If you watch cooking shows on TV or YouTube, you’ve probably noticed that celebrity chefs almost never wash their hands.
They constantly handle raw meat, poultry, or seafood and then touch things in the kitchen, like their cutting board or the sink, without washing up.
In 2016, a team of researchers at the Kansas and Tennessee State Universities watched 100 cooking shows featuring 24 celebrity chefs in a bid to assess the hand hygiene habits that they demonstrated to their audiences. They published their findings in Volume 39, Issue 1 of the Journal of Public Health.
What the researchers found was staggering: 88% of the chefs were not shown washing their hands after handling raw meat. One out of five was guilty of touching their hair while preparing food, and 21% were witnessed licking their fingers.
Why do they do this?
The answer is, as they say, in the magic of television.
TV chefs actually wash their hands before and during filming. Since viewers have a short attention span and these scenes aren’t the most exciting part of an episode, they typically get edited out to shorten the show.
While this helps keep people like you and me engaged, it also sends the wrong season to those just getting started in home cooking, who are probably unaware of how vital kitchen hygiene is to their health.
Why Washing Your Hands Is Essential
Everyone tells you that you should do it. But have you ever wondered why? Here’s my no-nonsense, all-you-need-to-know breakdown.
Bacteria exist all around us—and they’re essential to the functioning of the ecosystems in our world as well as to our well-being. For example, Harvard Health Publishing estimates that about 100 trillion bacteria, both good and bad, live in our stomachs.
Around 1% of all bacteria in the world are known to cause disease. The bad news is that these harmful bacteria are highly prevalent in raw foods (the good news is that you don’t need to worry about them as long as you practice good kitchen hygiene).
Raw foods can carry disease-causing microorganisms called pathogens, which are responsible for as much as 95% of all cases of food poisoning (also known as food-borne illness).
There are about 48 million cases of food-borne illness in the U.S. every ear, the FDA says. To help you put this into perspective, this means that one out of six Americans is likely to become sick from contaminated food, leading to approximately 128,000 hospitalizations per year.
So what can you do in your daily cooking to avoid being one of them?
Bacteria, fungi, and the toxins produced by them, parasites, viruses, chemicals, and other contaminants are all pathogens that, once in the body, can cause food-borne illness.
Some of the most common ones include E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Cyclospora, and Hepatitis A—and infection from all of them can generally be avoided by practicing good hygiene and cooking meats to the correct internal temperature.
In the rest of this post, I’m going to help you decode what that means.
How to Prevent Cross-Contamination
More often than not, food-borne illness is caused by cross-contamination, the act of transferring pathogens from one food item to another.
So how can this happen in the confines of your home kitchen? There are two main reasons behind this:
- Not washing your hands properly;
- Not sanitizing your working surfaces and utensils well;
- Touching your face and nose, or pulling your hair back, during cooking.
As a general rule of thumb, raw animal products are more likely to be contaminated than all other food items in your fridge.
But don’t discard fruits and vegetables as entirely safe. They can pick up a variety of pathogens you don’t want in your body from their growing, harvesting, and storage before they ended up on your countertop.
Always wash your hands before you get cooking and immediately after you’re done handling foods that can cause food poisoning. This includes chicken, beef, pork, turkey, seafood and raw shellfish, fruits and vegetables, sprouts, raw eggs, unpasteurized milk, and flour.
If you need to touch your nose because it’s runny or cover your face to sneeze, or if you must pull your hair back behind your ear, you must wash your hands before and after doing so. Otherwise, you risk to transfer bacteria from your body to the food, and vise versa.
Needless to say, washing your hands before and after you have to use the bathroom during meal prep/cooking is a non-negotiable.
To wash your hands properly, experts recommend that you wet them with clean, running water, then lather them with soap and scrub, energetically and thoroughly, for at least 20 seconds before rinsing and drying.
Why the long time?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “evidence suggests that washing hands for about 15-30 seconds removes more germs from hands than washing for shorter periods.”
If you’re worried you’re counting too fast, try singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice, just like you’d normally do, instead.
Me? I have an Amazon Echo Dot in my kitchen (a.k.a. the most talkative timer in the world!). So, whenever I’m washing my hands, I simply ask Alexa to set a timer for 20 seconds.
Sanitize your countertop, cutting board, chef’s knife, and kitchen utensils between uses, especially if those uses involve handling raw meat, poultry, or seafood.
The best way to do this is by wiping down your working surfaces with a disinfectant. The most effective disinfectants for households include 70% isopropyl alcohol, 3% hydrogen peroxide, or a solution of 2 teaspoons of bleach per 1 gallon of water.
Clean your cutting board, cutlery, and utensils by hand with lukewarm soapy water. Use a soft sponge to scrub leftover bits and pieces of food off them, and let the soap stay on for at least 20 seconds before rinsing and drying.
Turn these two simple activities into a habit every time you cook, and you’ll bring down the risk of cross-contamination to an absolute minimum.
This means that you’ll not only cook delicious meals for your family but keep them safe from the disease-causing organisms commonly found in/on the raw food items in your fridge.
Cook Food to the Correct Internal Temperature
The second thing that not every celebrity chef tells you, which is equally crucial to your well-being as washing your hands and sanitizing your kitchen, is to cook your food to the correct internal temperature.
What does this mean?
Heat kills most of the bacteria and parasites found in red meat, poultry, and seafood as long as the pathogens have been exposed to a minimum temperature for at least 15-20 seconds.
Since your food cooks (and heats) from the outside-in, it’s important to cook foods like chicken breasts, pork chops, or fish fillets fully through to the correct level of doneness.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the safe cooking temperature for beef and pork is 145 ºF with a 3-minute rest time and 160 ºF without a rest time when ground. Poultry (whole, cut, or ground) should be cooked to at least 165 ºF.
Rest time is the amount of time you let your steak or chops rest before cutting into them. During that time, the meat finishes cooking at its internal residual temperature.
The only way to accurately tell the internal temperature of your food is to use a meat thermometer. My favorite is made by Alpha Grillers. It’s accurate, waterproof, and comes with a lifetime warranty (there’s not much more you could want from a gadget of this type).
Chefs do wash their hands, but it’s not always aired on television. That doesn’t mean that home cooks like you and me can skip it, though.
To keep the risk of food-borne illness to a minimum, prevent cross-contamination by washing your hands and cleaning up after yourself as soon as you’re done handling raw meat, and make sure to cook your foods to the correct internal temperature.