Get your rubber gloves and game face ready.
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First of all, not all germs in your kitchen are bad for you.
Before you turn into a total germophobe, know that research shows being exposed to germs can actually help boost your immune system and maintain good gut bacteria, says Dr. Pritish Tosh, infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
But you should avoid pathogens — which are different from normal germs. A pathogen is any bacteria, virus, or other organism that causes disease and sickness. “Pathogens are all over your bathroom and the kitchen — but the kitchen is probably worse because we’re less hyper-aware of cleaning like we are with the bathroom, and most people get lazy,” says germ expert Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., director of environmental health sciences at the University of Arizona.
So what are the most common mistakes that can increase the risk of those pathogens? Here’s what the experts think:
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Not treating your kitchen with the same basic standards you hold for restaurants.
“Obviously if everyone’s kitchen had a real health inspection, we would all fail — even the germ experts,” says Reynolds. But we should obviously try to abide by the same rules, like not cross-contaminating surfaces or food with raw meat, not leaving dairy out too long, and always washing your hands after the bathroom, she says.
You can check out your state’s health department website to find out more about restaurant and food guidelines, or browse the FDA’s food facts for consumers.
Prepping raw meat, especially poultry, without constantly washing and sanitizing any surface it touches.
“Around 50% of meats from the grocery store are naturally contaminated because of the way they’re processed or handled,” says Reynolds. One sick chicken can infect thousands of others with pathogens like salmonella, E. coli, or campylobacter (food poisoning). These are usually killed during the cooking process. But that’s why you have to be extra careful while prepping raw meat so that you don’t accidentally cross-contaminate other food that won’t be cooked — like a salad.
“You should always use separate pans, cutting boards, and utensils for raw meat and uncooked food unless you sanitize them in between uses,” says Tosh. Likewise, your hands are a great vehicle to transfer pathogens so you should wash them after every time you touch raw meat. Always better to be safe than sorry. Learn more about the proper handling and preparing from the FDA.