XXXIV: Mythbust Monday — Cutlery Contamination

We’ve all heard our fair share of cooking myths, so here’s one that might sound pretty familiar: never cut raw meat on a wooden cutting board, because you will end up with salmonella of some other nasty germ thing.

The whole premise is that wooden cutting boards can’t go through the dishwasher, and washing them by hand, you can’t use extremely hot water or sanitize them as effectively as a machine can. Not only that, but wooden cutting boards (like all cutting boards) end up with little nicks in them when you use sharp knives. Unlike plastic cutting boards, wooden ones have grains, and those little nicks break the protective coating on the board and allow all those funky meat juices to soak down into the very absorbent wood grains. Since you can’t put a wooden cutting board in the dishwasher, you can’t sanitize out those salmonella-ridden grains with chemicals, so they stay in there, waiting to swarm the next unsuspecting food item you try to cut. Plastic boards, on the other hand, don’t have grains for the meat liquid to soak into, and they can get fully sanitized in all sorts of lovely hot water and chemicals and such to oust any stowaway germs, so you’ll be clean and safe next time you use that cutting board for an innocent carrot.

Surprise, surprise, it isn’t true (and considering that this is call “Mythbust Monday” rather than “Myth-prove Monday, that really shouldn’t be terribly surprising).

Dean O. Cliver, PhD, of the University of California-Davis Food Safety Laboratory has conducted some experiments to put all our minds (and tummies) at ease. He basically took 4 different plastic polymers and 10 different types of wooden, made a few little nicks in them, and smeared them with salmonella, staph, and E. coli. He found that although the bacteria did seep into the wood, they did not multiply and eventually died out. The only was to extract them alive was split the cutting board open or blast it with jets of water so strong that the water penetrated all the way through the wood. After each surface was washed by hand, there were actually slightly higher quantities of live bacteria removed from the plastic boards than the wooden ones, perhaps because the knives did much greater damage and made deeper cuts in the plastic boards than the wooden ones.

So which cutting board is better — plastic or wood? Neither, really. Anti-bacterial properties (or lack thereof) are really not a good reason at all to buy — or not buy — a certain kind of cutting board. Just pick one you like, people.

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