I squeezed grey liquid from my kitchen dishcloth onto the glass slide and put it under the microscope. Floating around with tiny pieces of food were bacteria - rod-shaped and round.
''Every bench, wall, hand towel or utensil can become a bacteria farm if not cleaned properly,'' says home-hints guru and author Shannon Lush. ''The four most common causes of food poisoning are salmonella, E. coli, listeria and staphylococcus bacteria. Keeping your food preparation surfaces and your hands clean is important for the health of you and your family.''
A story written two weeks earlier about a colleague and her little boy's food poisoning odyssey elicited a massive response from readers, chefs, industry and government, with a flood of online comments, emails and phone calls. While that story focused on the role of restaurants, the public response was, ''What can we do at home to make our food safer?'' and ''What sort of risks are in the normal house?''.
Ridding your kitchen of bacteria without resorting to chemical warfare is an art perfected by Lush. Her practical, economic and sustainable methods cut bug numbers without the toxins. Here are her guidelines for a bacterial kitchen boot camp.
Scrubbers and dishcloths
When it comes to dishcloths and sponges, she recommends to wash them daily and dry them in the sun. Most bacteria are knocked out at high temperatures, so if it's a rainy day scald them in very hot water. For plastic scourers, she washes them out in soap and water, rinses them, puts them in a plastic bag and freezes them overnight to kill bacteria. When frozen, metal scourers don't rust.
Lush is a big fan of fresh tea towels and hand towels every day to stop bacterial build-up in the fabric. "If you are going to use tea towels for wiping hands, choose a different colour to that which you use for wiping dishes."
Benchtops and splashbacks
Benchtops and food preparation areas can be cleaned easily with a non-toxic spray made by mixing one teaspoon of lavender oil with a litre of warm water in a spray bottle. Lightly spray the mixture on to a rolled-up pair of pantyhose and wipe over surfaces. Lush says that pantyhose are brilliant cleaning cloths, as they cut through grease and grime faster than any other cloth, can be easily washed and last virtually forever. (Wash before use!)
The CSIRO supports Lush's love of lavender, stating that lavender oil has been found effective against many species of bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant golden staph and E. coli. This spray also deters nocturnal ramblings of flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches and ants. A teaspoon of dishwashing liquid added to the lavender spray cuts grease from splashbacks. Lush says, "Wipe them down immediately after cooking or food preparation, before the grease hardens and becomes more difficult to remove."
Lush prefers to use timber chopping boards rather than plastic, silicon or glass at home. Timber boards are naturally antibacterial and when cleaned properly are very hygienic, but they need to be cleaned after cutting at-risk foods to avoid cross contamination. When the cooking is done, clean timber chopping boards by scrubbing them down with a little dishwashing liquid and water, dry them off a little, sprinkle the cutting surface with salt and scrub firmly. Dry in the sun, as ultraviolet light kills bugs.
Glass chopping boards are easy to keep clean but are tough on knives. Plastic and silicon do not blunt your knives, but as soon as the surface is scratched, they are difficult to keep bacteria-free.
"Your fridge is good at keeping things cool and slowing deterioration, but it does not stop bacteria forming," Lush says. Food safety experts recommend a fridge thermometer be kept inside the fridge to make sure it is keeping food at or below 5 degrees. In hot weather the temperature inside a fridge can reach the danger zone (temperatures between 5 degrees and 6 degrees). Thermometers cost about $20 from kitchenware stores or online.
Lush cleans her fridge weekly. She recommends cleaning it just before shopping, so you'll know what needs to be thrown away and what needs to be replenished. She says to wipe down the surfaces of the interior and exterior with white vinegar on a rolled-up pair of pantyhose. Clean door seals by wrapping a tea towel over the end of a butter knife. Dip it in white vinegar and then get the tip into all the grooves to kill mould and bacteria.
Lush uses white vinegar to wipe down the sink daily. Weekly, she cleans the drain with two tablespoons of baking soda sprinkled down the plug hole, left for half an hour, followed by a further two tablespoons of white vinegar. Half an hour later she flushes this out with a litre of boiling water. The combination of boiling water and the action of the acid and alkali in the vinegar and baking soda kills bacteria and dislodges blockages. For cleaning under the sink and to keep mould spores at bay, place a quarter of a teaspoon of oil of cloves into a litre of water in a spray bottle, lightly mist over the surfaces and wipe them down with a rolled-up pair of pantyhose.
