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10 health code violation sins you’re committing in your kitchen

Pets on the counter

That fuzzy face might be hard to resist, but Fluffy does not belong on the counter. Between the kitty litter between her toes, dander-ridden fur and last night’s catch lingering on her lips, she is full of bacteria that can transfer to your food. Fido isn’t out of the doghouse either–we’ve known a pooch or two tall enough to snag a snack right off the counter top. And believe us, with the things on his menu (dirty shoes, bugs…dare we say excrement?) his slobbery jowls are no stranger to germs.

Leaving Leftovers for too Long

We’ve probably all done it–have guests over for dinner and become so enthralled in our post-meal conversation that we forget about the leftover enchiladas sitting on the counter. But according to the USDA, food should be kept out of the “danger zone” (between 40°F and 140°) as much as possible. Heat up and cool down your food as quickly as possible. Generally, food should be refrigerated two hours or sooner after it is finished cooking. Wrap leftovers very well.

The dreaded dirty dishtowel

Though dish towels may be slightly better than a damp sponge, they are still pro bacteria collectors. In fact, research shows that they are a leading cause of cross-contamination in the home. Why? Because they usually hang a little damp and are often used to dry hands that haven’t been washed adequately. Nasty bacteria like salmonella (usually found in raw meat) can grow on a damp dish towel overnight. So what should you do? Though it isn’t the most eco-friendly option, paper towels are a good alternative to reusing a damp, cloth towel. In all honesty, cloth dish towels should be washed in the washing machine every day. Don’t want to add to your pile of laundry? You can always zap a damp dish towel or sponge in the microwave for 30 seconds or so to kill living bacteria.

Washing fresh produce incorrectly

Wait to wash your product until you are ready to use it. Start by washing your hands, then wash any utensils, counters or cutting boards you plan to use with antibacterial soap and warm water. There is no way to completely remove all microbes, but rinsing produce and briskly rubbing its surface the best way to reduce bacteria and poisons. Fruit with an outer rind (watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, etc.) should still be washed before they are cut! Bacteria from the outside can transfer to the inside when the knife cuts through it.

Keeping the fridge too warm

If you don’t have one, get a fridge thermometer. The built-in dials and buttons may not be accurate. Your fridge should be kept at 40°F or below and your freezer should be kept at 0°F. Shoving containers of piping hot leftovers can drastically bring down the temperature of your fridge and make it hard for it to keep up. But didn’t we just tell you to get food out of the danger zone ASAP? We sure did. But there are ways around this. Let’s take a big pot of soup for example. Instead of squeezing the whole pot in your poor fridge, separate it into smaller containers first, let it cool a little then refrigerate.

Dirty floors

Repeat after me: there is no such thing as the 10 second rule. What if your granola bar landed in a pile of…well, we won’t go there. You catch our drift. We get it though, it’s hard to keep your floors spotless and if you have kids, they’re bound to eat things off whatever surface they drop it on. Who has ever raised a child who didn’t roll around on the floor at least once a day? The key is keeping your floors as clean as possible then crossing your fingers that it’s good enough. Part of that is selecting the best kind of cleaning mechanism. Mops that are dipped in increasingly dirty water really just makes things worse. And they are usually spongy and damp, which is just acting for bacteria to reside in them. We like mops with disposable wipes or pads, or if you want to be more eco-friendly, get the washable kind.

Using bacteria-filled cutting boards

Cutting boards can be the worst if you don’t use them wisely. The USDA suggests having a cutting board for produce and bread and a separate one for raw meat, poultry and seafood. The notoriously dirty boards should be cleaned after every use with hot water and antibacterial soap or placed in the dishwasher. Let them air dry, or dry them with paper towels. When cleaning, be sure to get into all the grooves. If your cutting board is very scratched up with deep cuts, it’s probably time to retire it or resurface it with sandpaper.

A sink full of dirty dishes

It may seem minimal from a bacteria standpoint, but the truth is that sink full of dirty dishes that has been haunting you since Tuesday night’s dinner get together is harming more than just your kitchen’s ambiance. If you leave pots and pans to soak, you are essentially creating a “bacteria soup.” You should also note that studies have shown dishes to be a lot cleaner when they’ve been washed in the dishwasher as opposed to being washed by hand. If you must hand wash dishes, try to do them right after your meal before the food hardens on them so you don’t have to soak them. The last thing you want to do is have to stick your hand into bacteria soup and cross-contaminate anything else you touch. A couple tips: use the hottest water you can bear, use a rough scrub brush to physically remove particles and use a clean dish cloth or air dry.

Improper defrosting methods

The best (and most difficult) thing to do is to plan ahead. Though it can take ages, the best place to defrost frozen meat is in the fridge. Just to give you an idea of how much time this can take, a large frozen turkey takes 24 hours for every five pounds of meat. Option number two is to use cold water. Make sure your meat is in a leak-proof bag, then submerge it in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes so it will continue to defrost. Cook the food immediately after it is thawed and do not refreeze it without cooking it first. Option number three is to use the microwave. It is extremely important to cook raw meat immediately after it has been thawed in the microwave. Raw meat can be cooked safely from a frozen state, but it will take a lot longer to cook. Do not thaw raw meat at room temperature, with hot water or outside.

A broken meat thermometer or none at all

You must have and use a working meat thermometer for meat in order to be safe with food. The poke test, and timers will not cut it. Make sure you are achieving the appropriate temperature for the type of meat you are cooking. Sticking the meat thermometer in the right place is essential to properly determining it’s temperature. We think Serious Eats explains it nicely, but essentially you are trying to place the tip of the thermometer in the coolest part of the meat and avoid resting it against any bones.

One more thing…sorry bloody burger lovers–ground meat really shouldn’t ever have pink in the middle to be safe. Why? Because every surface of that ground meat has already been exposed to the air and bacteria around it.

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