When it comes to the most germ-filled spots in your home, your bathroom probably comes to mind first. But that’s not the only place bacteria likes to congregate: Your kitchen also harbors plenty of potential contaminants. In fact, according to a “germ study” conducted by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) in 2011, more than 75 percent of dish sponges and rags were contaminated with Salmonella, E. coli, and fecal matter, while only 9 percent of bathroom faucet handles tested positive for those same bacteria. Yikes.
While it may not surprise you to hear that your kitchen sponge is germ-laden—that’s been widely reported for years—a recent study brings to light another common kitchen item to beware of: your spice rack. Read on to find out why even the study’s authors were taken aback by their findings, and how you can keep your spice jars from potentially making you sick.
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Even if you pride yourself on keeping a tidy kitchen, germs are probably flourishing in there as you read this. The NSF study found that “three of the top five germ hot spots in the home actually were in the kitchen.”
These include the aforementioned dish sponges and rags, your kitchen sink, and the reservoir of your coffee maker. (If you keep your pet’s food and water bowls in the kitchen, you can make that four out of five hot spots.)
What makes kitchens such germ-friendly environments? “There are bacteria in food, and touching it can spread it to other surfaces and potentially cause illness,” infectious disease specialist Susan Rehm, MD, told the Cleveland Clinic. “Common bacteria found in the kitchen include E.coli, Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter, norovirus, and hepatitis A.”
Their experts noted that while E. coli and Salmonella only live on surfaces for a matter of hours, “hepatitis A can survive for months.”
A study commissioned by the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and published in a Sept. 2022 issue of the Journal of Food Protection looked at which kitchen items were subject to the most cross-contamination when people prepared seasoned turkey burgers and pre-made salads in a variety of different spaces, from small apartment kitchens to large teaching kitchens.
The burgers contained a harmless bacteria, used as a stand-in for norovirus, in order to trace contamination. Scientists swabbed 12 different surfaces, from countertops to utensils, after the meals were ready.
The results? While most surfaces tested positive for the tracer bacteria 10-20 percent of the time, a whopping 48 percent of the spice jars used during the burger prep tested positive for the pseudo-norovirus.
“We had not seen evidence of spice container contamination before,” lead researcher Donald Schaffner, a professor in the food science department at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, told Food Safety News. “Most research on the cross-contamination of kitchen surfaces due to handling of raw meat or poultry products has focused on kitchen cutting boards or faucet handles and has neglected surfaces like spice containers, trash-bin lids, and other kitchen utensils.”
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Predictably, cutting boards proved to be the second-most contaminated surface researchers tested, while trash can lids came in third place.
Researchers think that higher concentrations of bacteria on the spice jars (as well as cutting boards and garbage cans) “could be due to their close proximity to the region in which turkey patty handling occurred, the lack of attempts made to wash hands between handling the ground turkey and seasoning the patties with the spices, the lack of attempts made to clean or sanitize the spice containers after handling, and the high number of times the containers were handled,” they wrote in the study.
Taking the prize for least-contaminated surfaces? “Notable exceptions were the refrigerator handle and inner sink surfaces, which were positive less than 10 percent of the time.”
If the study’s finding freak you out, take a deep breath—there’s no need to swear off spices and resign yourself to making bland food forever. Simply washing your hands frequently is probably enough to keep you and your digestive tract safe from harm.
“When you’re done handling a turkey patty, you need to wash your hands before you grab that spice jar,” Benjamin Chapman, head of the department of agricultural and human sciences at North Carolina State University and a senior author of the study, told The Washington Post. He also noted that seasoned turkey burgers, which the cooks in the experiment had to form by hand, were specifically chosen for the study because they’re a “worst-case scenario.”
Still worried about getting sick from germs taking up residence in your spice rack? Chapman suggested wiping your spice jars with a soapy cloth and a disinfecting kitchen spray after using them.