Food Safety

When and How to Clean and Sanitize Food Contact Surfaces

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Trust20 Contributors • 11 minute read

Cleaning and sanitizing food contact surfaces are essential practices in every kitchen–whether you’re running a five-star restaurant in the heart of New York City or a school cafeteria in rural Idaho.

Each year, foodborne illnesses affect approximately 48 million people in the United States alone.1 You and your kitchen don’t want to contribute to this statistic!

If you work in a restaurant, coffee shop, food truck, or any food establishment, knowing when and how to clean and sanitize food contact surfaces is necessary to help you maintain a clean, safe environment for your customers and fellow team members.

In this blog, we’ll cover:

What is a Food Contact Surface?

Why is it Important to Clean and Sanitize Food Contact Surfaces?

When Should You Clean and Sanitize Food Contact Surfaces?

How Do You Sanitize Food Contact Surfaces?

Tips for Maintaining Safe Food Contact Surfaces

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Sanitizing

What is a Food Contact Surface?

First things first, what exactly is a food contact surface? It is precisely what it sounds like–any surface that may come in direct contact with foods that humans will consume.

Common examples are utensils, cutting boards, plates, serving trays, counters, and tables. You should also consider microwaves or refrigerators as food contact surfaces, as food may drip, drain, or splash onto these surfaces.

The best food contact surfaces are crafted from food-grade materials that are smooth, non-absorbant, and easily cleanable. They must also hold up against various temperatures and withstand sanitizing chemicals.

Non-food contact surfaces like walls, ceilings, floors, and doorknobs exteriors still need regular cleaning. However, these surfaces do not need sanitizing–but you should consider creating a regular disinfecting schedule for non-food contact surfaces.

Why is it Important to Clean and Sanitize Food Contact Surfaces?

As foodservice professionals, we all know that cleanliness is next to godliness–especially when it comes to the cooking and serving of food. But have you ever really stopped to think about why cleaning and sanitizing food contact surfaces is so important? Let’s break it down.

First and foremost, it's all about preventing food contamination and those nasty (potentially deadly) foodborne illnesses. No one wants to be responsible for serving up a side dish of Salmonella or E. coli. Keeping all surfaces clean and sanitized can drastically reduce the risk of bacteria and other germs hanging out where they don't belong.

Believe it or not, these germs can thrive on surfaces for hours, even days, in some cases. That means anytime someone touches a surface–whether it's a cutting board, a countertop, or a utensil–they're leaving behind a whole host of bacteria and other microorganisms. However, regularly cleaning and sanitizing those surfaces can help kick those germs to the curb and keep our customers safe and healthy.

Of course, no conversation about cleaning and sanitizing would be complete without mentioning cross-contamination (when bacteria or other microorganisms are transferred from one surface, object, or food to another, often with a harmful effect). You can help prevent cross-contamination and protect your customers by always cleaning and sanitizing food contact surfaces properly.

When Should You Clean and Sanitize Food Contact Surfaces?

We’ll get to the “how” of sanitizing and cleaning food contact surfaces shortly, but since we’ve already discussed the “why,” let’s tackle another important piece of the puzzle: when you should clean and sanitize.

In general, there’s no such thing as too clean–but here are some instances in which you should always take the time to wipe things down. 

After Handling Raw Meat, Poultry, or Eggs

Raw meat, poultry, and eggs can contain harmful bacteria like Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter.

These bacteria can easily spread to other surfaces and cause foodborne illness. It's essential to clean and sanitize all surfaces that come into contact with raw meat, poultry, and eggs to prevent dangerous pathogens from spreading around your kitchen.

Before and After Preparing Different Types of Food

Again, cross-contamination is a common cause of foodborne illness. It occurs when bacteria from one food item are transferred to another through contact with a contaminated surface.

To prevent cross-contamination, you need to clean and sanitize all surfaces before and after preparing different types of food.

For example, if you have just finished preparing raw meat and want to start preparing vegetables, clean and sanitize the food contact surface to remove any lingering bacteria before you set the vegetables down.

After Handling Garbage or Cleaning Chemicals

Garbage and cleaning chemicals can also harbor harmful bacteria and other contaminants. If you handle either of these, it's important to wash your hands and clean and sanitize any surfaces that may have come into contact with them.

When Surfaces are Visibly Soiled or Contaminated

Finally, the obvious–cleaning and sanitizing food contact surfaces is essential when they are visibly soiled or contaminated. That can include spills, food debris, or any other type of contamination. Cleaning and sanitizing these surfaces will help prevent the spread of harmful bacteria and other contaminants.

How Do You Sanitize Food Contact Surfaces?

Next, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty. Here are some steps to take as you make cleaning and sanitizing part of your routine in the kitchen. 

Cleaning vs. Sanitizing: What’s the Difference?

