The need for a consciousness with respect to domestic kitchen hygiene in India is conspicuous by its absence. While a simple Google search on studies on kitchen hygiene practices throws up several hits in the West, just a handful of such studies based on findings in developing countries, including India, show up. Says N. Anandavally, a consultant with the World Health Organization, and managing director of Food Safety Solutions International, Kochi, “There is no true data, not even a risk assessment and public health intervention (in India). One thing I can say, food poisoning and foodborne diseases are on a rise.” And poor kitchen hygiene plays a role in this increase. But given the paucity of relevant research in the country, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how big a role.
And therein lies the problem.
Among the few studies available on hygiene in India, the 2010 Hygiene Home Truths study by the UK-based Hygiene Council, an initiative supported by household, health and personal care solutions company Reckitt Benckiser, posts some alarming figures. The study, which collated data from 180 homes in nine countries, says India had the most contaminated kitchen towels, with at least 35% of towels heavily contaminated and 40% unsatisfactory. Forty per cent of all samples were also found to be heavily contaminated with bacterium E. coli. At least two-thirds (70%) of refrigerators in India were marked unsatisfactory for bacteria, that is, they were a breeding ground for bacteria, with 10% fridges testing positive for the presence of E. coli. But the most alarming finding is probably the attitude. The study says: Despite poor results in India and half (50%) of the samples being unsatisfactory, 90% of households felt that the cleanliness in their homes was spotless or satisfactory.
According to the study Food Safety and Foodborne Disease in 21st Century Homes, published in The Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases and Medical Microbiology in 2003, “The incidence of foodborne disease is increasing globally. Although foodborne disease data collection systems often miss the mass of home-based outbreaks of sporadic infection, it is now accepted that many cases of foodborne illness occur as a result of improper food handling and preparation by consumers in their own kitchens.”
Agreeing with this point of view, Glenn Eastman, executive chef at The Leela Palace, New Delhi, says: “People are just lazy” in India. They sometimes forget the most basic of things, such as “the need to cover food, how to handle silverware, like they end up holding the spoon end instead of the handle…and that leads to cross-contamination”.
Amit Wadhawan, executive chef at The Oberoi, Bangalore, says that the most common points of error in a kitchen are “wipes left to dry off in the kitchen and then reused, open garbage bins, (not) disposing garbage on a daily basis”. In fact, if food is not properly stored, it can breed bacteria. According to previous studies by the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Given warm moist conditions and an ample supply of nutrients, one bacterium that reproduces by dividing itself every half hour can produce 17 million progeny in 12 hours. As a result, lightly contaminated food left out overnight can be highly infectious by the next day. If the food were refrigerated promptly, the bacteria would not multiply at all.”
Spick and span: Always clean the kitchen counter before you start cooking.
So, even if you’re washing your hands regularly and think you’ve got it all under control, here are some tips, with inputs from the chefs Eastman and Wadhawan, to ensure your love affair with food continues without any bumps.
• Wash your hands regularly. This can’t be stressed often enough. Each time you step out of the kitchen, or shift from meat to vegetables, or unwashed food to cooked food—wash your hands.
• Disinfect all vegetables before cooking them. You can rinse them in a mix of iodine and water (1 tbsp iodine with 1 litre water), or even salt and water. Iodine is an excellent water disinfectant and is great for eliminating bacteria and virus. Peel the vegetables next to the sink and rinse thoroughly before using.
• Damp dishcloths can harbour bacteria, so make sure you clean them often. Do not leave a dishcloth in a bundle next to the sink—instead, rinse it in hot water with a disinfectant, squeeze dry and leave to dry in the sun. This should be done daily. Alternate between two dishcloths so you have a dry one at hand when you need it. Ideally, replace a dishcloth every two weeks; washing with disinfectant is a distant second best alternative. You can even use disposable paper towels or tissue papers to wipe or dry down surfaces that have just been cleaned.
Take a chill pill
• While storing food in the fridge, keep the raw meat and fish in the bottom shelf, cooked meat or fish in the second shelf, and cooked vegetables on the top shelf. This is so that raw foods don’t drip on to the cooked food and contaminate them. Also, temperature is not evenly distributed in the fridge, so it is coldest at the top end with gradual reduction at the bottom. If the fish or meat is being stored with the intention of keeping it for a few days before cooking, then store in the freezer compartment. Here, too, they should be washed, segregated into airtight containers and then stored to avoid any kind of contamination or rotting. However, if the meat or fish is to be cooked immediately or later in the day, then it should be washed and stored in the fridge.
• Make sure you cool the cooked food to room temperature before keeping it in the fridge. This is to ensure that the heat from the hot food does not raise the temperature inside the fridge, thereby causing the other refrigerated food to warm up.
• Make sure you store the food in containers (preferably plastic containers) and properly seal them. This way, the food will not dry up and will retain its aroma and not permeate into other food items. Also, it will prevent cross-contamination from any of the raw or unwashed vegetables or fruits that might be kept in the fridge.
• Make sure the shelves and vegetable box in the fridge are clean, and pay special attention to the handle. Make a habit of wiping them with an odourless disinfectant solution or a home-made one of equal parts vinegar and water, or sodium bicarbonate and water, every two weeks. A strong-smelling disinfectant will linger in the fridge and can even taint the food. Regularly cleaning your fridge will also ensure that you get rid of the odd salad dressing bottle tucked away in the corner and way past its expiration date.
• Wipe your condiment bottles before putting them back in the fridge.
• Keep perishable items on the main shelves and not in the door shelves because the fridge loses some cooling each time you open the door. Food items on the door shelf tend to receive less cooling than those kept on the main shelves.
• For home-made spices, jams, sauces and other pastes, label the containers with the date of storage, otherwise you’ll end up guessing whether they are still good to use a few weeks, or even months, later.
• Extend the longevity of your fruits and vegetables by strategically placing them. For instance, keep the apples away from the other fruits, unless you want them to ripen fast.
• Cut off the leafy tops of root vegetables such as radishes and carrots, because they leak nutrients and moisture, which can spoil other vegetables. You can store these separately with the rest of the greens like spinach.
• Keep a check on the temperature in the fridge—the ideal temperature should be 4-6 degrees Celsius for the fridge, and minus 18-20 degrees Celsius for the freezer.
Counter tops and storage
• Make sure you clean the kitchen counter before you start cooking. This will remove any dust or germs that have settled on the counter during the night.
• Thoroughly clean your worktops after you have prepared food, especially if you have used raw meat, fish or unwashed vegetables. The rule of thumb should be: clean as you go. Any edible debris in the kitchen means danger of breeding bacteria and roaches/ants, etc. Also keep separate chopping boards and knives for meat and vegetables; this will reduce the chances of cross-contamination. In fact, wash the meat chopping board with warm/hot water to kill the bacteria. You can even have a red board for the meat and a green or white one for the vegetables.
• To keep the roaches and ants at bay, use chalks as a preventive method. If you must use a spray, then make sure you use it on the floor and not around the containers with food/raw materials in them.
• Keep dried red chillies in rice or bay leaf in rice or flour to keep away the bugs. Most important, keep your staples in an airtight, moisture-free environment. Although glass containers are great from a hygiene viewpoint, high-quality plastic containers or Tupperware is fine too.