Quick! What are some of the germiest spots in your kitchen? Your garbage container? Your kitchen sink? The floor? Or how about the six-month-old sponge that you use to wash dishes?

All of these spots may very well need a good cleaning (or, in the case of the sponge, an immediate replacement). But there’s one surprising hot spot that’s germier than most people suspect—the kitchen towel.

Recent study: As part of a recent study, researchers from the department of health sciences at the University of Mauritius wanted to find out the extent to which kitchen hand towels play a role in cross-contamination that can lead to food poisoning. A total of 100 kitchen towels were collected after one month of use to identify the amounts and types of bacteria that were present on the towels. The researchers also collected data about the families that had used the towels.

Results: Nearly half the kitchen towels (49%) tested positive for bacterial growth. Among the contaminated kitchen towels, 36.7% contained Escherichia coli (E. coli)…36.7% showed Enterococcus species…and 14.3% grew Staphylococcus aureus. The number of bacteria increased with larger family sizes and the presence of children.

While single-use towels had lower bacteria counts, the worst offenders were towels with multipurpose usage—wiping utensils, drying hands, holding hot utensils and wiping or cleaning surfaces. And not surprisingly, damp towels had more bacteria on them than dry towels.

Another key finding: Towels used by families that ate a nonvegetarian diet (meat eaters) grew more of the pathogens (such as E. coli) that are often responsible for food poisoning.

The presence of E. coli in the study findings raised further questions about hygiene practices, including hand-washing, during food preparation. E. coli is a normal microbe that lives in the intestines of healthy humans and animals, and vast amounts are released in human feces.

Kitchen towels used while preparing such foods as raw meat or chicken were also identified as a possible source of contamination that could cause food poisoning. Families with children and elderly adults—both of whom are more susceptible to food poisoning than healthy adults—should be especially vigilant when it comes to safe and hygienic food prep.

For more advice on keeping your kitchen safe, the US Department of Agriculture recommends the following steps…

Clean. Wash hands (with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after handling food) and surfaces often.

Separate. Don’t cross-contaminate. Keep raw meat, poultry, fish and their juices away from other foods. After cutting raw meats, wash the cutting board, utensils and countertops with hot, soapy water. To sanitize cutting boards, utensils and countertops, use a solution of one tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in one gallon of water.

Cook. Be sure to thoroughly cook meat to the right temperature. Raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops and roasts should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 145ºF, as measured with a food thermometer. Ground beef, pork, lamb and veal should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160ºF, and poultry, 165ºF.

Chill. Refrigerate promptly. Perishable food should be refrigerated within two hours…or within one hour when the temperature is above 90ºF.

If you do come down with food poisoning, read here for advice on how to bounce back as quickly as possible.

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