While the terms are often used interchangeably, cleaning and sanitizing are not the same. They are different processes that are equally important in keeping your establishment safe and healthy (when implemented at different times and in different situations).

So, what is the difference?

Cleaning is the process of removing visible dirt, grime, and debris from surfaces. That might involve scrubbing counters, sweeping floors, wiping down equipment, etc. It's an important first step in any sanitation routine, as it helps eliminate anything that could harbor harmful bacteria or other pathogens.

On the other hand, sanitizing is the process of killing or reducing the number of pathogens on a surface to a safe level. That involves using chemicals or other methods (like heat) to sanitize surfaces, utensils, equipment, etc.

When done correctly, sanitizing can help to prevent the spread of illness in your establishment.

The key here is to use the method or chemical best suited for whatever pathogen you’re trying to destroy (for example, a bactericide kills a specific group of microorganisms, while an antiseptic is used against putrefaction or sepsis in humans or animals).2 

Using the Right Cleaning Products

Don't just grab any old cleaner off the shelf! You need something specifically designed to kill bacteria and other germs that could make your customers sick.

Look for products recommended for commercial kitchen use. And make sure you're following the manufacturer's instructions. Using too much cleaner or not letting it sit long enough can be counterproductive, leading to bacteria developing resistance.

Also, keep in mind that different surfaces require different cleaning methods. Some surfaces, like stainless steel, can withstand harsh chemicals more than others. And some, like wood, may need to be replaced if they become too damaged by chemical cleaning products. 

How to Clean Different Types of Surfaces

All cleaners are not created equal, nor are each type of surface.

First, let’s talk about cutting boards. Cutting boards can harbor all sorts of bacteria if not cleaned properly, so it's important to give them a thorough scrub-down after each use.

If you're working with raw meat or poultry, consider using separate cutting boards to avoid cross-contamination.

For plastic cutting boards, you can usually pop them in the dishwasher for a deep clean, but wooden cutting boards require a more hands-on approach. Scrub them with a mixture of hot water and vinegar, followed by a sprinkle of salt to help sanitize the surface.

The same rules generally apply to utensils. Make sure to wash them thoroughly in hot, soapy water, and consider using a brush to get into any nooks and crannies. If you're using a dishwasher, load utensils handle-side up for a thorough cleaning.

Now, on to countertops! These can be tricky since they come in all types of materials and finishes. For granite or other natural stone countertops, avoid using anything acidic like vinegar, as it can damage the surface. Instead, use soap and water or a specialized granite cleaner. A simple mixture of water and vinegar should do the trick for laminate or solid surface countertops or plastic workspaces.3

And finally, another word on sanitizing. While cleaning removes dirt and grime–and vinegar can help quite nicely with that–sanitizing is what kills any remaining bacteria that may be left behind.4

You should use a commercial sanitizer recommended for use in foodservice facilities. Be sure to wear gloves and follow the manufacturer's instructions for proper use and any applicable state or federal guidelines.5

Tips for Maintaining Safe Food Contact Surfaces

As foodservice professionals, we all know how important it is to maintain safe food contact surfaces. After all, it's not just a matter of following regulations and avoiding health code violations. It's about keeping our customers safe and providing them with the best possible experience.

Beyond the advice we’ve given you for cleaning and sanitizing food contact surfaces, as detailed above, here are a few more tips for maintaining safe food contact services.

Develop a Cleaning Routine

Establishing a routine is one of the most critical steps in maintaining safe food contact surfaces. That should involve cleaning and sanitizing all food contact surfaces, including cutting boards, utensils, and counters, at regular intervals throughout the day.

As part of this, you should also include a plan for regular inspection and maintenance of your kitchen equipment. That will help you identify defects or damage and correct them before they become major issues–helping all team members stay on track with the planned routine. 

Use Separate Cutting Boards and Utensils for Different Types of Foods

Another important tip to help maintain safe food contact surfaces is using separate cutting boards and utensils for different foods. That includes using a different board or knife for meat, fish, and vegetables and separate spoons or tongs for raw and cooked foods.

Keeping raw meat separate from other foods and utensils is particularly important. That will help prevent cross-contamination, which, as you know, can lead to foodborne illnesses.

Thoroughly Clean and Inspect Food Contact Surfaces Before and After Use

Take the time to thoroughly clean and inspect all food contact surfaces before and after use. That means scrubbing down cutting boards and utensils with warm, soapy water and a brush or scouring pad to remove any food particles or debris. Remember to pay attention to crevices or hard-to-reach areas where bacteria can thrive.

Look for any wear and tear that may cause chemicals or other physical hazards, like bits of plastic or wood splinters, to get into the food. If you notice any defects, don’t use that surface or equipment.

