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Grading our home kitchens

In a typical home there's probably one place that functions as the hub. In our household, it's the kitchen. That's where we prepare food and handle food waste — it's a heat-it-up, eat-it-up, wash-up-afterwards sort of place. It's also where we feed our dog.

Until yesterday I thought we had a relatively food-safe kitchen — though I'm sure some folks would suggest feeding the dog elsewhere.

We are very careful about washing our hands (15-20 seconds, lots of friction) and sanitizing cutting boards (a solution of 1 tablespoon of unscented, liquid chlorine bleach in 1 gallon of water left to stand on the surface for a few minutes — then patted dry with a paper towel). We refrigerate things quickly after grocery shopping and periodically check the temperature on both the refrigerator (40 or below) and freezer (zero or -5 degrees) with those handy little thermometers we all have (you do have one — right?).

I feel like I know a fair amount about food safety but I'm always ready to learn more — and I'm particularly interested in how my kitchen stacks up. So, just like 13,000 courageous people in Los Angeles County who agreed to complete an online self-assessment of the safety of their kitchens — knowing they would receive a letter grade as a result — I stepped up to the questions on a kitchen food safety quiz. Whew, what an eye opener.

Here's an example of some of the questions.

Question: Do you store raw meats below other foods in your refrigerator? (33 percent of the folks originally queried did not, which put them at definite risk of raw meat juices dripping onto leftover salad.)

Question: Is the food in your refrigerator well spaced so the air can circulate freely? After reading that one, I opened our frig and saw plastic containers snuggled on top of one another and foods of various textures and types cozily perched together — it all looked quite friendly, but definitely did not meet the "circulating air" recommendation.

Question: Are there flies inside your home. Answer: "Ever?"

The idea for the quiz came out of the Los Angeles Department of Public Health. In the spring of 2006 they launched a "Home Kitchen Self-inspection Program" to promote safer food practices at home. The results appeared in this week's Centers for Disease Control Morbidity and Mortality publication (


As they report, "the content of the questions was guided by food-safety education principles from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: clean, separate, cook and chill."

If you go to the USDA's food-safety information and inspection service website (

www.fsis.usda.gov), you get a more comprehensive look at all this. You might want to consider doing that before Thanksgiving arrives with all those random meat juices likely to be circulating.

Back to the original self-inspection results: it gave me pause when I noted that almost 40 percent of the folks in L.A. County got a "C" grade or lower. The percentage of home kitchens assigned "A" or "B" ratings (61 percent) was considerably lower than for the county's full-service restaurants (98 percent) during the same time period.

My kitchen, you ask? Let's give it a "B." Ever learning.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.