Food Safety

What is the Best Way to Store Utensils to Prevent Cross-Contamination?

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Trust20 Contributors • 8 minute read

Are you tired of losing utensils in a vast sea of kitchen clutter? Want a better way to make sure your customers’ food stays safe?

You may be thinking, “What’s the big deal? It’s just cutlery and cooking equipment. Throw them in a storage container and call it good enough.

However, food safety often comes down to the tiniest details–and correctly storing utensils is essential for keeping everyone safe, healthy, and well-fed.

Let’s look at the importance of correctly storing utensils for food safety and how you can immediately improve your operations in this critical area.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

The Importance of Proper Utensil Storage

How Should Utensils Be Stored?

The Importance of Proper Utensil Storage

We all know that food safety is a top priority, but did you know that proper utensil storage can play a big role in keeping your customers safe? Let's examine why utensil storage matters and how it can impact food safety.

The biggest issue? Cross-contamination.

This sneaky problem can happen when one food item spreads bacteria to another. It can happen in all kinds of ways, but one of the most common is via utensils.

For example, if you use the same cutting board and knife to chop up raw chicken and then prepare a salad, any bacteria from the chicken can easily transfer to the veggies.

And if you’re storing utensils improperly, like in a crowded and disorganized drawer, you're increasing the likelihood of cross-contamination. Think of it this way: if you're digging through a jumbled mess of utensils, you're more likely to accidentally touch a contaminated tool and then use it on a new food item.

Not only that, but improperly stored utensils are more likely to injure team members or customers. If you’re fumbling around trying to find a whisk and stab yourself with an errant kitchen knife, that will not only be “not fun,” but it may also mean time away from work and a less efficient kitchen. 

How Should Utensils Be Stored?

If you've ever struggled to find a specific utensil during a busy shift, then you know how important it is to have an organized storage system. It’s also, again, a matter of food safety.

Let’s take a closer look at how you can keep everyone safe.

Make Sure They’re Held Clean and Dry

According to food codes, you should always ensure you hold utensils in a clean and dry state between each use.1 What exactly does that mean?

To start, utensils should never be left soaking in standing water or left unwashed for an extended period of time. This practice can cause bacteria to grow and spread, leading to potential health hazards. Instead, always wash utensils immediately after use with hot, soapy water, leaving them to air dry thoroughly before storage.

But what if you’re talking about utensils that need to be in constant use (like ice cream scoops or spatulas)? If you have a refrigerated unit, keep your utensils in there at a temperature of 4°C/41°F or less (meeting the same temperature requirement for storing TCS foods) for no longer than 24 hours.1 This will keep them cool and prevent harmful bacteria from multiplying.

If you don't have access to a fridge, you can also store those constant-use utensils in a container of hot water maintained at 60°C/135°F or higher for up to 24 hours. Change the water every four hours to prevent it from cooling down.

Another option is to use a dipper well with continuous running water, ideally at a temperature of at least 140°F. That will help to constantly wash and sanitize these utensils without needing constant manual washing. They will need to be swapped out eventually (more on this below), but it will get you by safely until that time arrives.

Clean and Sanitize Properly When There’s a Risk of Cross Contamination or Max Time is Reached

As we already covered, cross-contamination is one of the most significant risks to food safety. Transferring harmful bacteria from raw foods to cooked foods or ready-to-eat foods is a recipe for disaster.

Whenever there’s a risk of cross-contamination, wash your utensils.2 Wash them thoroughly in hot, soapy water after each use and before switching tasks, paying special attention to any areas with hard-to-reach nooks and crannies, like the bends in tongs or scissors.

Washing and sanitizing should also be done whenever your utensils reach the maximum use time. Usually, that will be around four hours or at meal change. A good rule of thumb is to clean and sanitize after breakfast, lunch, and dinner to ensure you stay ahead of any danger. 

Keep a Sanitizer Cloth Handy

Even with proper cleaning, utensils can still develop nasty build-up over time. Bits of food or bacteria can hide in tiny crevices or on the surface of your utensils, creating the perfect breeding ground for pathogens.

That's where the sanitizer cloth comes in. By wiping down your utensils between uses, you can help remove any build-up lurking around. This way, you'll have a fresh, clean surface to work with the next time you grab that spatula or whisk.

Of course, using a sanitizer cloth should never replace your regular sanitizing and cleaning routine. You still need to properly wash, rinse, sanitize, and dry your utensils after each use to ensure they're safe. But by incorporating this extra step into your routine, you can help reduce the risk of foodborne illness and keep your kitchen running smoothly.

