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What's Lurking in Your Refrigerator Drawers?


Which of your kitchen appliances or utensils has the most germs?

It's not, as most people in a new survey guessed, the keypad on the microwave. Or even that gunky can opener, the second most common answer.

In terms of the pathogens that could really make you ill - E. coli, salmonella and listeria - the top three offenders were the refrigerator meat and vegetable drawers, followed by the blender gasket - that floppy ring that fits around the appliance's blades and which, apparently, rarely gets washed.

The survey was conducted this year by microbiologists with NSF International, a nonprofit public health and safety organization.

The scientists asked 20 volunteer Michigan families to swab each of 14 common kitchen items in their homes: the blender gasket, can opener, flatware storage tray, food storage container with a rubber seal, knife block, microwave keypad, pizza cutter, rubber spatula, strainer, and the refrigerator's insulating seal, ice and water dispensers, and meat and vegetable drawers.

The scientists then analyzed the swabs for four types of microorganisms typically linked to foodborne illness - E. coli, yeast, mold, salmonella and listeria.  What surprised the researchers was how many of the items were contaminated, including with the worst types of pathogens.

"We were surprised to find salmonella, E. coli and listeria on common kitchen items and appliances that are used daily," Lisa Yakas, a microbiologist with NSF, tells AARP. Obviously, she adds, "germs gather in places we don't think about cleaning as often as we should."

Among the survey's findings:

  • E. coli was found on 25 percent of items, including the refrigerator meat compartment, the blender gasket, can opener and rubber spatula.
  • Salmonella was found on 25 percent, including the refrigerator meat and veggie compartments, can opener and blender gasket.
  • Yeast and mold was found on all 14 items.
  • Listeria, which can cause a serious infection, was found in the refrigerator vegetable compartment and the fridge's rubber door seal.

Every year, one in six Americans gets sick from a foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 21 percent of these outbreaks are caused by food consumed at home. Those at most risk include older adults, those with weakened immune systems and pregnant women.


What can you do? Remember that germs develop most rapidly in dark, moist environments (like the refrigerator), on items that are rarely cleaned (the gasket or can opener, for example), and on utensils that come into direct contact with food. Surfaces that are rough or have cracks or crevices also more easily harbor germs, Yakas says.

Because refrigerator drawers were found to be the most common sources of bacteria, NSF scientists suggest washing them monthly with a mild detergent mixed with warm water, and then drying them completely.

Also, immediately clean up any raw juices in the meat drawer. In the vegetable compartment, don't store washed and unwashed produce together.

For more cleaning tips from NSF International, click here.


Photos: Refrigerator: Istockphoto; can opener,  Dinner Series /flickr

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