Another naturally occurring compound Lush uses in cleaning up the kitchen is lauric acid. It occurs naturally in bay leaves and is proven in deterring insects. After cleaning out the pantry and wiping the shelves with lavender oil, Lush places an entire clove and a bay leaf every 60 centimetres along the shelves to discourage moths and silverfish. Place a bay leaf inside each container of grains such as barley or rice to deter pantry moths or weevils.
Forget the mop, Lush says; most kitchen floor surfaces can be cleaned with white vinegar and water (the ratio: half a cup of vinegar to one bucket warm water will remove most dirt), and a kitchen broom. Stuff the head of a clean kitchen broom down the leg of a pair of pantyhose and tie the rest of the pantyhose around it to secure. This is far more hygienic than a mop, as it rinses clean easily and it scrubs into the corners.
Bicarb soda and vinegar make the best cleaners for stovetops and ovens. Lightly dust bicarb soda over the cold stove surface and spray with undiluted white vinegar in roughly equal parts (keeping the quantities even reduces residue and gives you a stronger chemical reaction). While it is still fizzing, rub it down with a pair of pantyhose rolled tightly in a ball.
Lush reckons the old-school method of washing dishes by hand in hot soapy water, rinsing then drying immediately, is the most hygienic way. For those who shove anything that's not nailed down into the dishwasher, Lush says rinsing first is a good idea to avoid washing dishes in ''bacteria soup''. While the hot water can kill bacteria, solid matter left behind can allow it to regrow. Leave the dishwasher slightly open once it's unpacked so air can circulate, reducing mould. Try to clean out the filters and wipe down the interior once a week.
The cupboard doors below your benches often end up with drip marks that can breed bacteria. Lavender spray works equally well on these and won't damage painted surfaces.
Food storage and handling
Incorrect food storage is definitely one of the danger areas with bacteria in your kitchen. Make sure all meat products are either frozen or packaged correctly in the fridge so they cannot leak. Proteins can break down and develop bacteria quickly when kept at room temperature, so put them in the fridge as quickly as possible after use. Never thaw meat out on the counter uncovered. Either thaw meat slowly in the fridge or quickly in the microwave.
Cooked vegetable proteins (such as mushrooms and beans) can break down quickly and harbour bacteria. Rotting vegetable matter is quite toxic, so make sure that your fruit and vegetables in your crisper have plenty of air flow. Many fruit and vegetables produce a gas that speeds ripening or rotting, and the closer they are to each other, the more likely they are to cause rot. This information has negatives and positives. For instance, if you want to ripen an avocado quickly, place it into a brown paper bag with a banana, as the gas exuded from the skin of the banana will ripen it overnight. Alternatively, placing bananas into a fruit bowl next to other fruits can cause them to rot quickly.
With the dishcloths hanging in the warm autumn sun like prayer flags, and the fragrant whiff of lavender in the air, bacteria boot camp is over. Bugs begone.
Other food safety tips from the experts
Food Safety Information Council executive officer Juliana Madden
● In warm weather, a small pack of meat in the back of the car can quickly reach the danger zone of above 5 degrees. Keep meat, poultry, dairy foods, vegetables, and salad ingredients cold, at or below 5 degrees. Consider a portable cooler if your shopping journey includes a significant time away from home.
● Avoid cross-contamination by keeping raw and cooked foods separate when storing and preparing.
● Much food safety is about practising commonsense behaviour.
William Angliss program leader Kimon Tsindos
● Use different knives for different tasks in the kitchen - the same way you do with chopping boards. If you have to use the same knife for meat and veg, make sure it is thoroughly cleaned between tasks.
● Your fridge has different shelves and storage compartments for a reason. Store meat, chicken, fish, dairy and vegies separately.
● Don't keep anything frozen more than three months.
● When reheating food (especially bulk food, curries, sauces and so on), check your food reaches the safe temperature of 75 degrees to ensure any bacteria is killed. To check, use a thermometer.
● When placing heated food in the fridge, wait for the food to stop steaming before covering with cling film or it will keep cooking.
What's your tried and test kitchen cleaning tip? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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