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Kitchen towels top source of contaminants: study

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Kitchen Towels

Washington: Cloth towels in the kitchen can quickly and easily become contaminated at significant levels with microorganisms that potentially lead to foodborneillnesses, a new study has warned. Lead researcher and Kansas State University food safety specialist Jeannie Sneed said the study showed some unique observations and areas of weakness when it comes to consumers’ kitchen behaviour. “First, participants were observed frequently handling towels, including paper towels, even when not using them for drying,” Sneed said.

“Towels were determined to be the most contaminated of all the contact surfaces tested,” Sneed said. Video observation showed many participants would touch the towel before washing their hands or used the towel after washing their hands inadequately. Even after properly washing their hands, they reused the towel and contaminated themselves all over again. Previous research has found that salmonella, bacteria commonly found in raw meat and poultry products, grows on cloths stored overnight, even after they were washed and rinsed in the sink.

Sneed recommends washing cloth towels after using them while preparing a meal, or using paper towels and discarding them after each use. In the study, 123 participants were randomly assigned tothree separate groups. The first group was given an education programme on the four national Food Safe Families campaign messages of clean, separate, cook and chill. The second group viewed and discussed the Ad Council public service announcements that focused on the same Food Safe Families messages, and the third group did not receive any food safety education before preparing the meal.


The researchers set up a condominium on the K-State campus to reflect a home kitchen environment and videotaped the participants preparing a recipe using either raw ground beef or chicken and a ready-to-eat fruit salad. The raw meat was inoculated with Lactobacillus casei, a nonpathogenic organism commonly found in yogurt but not naturally present in meat. The L casei served as a tracer organism that allowed Randall Phebus, K-State food microbiologist, to track the levels of meat-associated contamination spread throughout the kitchen while preparing the meals.

Phebus and his team of students found that more than 90 per cent of the fruit salads prepared alongside the meat dish were contaminated with the tracer organism, suggesting that if the tracer represented a pathogen such as Salmonella, a high risk of foodborne illness was generated during the meal preparation. The study found that all participants, regardless of food safety message group prior to the meal preparation, made mistakes in the kitchen that could lead to foodborne illness.

In addition to high levels of contamination in their cloth towels, about 82 per cent of participants also left meat-originating contamination on the sink faucet, refrigerator, oven and trash container.