Don’t Store Directly in Sanitizer

You might think you’re being ultra-vigilant, but when you store utensils directly in the sanitizer, any food debris clinging to them can inactivate the sanitizer, rendering it ineffective. And if you're not following the proper wash, rinse, sanitize, and air dry process, you're not doing all you can to keep germs at bay.

So what's the solution? Make sure you're following all the steps of the sanitizing process correctly–and when it comes to storage, keep those utensils in a designated, dry area. This practice is better for your utensils, better for your food, and better for everyone's health in the long run.

…or in Ice Water

Let’s not forget about the classic ice water bath, either. It may keep your tools cool (seemingly clean), but it also comes with risks.

The heat of your kitchen can cause the ice to melt quickly, leading to a pool of water mixed with food debris. That will deactivate the sanitizer and create a breeding ground for bacteria. 

Make Sure You Have the Proper Number of Utensils

You may hear from your local health inspector or read in various state or municipal food codes that you need a “sufficient” number of utensils. Rarely do these regulations specify what constitutes “sufficient.” 

In most cases, there’s no specific number of how many you need to get by, but you do need to ensure you have enough to get through the busiest rush without running the dishwasher.

The proper number of utensils not only helps improve efficiency in the kitchen but also makes sure you're adhering to food codes and keeping everyone safe.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to how many you should have ready to go, make sure you have a stockpile that’s substantial enough to get you through those busy times. Furthermore, store them in an accessible area that keeps the stockpile clean and safe. 

Color Code Your Utensils

By assigning specific colors to your utensils, you can easily differentiate which ones you should use for raw, cooked, and ready-to-eat foods. For example, you could use red for raw meat and green for salads.

Once more, we’ll reiterate that cross-contamination can occur when bacteria from one food source is transferred to another. This cross-contamination can lead to foodborne illnesses and unhappy customers. Using color-coded utensils can drastically reduce this risk and keep your kitchen running smoothly.

Make Sure Your Utensil Has a Handle

Always make sure your utensil has a handle. Avoid using makeshift utensils like ramekins or other random items. These can introduce harmful bacteria to your food and cross-contaminate surfaces (and, let’s face it, they’re just not efficient). Only use tools for their intended purpose!

Check Utensils Before Use

Be sure to check your utensils before use. Inspect them for any damages or signs of wear and tear.

Chipped or ragged edges of metal spatulas, cracks or breaks in plastic ice scoops, splinters or chips on wooden knife handles, wooden cutting boards with deep grooves and potential loose wood debris, and fraying edges of plastic spatulas are all things you'll want to look for.

Not only are they unsightly and more likely to injure you, but damaged utensils can increase the likelihood of contamination because bacteria can hide in the damaged areas and be very difficult to clean.

Make Sure Utensils Are Air-Dried or Stored in a Self-Draining Position

Once you’ve vetted your utensils for any damage, air dry them or store them in a self-draining position, such as upside-down.3 This will help prevent pooling water or moisture that could lead to bacterial growth.

Sanitize After Every Meal Shift

As mentioned earlier, a good rule of thumb is to wash and sanitize your utensils after every meal shift (or every four hours). This practice will guarantee that you remove any potential bacteria or pathogens from the utensils, giving your customers a safe dining experience and your kitchen a much-needed reset after a busy food prep and service period.

Keep the Kitchen Organized

While good kitchen organization might seem like a luxury, the reality is that it’s more of a necessity. You don’t need to completely Marie Kondo the place, but you should take a few simple measures to make sure everything is in its rightful place and ways to find it.

For example, invest in proper knife storage (like magnetic knife strips) and efficient shelving units.4 Color code and label everything you can, and avoid storing utensils in (or near) entryways, bathrooms, or other spots that might be prone to contamination. Always make sure single service utensils, like straws and cutlery, are stored in closed containers to prevent cross-contamination.5

Again, you don’t need to be completely over-the-top with this but develop a system that works for your kitchen and ensure you communicate the plan to everyone on the team. 

Final Thoughts

These might seem like small details, but it pays to sweat the small stuff in a world where foodborne illnesses are all too common.

By implementing these best practices and investing in quality storage solutions, you can rest easy knowing you’re doing your part to prevent contamination.

But don’t stop there! Did you know that Trust20 offers products tailored specifically to the foodservice industry? We’re here to help you elevate your business, improve its standards, keep customers safe, and, of course, stay a cut above the rest.

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  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration: 2022 Food Code
  2. Steritech: In-Use Utensils
  3. Montana Department of Health and Human Services: Food Equipment and Utensils: Storage and Handling
  4. Wasserstrom: 6 Ways To Tidy Up Your Commercial Kitchen
  5. Cabell Health: Equipment and Utensil Storage