HEALTH Germs that cause food poisoning are found in the most unlikely of places, says a recent study

Beware of the blender: It may be a bacteria trap.

So says a new report that looked at the places and appliances in household kitchens that are most — and least — likely to harbour germs such as E. coli and salmonella. The report found that some of the areas people considered most likely to be contaminated, such as microwave keypads, were not, while some they had never thought of, such as refrigerator water dispensers and the rubber gasket on most blenders, were among the worst.

The findings suggest that many people who try to keep a tidy kitchen may be overlooking some of the more problematic areas, says Lisa Yakas, a microbiologist with NSF International, a non-profit public health group that published the report. The goal of the study, Yakas said, was not to frighten the public, but to provide some insight on the best ways to reduce the spread of food-borne illness in the kitchen.

“What we really wanted to do was to just make them more aware of these places that they might not have even thought of,” Yakas says.

Research suggests that the kitchen is a particularly important place to practise good hygiene. Nearly 10 million cases of food poisoning occur in the United States every year, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five outbreaks of food-borne illness are caused by food that people eat in their homes.

Leafy vegetables and other plants are responsible for more than half of all cases, and about a third of all the fatal cases are caused by contaminated poultry.

Most healthy adults can fight off such infections. But the elderly, the very young and people who are pregnant or have compromised immune systems have a higher risk of complications.

“Any one of these populations could be represented in your home at some time, so it’s important to protect them,” Yakas says. “As a mom with two little kids at home, it’s something that I worry about.” For the new study, the researchers took swabs of a variety of common kitchen items in the homes of 20 families living in the suburbs of Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan. They also asked people in the homes to rate the items that they thought were most likely to be contaminated and most in need of regular cleaning.

The microwave keypad was the area they considered the dirtiest. But it was not. Instead, the researchers found that refrigerator ice and water dispensers, spatulas, blender gaskets — the rubber seal at the base of the blender that helps prevent leaks — and refrigerator meat and vegetable compartments had the highest germ counts.

Water and ice dispensers, which provide moist environments that can breed micro-organisms, were often found to contain yeast and mould. That can be a particular hazard for people with allergies.

Refrigerator vegetable compartments were found to harbour salmonella and listeria, and spatulas were home to yeast and mould as well as E. coli. But perhaps the most surprising culprits were blender gaskets, Yakas says. They frequently harboured not just yeast and mould but E. coli and salmonella. The most likely reason is that people tend not to fully disassemble blenders before cleaning them or putting them in the dishwasher.

“A lot of people don’t follow the manufacturer instructions to take them apart and clean them after each use,” Yakas says. “People just take the lid off and put that whole jar with the base and everything into the dishwasher. So every time that you use it and it sees different food, it just gets more and more gunky.”

This may also be the reason some spatulas accumulate so many germs. Some are actually two pieces — a scraper and a handle — that can be separated. “If you put one hand on the scraper and one on the handle, there are two pieces that will come apart,” Yakas says. “That’s a place that can hold residue and old food, and we found people aren’t taking the time to pull those pieces apart and clean them separately.”

Can openers were another offender, probably because people tend to use them and then plop them back into silverware drawers without cleaning or even rinsing them.

Yakas says she did not expect people to be surprised that refrigerator meat compartments were on the list. But the compartments for vegetables are less obvious.

The report noted that it is not enough to wash produce. The findings suggest it is also a good idea to wash the areas where produce is stored. And generally, clean and unwashed produced should not be stored together. On its website, NSF provides some advice on ways to keep these areas and appliances sanitary.

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