The same rule applies after cleaning–it’s important to inspect the surfaces for any signs of damage or wear. Be sure to replace damaged equipment immediately or place them out of service until you can fix them.

Use Cutting Board Mats

Cutting boards are a staple in any kitchen but can harbor dangerous bacteria if improperly cleaned or stored. To minimize the risk of contamination, use cutting board mats as a barrier between your food and the board.

These flexible mats are easy to clean, and you can replace them frequently to ensure maximum cleanliness. Plus, they come in various colors, so you can assign different mats for different types of food, like raw meat, produce, or cooked items.

Avoid Cross-Contamination

Again, to avoid cross-contamination, keep your prep areas organized and separate your cutting boards and utensils according to the food you're working with.

For example, use one cutting board for raw chicken and another for vegetables. Make sure to wash your hands and sanitize your tools between each use to minimize the risk of spreading germs.

Store Materials Properly

Store your cutting boards and utensils in a designated area away from contaminants like chemicals or dirty dishes. Ensure they're dry before storing them, as moisture can lead to bacterial growth. Be sure to store your food in the appropriate containers and at the correct temperature to prevent spoilage and reduce the risk of foodborne illness. 

Maintain a Cleaning Checklist

Keeping a list of cleaning tasks can help ensure that your food contact surfaces are regularly maintained. After each use, wipe down your prep areas and equipment with a sanitizing solution. Pay close attention to areas prone to contamination, like knife handles or cutting board edges.

Think about taking it one step further, too! Take (or make) time for a deep clean of your kitchen at least once a week, including scrubbing floors, walls, and ceilings to eliminate any potential hidden bacteria.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Sanitizing

Unfortunately, many foodservice professionals make quite a few common mistakes when sanitizing. These mistakes can be costly, both in terms of potential health risks and in terms of business reputation.

Below, we’ll look at some of the most common errors people make when sanitizing food contact surfaces. 

Not Cleaning Thoroughly

Spotty cleaning can happen for several reasons–perhaps you're in a rush to get things done, or maybe you simply don't have the right tools or products to get the job done. Whatever the reason, it's important to remember that sanitizing is not the same as cleaning. Just because you’ve quickly wiped off the counters with a wet rag does not mean you have sanitized them.

While cleaning is crucial, it's not enough to kill the bacteria and germs that can cause illness. Make sure you're taking the time to sanitize your surfaces and equipment properly, using the right products and techniques to eliminate harmful microorganisms.

Using the Wrong Supplies or Products

Many different types of sanitizers are available on the market, each designed for a specific purpose. It's important to choose a suitable sanitizer for the job at hand based on the type of surface or equipment that you're sanitizing. For example, bleach is a common sanitizer for non-porous surfaces, but it's not suitable for use on wood or other porous materials.

Similarly, many people use Clorox bleach wipes in the kitchen, assuming that since they’re so effective in the bathroom, they must be equally effective in food prep areas. However, that’s not the case. The chemicals in bleach wipes like these are extremely high, meaning you may be contaminating your food prep areas by mistake.6 Instead, you need to read labels and select products designed for use in the kitchen. 

Not Replacing Cleaning Supplies Regularly

Over time, cleaning cloths and sponges can become contaminated with bacteria and other harmful microorganisms. If you're using these contaminated supplies to clean and sanitize your surfaces and equipment, you're making the problem worse. 

Make sure that you're replacing your cleaning supplies regularly and using separate supplies for different areas of your kitchen or foodservice area. 

Rushing Things

Taking shortcuts or trying to get things done quickly is a recipe for disaster when it comes to proper sanitizing. 

Make sure that you're taking the time to do things right and following all the steps and protocols to properly sanitize your food contact surfaces and equipment. That might mean adjusting your schedule or delegating tasks to other team members, but ensuring your customers are safe and your business reputation remains intact is worth it.

The Takeaway

At Trust20, we take food safety seriously. We understand the importance of proper cleaning and sanitation when it comes to food contact surfaces, as well as other related areas like cross-contamination and hand hygiene.

That's why we've developed a suite of products that provide comprehensive food safety training that dives deep into these important topics.

If you want to improve your food safety practices, we invite you to check out Trust20's products and learn how they can help equip you and your team with the knowledge and tools you need to keep everyone safe.

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  1. CDC: Overview-Estimates of Foodborne Illness
  2. Food Safety Magazine: Cleaning and Sanitization of Food-contact Surfaces in Retail/Foodservice Establishments
  3. Claudia Cortesia et al: Acetic Acid, the Active Component of Vinegar, Is an Effective Tuberculocidal Disinfectant 
  4. NSF: Reliable and Scientific Tips for Cleaning With Vinegar
  5. CDC: Cleaning and Sanitizing with Bleach
  6. Kara Lynch: Safe Sanitizing and Disinfecting