When was the last time you cleaned your refrigerator crisper or meat drawer or washed your can opener?
If it's been a while, you might want to clean up your act - or at least your kitchen.
A public health and safety organization called NSF International found potentially harmful microorganisms such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria on kitchen items that are often used for food preparation or storage.
Salmonella, listeria and some types of E. coli are among the many causes of foodborne illnesses, which sicken about 48 million Americans a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The infections can range from mild to life-threatening but often are written off by people as brief stomach bugs.
"For a normal, healthy person, these things might not affect them that much," said Lisa Yakas, a senior project manager for NSF International, which does product testing and certification.
But certain kinds of people, such as the elderly, pregnant women, children, and individuals with compromised immune systems, may be more seriously impacted.
"Those types of people could all be in our homes, and they are the most susceptible to these organisms, so we just want to bring this to light, make these areas known, so that people can start cleaning these areas."
NSF International conducted a household germ study, using 20 Michigan families that volunteered to swab items in their kitchen and submit samples to be analyzed for NSF's 2013 Household Germ Study.
Some of the germiest areas, in terms of having microorganisms that could make you sick, included the vegetable and meat compartments of the refrigerator, rubber spatula, blender gasket, can opener and food storage container with rubber seal, according to NSF.
Some of the "bugs" that were found are less concerning than others. For example, yeasts and molds don't tend to "make people sick like normal pathogens, but if you are allergic ... then sometimes these yeasts and molds can affect you," Yakas said.
Common symptoms of foodborne illnesses caused by pathogens, such as salmonella and listeria, include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Serious cases can lead to hospitalization and major complications, such as kidney failure and miscarriages, depending on the culprit.
Annually, about one in six Americans gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases, according to the CDC.
University of Kentucky meat scientist Gregg Rentfrow said people should take practical steps to keep themselves safe, such as thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables before eating them, thoroughly cooking meats and cleaning up drippings from chicken and other meats.
"Just use common sense," said Rentfrow, an associate extension professor and extension meat specialist in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. "If you handle everything like you know it's contaminated, you'll be OK."
Rentfrow said the NSF's findings weren't surprising, though "it is kind of concerning when folks don't realize that (you) need to clean out your vegetable container and your meat container and stuff like that, especially if you're thawing out meat inside that meat container and the purge gets onto the actual refrigerator itself."
Twenty-one percent of U.S. outbreaks of foodborne illness with a known single setting resulted from food consumed in a private home, compared with 48 percent that stemmed from food eaten in a restaurant or deli, according to CDC stats for 2009-10.
At home, it's important to pay attention to manufacturers' instructions for cleaning products that come in contact with food and to get on a regular cleaning schedule, Yakas said.
Tools, such as blenders, can openers, rubber spatulas and food-storage containers, should be cleaned "after every use, whereas the vegetable bins and things like that ... can be more on a monthly routine," Yakas said.
Her group recommends doing some extra work that you might not normally think about, such as disassembling the blender to clean its various parts, separating two-piece spatulas for cleaning and paying special attention to the area around the seals of containers that have rubber seals when cleaning.
Also, "if you see a spill or drippage, clean that stuff up right away," Yakas said. And "make sure that your hands are clean and make sure that your food surfaces are clean."
In kitchens, germs can be transferred from one food to another by using the same cutting board or utensils to prepare things without washing them in between, according to the CDC.
For example, Rentfrow said some people put their hamburgers and bratwursts on a cutting board to carry them out to the grill, then start cutting vegetables on that same board without cleaning it thoroughly with hot, soapy water.
Another problem is failing to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, he said. By letting them sit out at room temperature for long periods, you provide an opportunity for germs to grow. "Now you're going to get yourself sick," Rentfrow said.
Top six cleaning tips to get rid of kitchen germs
Refrigerator vegetable compartment: Remove the drawer from the refrigerator if possible. Use a clean sponge or soft cloth and wash the bin with a mild detergent mixed with warm water. Rinse with tap water and wipe dry with a clean towel. To help control odors, use warm water mixed with a baking soda solution (about 1-2 tablespoons of baking soda to 1 quart of water). Rinse and wipe dry. Clean monthly.
Refrigerator meat compartment: Remove the compartment/drawer from the refrigerator if possible. Use a clean sponge or soft cloth and wash the bin with a mild detergent mixed with warm water. Rinse with tap water and wipe dry with a clean towel. To help control odors, use warm water mixed with a baking soda solution (about 1-2 tablespoons of baking soda to 1 quart of water). Rinse and wipe dry. Clean monthly and whenever you see any spilled meat juices.
Blender gaskets: Unplug the blender and remove the blender jar from the base. Completely disassemble the jar, removing the blade and gasket at the bottom. If dishwasher safe, place all pieces in the dishwasher after each use. If hand washing, wash the gasket, blade assembly, jar and lid thoroughly in hot soapy water, rinse and dry before re-assembling. Perform this cleaning procedure after each use.
Can opener: Place the can opener in the dishwasher after each use (if dishwasher safe). If hand washing, wash the can opener in hot soapy water, rinsing thoroughly with clean tap water before air drying after each use. If hand washing, pay special attention to the area around the cutting blades to be sure all food residue is removed.
Rubber spatula: For two-piece spatulas, it's important to separate the handle from the spatula portion and, if dishwasher safe, place both sections in the dishwasher after each use. If hand washing, wash in hot soapy water, rinsing thoroughly with clean water. For one-piece spatulas, if dishwasher safe, place in the dishwasher after each use. Otherwise, hand wash thoroughly in hot soapy water, paying special attention to the area where the handle joins the spatula. Rinse thoroughly and dry.
Food storage container with rubber seal: If dishwasher safe, place both the container and the lid in the dishwasher and wash after each use. If hand washing, wash both the container and lid in hot soapy water, paying special attention to the area around the seal as well as any grooves where the cover attaches to the container. Rinse thoroughly and allow to air dry.
Source: NSF International
Darla Carter, (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal