Re: Cutting boards color-code
From: Kay Argyle (
Date: Tue, 25 Jan 2000 17:15:12 -0700 (MST)
> Assuming proper sanitizing and washing procedures, is there any
> basis for thinking that using dedicated cutting boards ... actually does
> for health, sanitation, food purity, or whatever?

I haven't seen a study on the effect of using multiple boards.

My observation is that, in dealing with amateur cooks, "assuming proper
sanitizing and washing procedures" is a big assumption.

I regard dedicated cutting boards as (1) a minor provision of ritual purity
for vegetarians and (2) a hedge against inevitable lapses, whereby a
greater number of clean, dry boards (desiccation also discourages bacteria)
used for meal preparation increases the odds that any given food will be
cut on an uncontaminated board; in particular, keeping bacteria from raw
meat (frequently cut before cooking but not always after) away from veggies
(frequently eaten raw).

Given (a) the increasing incidence of hostile microbiota on veggies, (b)
the fact that meat is indeed sometimes cut after cooking as well as before,
and (c) a basic goal of cutting board cleanliness being to prevent
recontamination of cooked food, it might make more sense to have dedicated
boards for raw food vs. cooked food.

Part of ergonomics is making use of the reasons people do things.
Successful design does not expect people to be rational at all times and
takes account of motivation.  Some people will switch to a clean board to
honor someone else's ritual purity rules, even if they themselves don't
believe in them, but will pooh-pooh the risk of food poisoning -- it can't
be that big a risk, after all, _I've_ never died of it ;).  However, even
if they are changing to a clean cutting board for reasons that have nothing
to do with food safety, their action nonetheless lowers (or at least common
sense says it ought to) the risk of food poisoning.

> If there is such scientific evidence, how do you keep your knives
> for each purpose?

Thanks for raising that question, I'd never thought of it before.  In all
the public education on food safety with cutting boards, they don't mention

Multiple specialized knives (chef's knife, carver, paring knife etc.) would
achieve the same effect as multiple cutting boards.  In addition, because
most of my knives are carbon steel and corrode if they aren't kept clean, I
wash my blade as soon as I finish cutting something.  Here again,
sanitation is an inadvertent -- but useful -- byproduct.

> (Is all of this directly descended from Jewish kitchen practice?  Milchig
> and flayshig, etc.?)

Not for me.  No exposure to kosher practices.  Can't answer for others.

> When you cut on a wooden board, you're making grooves in the wood
> (sometimes deep ones) that bugs and bacteria can live in quite happily.

This is just as true of plastic boards.  My plastic board collects gunk in
the scratches that is next to impossible to get clean.  Unless of course
you use the hard plastic (acrylic?) that knives skitter and bounce off of. 
Personally those frighten me; I have a scarred, half-numb finger reminding
me of the damage a knife can do when it slips.  I feel safer with a board
that has a soft surface that catches the knife edge and holds it at the end
of the down stroke. has the Science News
article on wooden vs. plastic cutting boards.

The two sites that Maggie Rohde gave the addresses for (thank you)
contradict each other.  Food Safety & Inspection, USDA, cites studies that
found plastic was safer, National Food Safety Datebase cites studies that
found wood was.  I don't feel I have the expertise to evaluate the design
of the original studies; I suspect they are looking at the problem from
different angles, and plastic and wood might each have strengths the other
doesn't.  The one thing every one seems to agree on is to CLEAN YOUR

A traditional method of sanitizing wooden butcher blocks was to pour salt
on them. Salt kills bacteria by osmosis.  I don't know if this method is
still acceptable to health departments, but I saw it being done as recently
as fifteen years ago in the butcher department of a small grocery store
here in Salt Lake.  (again, Science News)
discusses a chlorine-free sterilization method using peroxide and vinegar.

> I can count on the fingers of one hand, the times I
> have been throw-up/intestinally ill where I could not specifically blame
> flu virus going around, or something I ate that I disagreed with. 

I'm not sure what Mr. Sandelin meant by "disagreed with" where he
apparently is certain that it was _not_ food poisoning.  Food allergy? Acid
reflux, diverticulosis, lactose intolerance, bait shyness, gallstones, anal
leakage associated with high fat content?

Unless it is the same food, predictably, every time you have a problem,
suspect food poisoning.  Sometimes even if it is the same food, suspect
food poisoning.

In any case, the ability of a healthy individual to withstand something
(sometimes with no effects) does not indicate it is safe.  Standards must
protect the vulnerable members of society -- babies, elderly, sick people. 

Our culture shuffles blame off.  If an asthmatic's death is 50% asthma and
50% air pollution, we say it was asthma, even though with cleaner air the
person would still be alive.  We send a message that only the healthy are
worth protecting.

In addition, cooking for other people is different than cooking for
yourself.  I shouldn't make a choice from which I get the rewards (e.g.,
less work) and someone else takes the risks.

New food poisoning estimates:

"While all of this makes tallying the incidence of food poisoning quite
challenging, it hasn't stopped Uncle Sam from trying. Last month, Paul S.
Mead and his colleagues at the federal Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention offered up their latest estimate in a 19-page report. Published
in the September-October issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, it
concludes that some 76 million U.S. residents develop foodborne illness
each year.

"That incidence rate would indicate that on average more than one in four
people eat sickening food each year. The data also indicate that an
estimated 325,000 require hospitalization?and almost 5,200 die?because of
foodborne illness."

-- Science News, (January 22,

Kay Argyle
Wasatch Commons

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