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Wood cutting boards are safer than plastic

Question: Are plastic cutting boards safer than the old-fashioned wooden kind? And what about the new anti-bacterial cutting boards? Do they actually prevent the spread of germs such as salmonella and E. coli, as the ads say?

Answer: Although the Food and Drug Administration has long recommended plastic cutting boards, based on the observation that it is not as hard to clean plastic as porous wood, new information shows that wood cutting boards are actually safer than the plastic or so-called anti-bacterial kind.

About four years ago, it was discovered that it's easier to recover live bacteria from a plastic cutting board than from one made of wood _ this because through the capillary action of dry wood, germs quickly disappear beneath the surface of the board, leaving the exposed area free of microbes. In contrast, bacteria sit on the surface of the hard plastic cutting board, ready to attack the next food item. Also, hand scrubbing with hot water and soap can clear microbes from the surface of new or used wooden cutting boards and new plastic ones, but knife-scarred plastic boards are resistant to decontamination by hand washing.

This does not mean that you can trust wood cutting boards to completely decontaminate themselves or that plastic ones are worthless. Caution must be taken when using any type of cutting board. Here are some safety tips to keep in mind:

+ All cutting boards should be scrubbed thoroughly with hot water and soap or, if possible, run through the dishwasher to ensure that they are not contaminated.

+ All cutting boards, and other food surfaces, should be kept dry when not in use. Resident bacteria survive no more than a few hours without moisture.

+ A mild bleach solution will decontaminate plastic and other surfaces. But even at full strength, bleach does not sanitize wood cutting boards. The disinfectant quality of bleach is neutralized by the organic composition of wood.

+ A good procedure for disinfecting wood and plastic cutting boards, as well as other surfaces and utensils, is to spray them first with a mist of vinegar, then with a mist of hydrogen peroxide. This combo kills bacteria on meat and produce, too, without hurting the food.

+ Cooking a wood board at high heat in an 800-watt microwave oven for 10 minutes will kill germs on and below the surface of the wood. Microwaving does not, however, disinfect plastic boards because their surfaces never get hot enough to kill the germs.

Regarding anti-bacterial cutting boards: Save your money. They are not self-sanitizing. Last year, for instance, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered two companies to stop selling cutting boards that carried labels claiming they prevented the growth of food poisoning organisms, including salmonella and E. coli, and reduced the danger of bacterial contamination. These cutting boards had been treated by a pesticide that protects products from odor-causing bacteria but has not been shown to be effective against organisms that can cause disease. Anti-bacterial cutting board concerns are part of a larger EPA crackdown on so-called self-disinfecting brushes, sponges and toys. For now, beware of all anti-bacterial kitchen products.

End note: As many as 81-million cases of food-borne illnesses occur in the United States each year, and most of these gut-wrenching infections can be traced to the home kitchen. Any surface _ even stainless steel pans, knives, sinks, food-processor blades and mixing bowls _ can harbor nasty microbes. Fortunately, kitchen germs can usually be killed by a good scrubbing with hot water and soap, or a turn in the dishwasher, and by keeping all surfaces clean and dry.

Patrick J. Bird, dean of the College of Health and Human Performance, University of Florida, draws on a data base of more than 3,800 medical, health and fitness journals for preparing answers to questions in his column. Write with questions to Dr. Bird, College of Health and Human Performance, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.