We've all taken our chances with Salmonella at some point, whether through a scoop of raw cookie dough or a piece of chicken that's not quite cooked through. No harm, no foul – right?
Not so fast.
According to the CDC, Salmonella is the most common cause of foodborne illnesses in the U.S., with over 450 deaths and 1.2 million illnesses being reported each year as a direct result of Salmonella infection. Most often, the illness caused by a Salmonella infection will pass in a few (very unpleasant) days. But an infection can be fatal, in addition to a potential nightmare of illness symptoms.
People can become infected when they come in contact with bacteria from Salmonella-contaminated foods such as beef products, poultry, eggs and egg products. Salmonella is easily transferred from raw food to other surfaces by improper handling, as well as contact with kitchen surfaces and equipment.
Carelessness is a primary contributor as well; in an observational study conducted by the USDA, an astonishing 97 percent of participants didn't wash their hands after handling raw meat.
What's the big deal?
Comparatively, E. coli kills roughly only 20 Americans each year, although we hear a great deal more about E. Coli contamination in popular media than we do about Salmonella. That's because the two are regulated in different ways.
The US Department of Agriculture considers many strains of E. coli to be "adulterants," classified as too dangerous to enter the human food chain. When regulators find them in raw meat, the contaminated items must be destroyed or fully cooked for use in ready-to-eat foods.
However, Salmonella is not classified as an adulterant by the USDA, who reason that "ordinary methods of cooking and preparing food kill Salmonella." About 18 percent of chicken and 15 percent of ground turkey contain Salmonella, but the USDA will usually only recall Salmonella contaminated food if people get sick.
Prevention is key
To avoid Salmonella, E. coli and other foodborne illness, cleaning and disinfecting of areas where such contaminants might be present is a must. A basic preventative step such as washing your hands with soap and water is an important daily routine to maintain, as are proper disinfection of kitchen surfaces and appliances. You should also make a habit of storing raw meat, poultry, and seafood separate from other items in the refrigerator.
Wash what you eat
Scrub thick-skinned fruits and vegetables with a vegetable brush to remove dirt and microbes. For more fragile produce such as berries or leafy greens, you can soak them in water for few minutes before rinsing, to help remove unwanted soils.
Produce that needs a gentler touch (leafy greens, berries, broccoli, etc.) can be soaked for a few minutes in clean cold water and dried with a clean paper towel or salad spinner. But be sure to keep fruit salads or other cut produce items in the refrigerator until just before serving, to avoid risk of contamination.
As a rule, you should never wash raw chicken in order to avoid spreading illness-causing bacteria to hands, surfaces, cooking equipment and even clothing.
Heat your meat
Poultry naturally contains Salmonella, which you can kill by cooking the meat to an internal temperature of 165°F or higher. Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 160 °F – and don't rely on guesswork. Measure the temperature with a food thermometer to be sure.
After foods are cooked to safe internal temperatures, bacteria can reappear and reproduce to dangerous levels. Transfer leftovers into shallow containers for faster cooling, and into the fridge within two hours of being cooked.
Refrigerators aren't germ-free zones
Bacteria love warm temperatures, and grow fastest between 40° – 140°F, which is considered the bacterial "Danger Zone." As long as your refrigerator is set at 40°F or below, your foods will be less likely to become bacterial breeding grounds. This isn't a foolproof method for contamination prevention, however, and your refrigerator should be disinfected at least once every two weeks to prevent the spread of dangerous bacteria.
Remember, all disinfecting products need to stay wet on the surface for the labeled specific length of time to kill bacteria and viruses. This is referred to as "kill time", "dwell time" and/or "contact time" listed on the label. If it dries before the kill time is met, then you haven't actually achieved disinfection. Illness and disease-causing pathogens could still be lingering. Be careful, as this kill time can vary even among products made by the same company.
Many disinfectants (including wipes) also contain alcohol, which can cause the liquid to dry quickly. This can make it difficult to keep the surface wet without re-wiping multiple times, so you may be better off using a spray disinfectant cleaner.
Disinfect kitchen surfaces
Make a habit of cleaning your counter top, cutting boards and utensils before cutting and chopping produce. It's a good idea to keep separate cutting boards for raw meat and for produce, to ensure contamination prevention. A twice-weekly kitchen disinfecting schedule is recommended in addition to a daily cleaning schedule, as well as immediate spot disinfecting after any use of raw meat, eggs or dairy products.
Despite more sustainability-leaning trends in housekeeping these days, when cleaning kitchen surfaces it's better to use disposable paper towels than sponges or cloth towels. Cloth towels should be washed in a washing machine hot cycle and dried at high heat after each use, a tedious routine that can waste water and energy.
It's common knowledge that you need to disinfect your kitchen counter after handling raw meat or eggs, but a quick swipe with a paper towel or wipe isn't going to get the surface properly clean or disinfected.
Don't just spread germs around
People commonly use disinfecting wipes because they seem convenient, but they often require that surfaces remain wet for up to 4-10 minutes in order to be effective - and keeping a surface wet with disinfecting wipes can be more difficult than you might think. Many of them contain highly evaporative alcohol, which can cause the liquid to dry quickly. This can make it difficult to keep the surface wet without re-wiping multiple times, resulting in a potential waste of both time and money.
A fast-acting spray-application disinfectant will allow you to disinfect the hard-to-reach areas that wipes can't, and ensures that the surface remains wet the proper time so germs are, in fact, killed. Your best bet to kill dangerous bacteria is a spray disinfectant with a fast kill time, remaining wet and active on hard, non-porous surfaces long enough to do its intended job.
Learn about Simple Green disinfectant products here.