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Food safety concerns bring an increase in anti-bacterial gadgest

Published Oct. 2, 2005

(ran SP, ST editions)

Someone, it seems, has to profit from the food-safety scare.

Just months after the government recalled 25-million pounds of tainted beef and after a barrage of reported food poisonings from fresh berries and other produce, the manufacturers of kitchen products are introducing utensils that promise germ-fighting protection for home cooks.

Farberware, for instance, plans to unveil next month about 50 kitchen items _ from cutting boards to potato peelers _ made with Microban, a chemical that retards the growth of bacteria and kills germs on its surface. In August, the 3M company released its Scotch Brite sponge with anti-bacterial protection (Microban is not used, and a company spokesman declined to divulge the substance involved).

Experts give the kitchen gadgets their qualified approval, saying they can't hurt and might even help consumers keep bacteria at bay. The problem is that whether or not there is bacteria on, say, a knife handle with an anti-bacterial agent is a moot point when there are so many potential sources of contamination in the kitchen. But anti-bacterials may provide some measure of protection and peace of mind.

"Bacteria and germs are certainly on the customers' minds," said Jeff Siegel, president of Lifetime Hoan, which owns the kitchen gadget division of Farberware. "We feel that we're giving the customer something better, and when you do things better than your competition, you win the battle."

The active ingredient in anti-bacterial products is triclosan, a chemical made by Ciba and used for more than 25 years in hospital hand soap. The Microban Co. of Huntersville, N.C., found a way to incorporate triclosan into plastic and fibers, making it usable in such items as plastic cutting boards, pastry brushes, rubber spatulas and mops. Johnson & Johnson is set to introduce a new Reach toothbrush with Microban. The substance has been used for years in pillows and carpeting to prevent odors caused by bacteria.

Makers of triclosan claim it inhibits the growth of, and eventually kills, bacteria with which it comes into contact.

It works, said Philip M. Tierno, the director of clinical microbiology at New York University Medical Center's Tisch Hospital in New York City. Tierno has tested toys containing triclosan, but not kitchen gadgets.

"Yes, this product is good," he said, cautioning that it should not take the place of hand washing to limit the potential spread of bacteria from one item to another. "Certainly in a perfect world we don't need this. But this is not a perfect world."

According to Tierno's tests, 99 percent of the bacteria left on a surface made with triclosan dies within two hours. Left alone, bacteria can double in 20 minutes; a hundred organisms can become a million in eight to 10 hours.

"The bottom line is, when you use (a cutting board without triclosan) and you get a fissure or a crack, it's just waiting for someone to come along with their knife and get it in their salad," Tierno said. "Cutting boards have been notoriously bad with regard to passing organisms."

In fact, cutting boards are one of the most logical applications for anti-bacterial technology. Tierno would like to see someone put Microban into doorknobs and telephones, too. ("There's no question this is where it can be used," he said. "I have found streptococcus on the mouthpiece of a telephone.")

At best, some food safety experts say, triclosan doesn't do any harm. The chemical has been tested for more than 25 years on animals and humans, and it appears to be safe and non-toxic and is found in anti-bacterial hand soaps now sold for use in the home.

It costs, at most, about $3 more for a cutting board made with Microban, said Siegel of Farberware. On average, he said, Farberware will charge an extra 40 cents for a gadget made with Microban. Farberware does not charge extra for knives with Microban, because the handle is an insignificant part of the cost of making a knife, he said.

Experts say there are plenty of ways to protect against germs in the kitchen without replacing utensils with new ones containing triclosan. Sponges, for example, can be wrung out and microwaved for 30 seconds. Dishwashers do a good job of killing germs because of the high temperatures used.