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Kitchen Germ Killers

A recent survey from Utah State University found that even the most germ-conscious cooks violate the basic rules of kitchen hygiene: failing to wash hands and leaving meat juices on cutting boards. So products such as antibacterial soaps, alcohol washes, and disposable cutting boards are multiplying like, well, bacteria. Which ones actually keep your kitchen  -- and your family  -- safe?

• Alcohol washes These gels and liquids can provide interim protection against bacteria until you can get to regular soap and water, but they are not a necessity in the kitchen. "Alcohol sanitizers do not replace vigorous hand washing," says Catherine Donnelly, Ph.D., professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Vermont. While alcohol-based sanitizers can reduce surface bacteria, without the friction of traditional hand washing, they do little to address very dirty hands. Simply scrub up with good old soap and water before you handle any food and again after you handle any raw meat or fish.

• Antibacterial soaps Antibacterial soaps contain triclosan, a chemical shown to kill disease-causing germs. But just as with regular bar soap, you need to scrub for 30 to 45 seconds (about the length of time it takes to sing the entire ABC song). While antibacterial soaps are effective germ killers, there is some concern that they may be too effective, leading to antibiotic resistance. What to do? Opt for nonantibacterial soaps, dishwashing liquids, and surface cleaners instead. The exception: Use antibacterial soaps when you're handling raw, ground meat, which can carry harmful E. coli bacteria.

• Cutting boards/sheets Wood, plastic, glass, or ultra-thick paper: Which is best for avoiding cross-contamination and food poisoning? Wood, hands down, experts say. "Once boards have a certain amount of use and scarring, they will all absorb juices from food," says Dean Cliver, Ph.D., professor of food safety at the University of California, Davis. Wooden boards, however, do not release these juices (and the germs they harbor) back into the next foods you cut, mince, or chop like plastic and glass boards do, he says. The new disposable cutting sheets are fine, but they are likely to tear, exposing your food to the countertop.

• Sponges When it comes to keeping your kitchen clean, these germ-harboring squares often do more harm than good. Why? Sponges remain moist after washings, making them ideal for bacteria growth. For a safe sponge, rinse away residue and pop it in the microwave for one minute, says Cliver. Better yet, use dishwashing cloths, which dry out between uses, instead.

• Veggie washes These washes promise to cleanse your produce of pesticides but do a better job than water only if the pesticides are trapped beneath a wax coating (as with some nonorganic apples, eggplants, and cucumbers). Even so, a good scrub with water and a vegetable brush will achieve the same protection.

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