I’m in the middle of taking a ServSafe class, since my food manager’s certification has lapsed. (Test is tomorrow — wish me luck!) To that end, I thought it’d be a good idea to relay to you folks the basics that you can easily do to ensure better food safety at home.

There’s a lot to say about food safety, so I’m going to break it down into manageable chunks and just hit one point per post. There will be further Food Safety 101 posts as we go along.

Today’s topic is:

Wash your hands.

And rinsing doesn’t cut it. You need to use soap and scrub up. Why? Because it’s not the water that gets rid of the bacteria and viruses. It’s actually the slipperiness of the soap and the rubbing motion that dislodges the contaminants from your hands.

There are a handful of causes of food-borne illness, but the single most common is dirty hands. Viruses and bacteria easily travel from your hands to your cutting surface, to your tools, and to your food. Cooking kills some of them, but not all of them, and it doesn’t eliminate any toxins the bacteria might produce. So your best bet is to try to prevent their presence in the first place.

You should wash your hands:

Before you start to cook

If there is anything on your hands from previous activities, it can be transferred to the food. Consider all the things you might do in a day: clean up after your dog, change your baby’s diaper, work on your car, work in your garden, clean your house, work out — just to name a few. Now consider that anything you’ve come in contact with could be getting in your food. Not really a pleasant thought, is it?

Any time you change tasks

Most frequently, this will be when you’re changing from working on one type of food to another. Say you’re making a stir-fry — you should wash your hands after you cut the produce, before and after you handle whatever meat is going into your stir-fry, and after you handle the rice or noodles or whatever you’re serving it with. If some of your produce is particularly messy, you may want to wash up and clean up your cutting board after working with it and before switching to new produce.

However, it’s also important to wash up if you’re switching from cooking to setting the table, or sweeping up a mess, or any other number of tasks. The important part is that you don’t want the food (and its accompanying contaminants) getting all over your kitchen.

Before and after handling raw meat

Raw meat, whether it’s poultry, red meat, or fish, is one of the biggest contamination hazards in your kitchen. It provides an ideal surface for bacteria to grow on. It’s pretty obvious why you want to wash up after you handle raw meat — you’ve got meat juices on your hands, knife, cutting board, whatever you’ve used. If you leave it be, it’ll get spread around and potentially get onto food that you’re not planning to cook. Not tasty.

Why wash before handling raw meat? You’re just going to cook it anyway, right? Well, because raw meat is an ideal surface for bacterial growth, and by limiting the number of bacteria it comes in contact with, you limit the potential danger.

After you touch anything that is potentially contaminated

Used cutting boards, used utensils and knives, the paper your meat came wrapped in, your trash can, dirty plates and glasses … you get the idea. The idea here is to prevent any contamination from used or dirty items from getting on your fresh food. Remember to wash your hands after you take out the trash, too.

After you go to the bathroom

This is a big duh, right? Didn’t your mom always tell you to wash up after using the bathroom? Well, she had a good reason, aside from the sheer grossness factor. Human feces is a transmitter of E. coli, hepatitis A, norovirus, and other diseases. And yes, you can give people E. coli even if you don’t have a case of it yourself — E. coli bacteria occur normally in the human digestive system. It’s when they escape the intestines and find their way into other parts of the body that they start causing problems.

In other words: please don’t feed people your poop because you didn’t wash your hands. Not only is it disgusting, it’s just plain unsafe.

After you touch your face, hair, or skin, and after you sneeze or cough

The sneezing and coughing thing is pretty obvious — you don’t want to transmit a virus you might have. What about touching your skin and hair?

Did you know that 30% of all humans are carriers — that means they’re totally unaffected by, but still are carrying — staphylococcus bacteria? Yeah. Staph is carried in your nose, in your throat, and on your skin. And like any other bacteria, it can be easily transmitted to food by touching it. Staph is a nasty, nasty disease and you do not want it. (By the way, if you regularly use sporting gear, like shin guards or chest protectors, you’re also putting staph on it. Get your gear cleaned!)

After you’ve handled any chemicals

Dishwasher detergent and dish soap are not things you want in your food, even if you are using biodegradable ones. Not tasty, right? Bleah. This goes double for things like oven cleaner and ant poison.
When you’re done cooking and before you eat

You’ve just made a fabulous dinner, right? Chicken, salad, rolls … the last thing you want to do is put a raw-chickeny hand on that dinner roll. Your hands might very well come into contact with your food while you’re cooking it, and it might not be totally done. Best to be safe.