer than most home kitchens, aren't they?" In the restaurant world, our equipment, procedures, and training are designed to help prevent foodborne illness. So, when I leave the restaurant world where we take all this for granted, I am often shocked by what I see in home kitchens. I have seen the most egregious food handling practices in home kitchens, so I had to agree with him.

This led into a discussion of cross contamination and other terribly unsafe food handling practices that I have witnessed in home kitchens. Simply put, cross contamination is the transfer of pathogens from one food substance to another. More specifically, we're talking about the transfer of pathogens to a food that will not be cooked sufficiently to kill those pathogens, thus greatly increasing the risk of becoming sick.

For example, if you were to cut raw chicken on a cutting board (chicken is notorious for being contaminated with Salmonella) and then you were to chop a salad on the same cutting board without first sanitizing it (Unthinkable? I've seen it!), you would put everyone eating the salad at risk of becoming ill. More frequently, cross contamination is not this obvious. Picture the same scenario, in which the cutting board has been sanitized, but in which you use the same knife, without sanitizing it.

At the restaurant, we use color-coded cutting boards to help prevent cross contamination. As you see in the photo, we break down meat on the red board, poultry on the yellow board, seafood on the blue board, and ready-to-eat foods and vegetables on the green board. Notice that we store the boards by hanging them with good air circulation to ensure that they dry properly.

I'm sure you don't have enough room to store four cutting boards at home (I surely don't, not even in my vast kitchen), so that's not an option for you. But here are a few simple things you can do to prevent cross contamination in your kitchen:

  • Be aware that cross contamination is an issue.

  • Wash your hands and knives frequently in hot soapy water.

  • Plan your cutting such that you prep vegetables and ready-to-eat food before raw proteins.

  • Make a sanitizer solution of a capful of household bleach per gallon of water and wipe surfaces frequently with that solution.

  • Store raw proteins in your refrigerator well wrapped so that they cannot leak.

  • Separate raw proteins in your refrigerator such that if they leak, they cannot contaminate anything else.

You can learn more at

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