Washing the dishes is a chore that over 90% of households do every day, but new research from Westinghouse reveals it comes with hidden health hazards. The Westinghouse Kitchen Hygiene Report showed the high levels of bacteria found on kitchen sponges were enough to make most people extremely sick thousands of times over.
Examining the habits of over 1000 Australians and conducting extensive laboratory testing the report showed just how easily bacteria can transfer to "freshly washed" dishes. The study was the first of its kind conducted in Australia and the results were alarming.
Over half the kitchen sponges tested were found to have very high levels of bacteria strains such as E.coli and Staphylococcus. E. coli bacteria can cause severe stomach cramps and diarrhoea, with some strains proving fatal. Staphylococcus aureus produce a toxin that induces vomiting and food poisoning.
According to leading food safety expert and microbiologist Craig Andrew-Kabilafkas from Australian Food Microbiology, one in five of the kitchen sponges tested had levels of contamination equivalent to that of a used band aid!
With so many toxin producing germs lurking in the kitchen, vigilance is paramount. The best way to safeguard your household from unnecessary bouts of illness is to ensure eating utensils and food preparation tools are kept as bacteria free as possible by washing them at a very high temperature.
Only a dishwasher can safely wash dishes at temperatures around or above 68 degrees which is needed to effectively kill 99% of bacteria. The hot water tap temperatures that most households use to hand wash dishes is simply not high enough to effectively clean the dishes. Even baby bottles and preserving jars can be effectively sterilised in the dishwasher when high temperatures are used.
The Westinghouse Kitchen Hygiene Report found 50% of Australian households wait until their dish cloth is obviously dirty or smelly before replacing it, and one in three households only change their kitchen sponge every few weeks or less often.
According to Craig, while kitchen sponges should be changed at least three times a week to reduce the health risks associated with bacterial transference, a dishwasher wins hands down in the hygiene stakes.
"Kitchen sponges, food residues and warm water create the perfect environment for pathogenic microbes to thrive. These can then transfer to tea towels and the whole manual process creates more food safety risks for the household."
While the research found people are twice as likely to change their tea towels over their kitchen dish cloth each week, 45% of Australians regularly use the tea towel to dry their hands and wipe down kitchen benches, with a further 25% admitting they only wash the tea towel when it gets really dirty.
"Don't compromise your health by thinking you'll save a bit of time by quickly washing up a cup or eating utensil with a dirty kitchen sponge. Also don't be fooled into thinking that ordinary dishwashing detergent is enough, as it won't kill the dangerous bacteria that quickly multiply in dirty washing up water," explains Craig.
Craig Andrew-Kabilafkas is a leading food and safety expert and microbiologist.
Question: What surprised you about the Westinghouse Kitchen Hygiene Report?
Craig Andrew-Kabilafkas: It was a surprise to find out how long some people keep their kitchen sponges. Many households only change their sponges every few weeks. When you know just how quickly bacteria can multiply in a used sponge, from one cells up to 16,000,000 cells overnight, then you realise how important it is to change sponges frequently.
Question: What can be found on the average kitchen cloth?
Craig Andrew-Kabilafkas: Dish cloths can harbour a whole host of bacteria. In my research for the Westinghouse Kitchen Hygiene Report we found Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli. Staphylococcus aureus produce a toxin that induces vomiting and food poisoning. E. coli bacteria can cause severe stomach cramps and diarrhoea, with some strains proving fatal.
Question: How often do we need to change our kitchen cloth to prevent disease and bacteria?
Craig Andrew-Kabilafkas: Kitchen sponges should be changed at least three times a week to reduce the health risks associated with growth and transfer of bacteria onto kitchen utensils. Kitchen sponges, food residues and warm water create the perfect environment for pathogenic microbes to thrive. These can then transfer to eating utensils and tea towels and the whole manual process creates more food safety risks for the household.
Question: How often do we need to change the kitchen tea towel?
Craig Andrew-Kabilafkas: If a kitchen tea towel is used solely for drying properly cleaned dishes, then it will likely remain useable for about a week.
Question: How important is it to not wipe our hands on the kitchen tea towel or use it to wipe down the benches?
Craig Andrew-Kabilafkas: By using the tea towel to wipe hands we are bringing germs from our hands, water and foods together. If we are also using the tea towel to wipe down benches we may be adding in more moisture and possibly food residues. It is most important that we do not then use the tea towel on food contact surfaces as we can transfer the germs onto them. Keep separate tea towels for drying food utensils and have separate towels (or even better use disposable paper towels) for cleaning.
Question: What is the best solution to the average kitchen sponge?
Craig Andrew-Kabilafkas: The kitchen sponge should be changed more frequently as it gathers and holds food residues with germs, so depending upon your usage, it should be changed several times each week.
Question: What do you suggest Australian households use instead of ordinary dishwashing detergent?
Craig Andrew-Kabilafkas: Some products on the market contain disinfectants, however these will be of limited benefit in washing dishes as the food residues work to neutralise the disinfectants. They are effective on clean kitchen benches where there is little food residue left after cleaning. A dishwasher will clean utensils at higher temperatures, over 68°C, so it will give a more hygienic treatment and better combat disease causing microbes that may be on the kitchen utensils.
Question How is best to wash our kitchen items and utensils?
Craig Andrew-Kabilafkas: With so many toxin producing germs lurking in the kitchen, vigilance is paramount. The best way to safeguard your household from unnecessary bouts of illness is to ensure eating utensils and food preparation tools are kept as bacteria free as possible by washing them at a very high temperature. Only a dishwasher can safely wash dishes at temperatures around or above 68°C which is needed to effectively kill 99% of bacteria.
Question Will doing this prevent diseases?
Craig Andrew-Kabilafkas: This will certainly help to reduce the risk, particularly to the very young, the very old and the immuno-compromised members of our families.
Interview by Brooke Hunter