Your Sponge, In Context

Photo: emmisary/Flickr

In his second contribution to PRK, Chapter President Alex Loud of Slow Food Boston wants to take the heat off the common kitchen sponge as a spreader of E. coli bacteria. Why not take aim at, and take steps to improve, the safety of our food system?

Alex Loud
Slow Food Boston

I was recently sent an article from the WebMD website entitled “6 Daily Habits That May Make You Sick.” Although the whole article seems a bit on the alarmist side (to wit, the number five worst thing you can do is open your windows), WebMD’s concerns about your humble sponge seemed notable. From the article:

Most people clean their countertops and table after a meal with the one tool found in almost all kitchens: the sponge. In addition to sopping up liquids and other messes, the kitchen sponge commonly carries E. coli and fecal bacteria, as well as many other microbes. “It’s the single dirtiest thing in your kitchen, along with a dishrag,” says […].

While no one would argue that sponges don’t become seriously nasty—and indeed even hazardous—this struck me as a classic case of missing the forest for the trees. I mean, if you are cleaning E. coli off your cutting board, is it really the sponge that is the problem? E. coli and other such pathogens come from food. They come from the food we buy in the grocery store. They come from the products that our government tacitly tolerated in the food supply until last year. But the sponge is the problem? Really?

Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation famously and unsubtly noted that the presence of E. coli means only one thing: “There is shit in the meat.” And this is true. As noted in the WebMD article, E. coli is a fecal bacteria. If it is present in your hamburger or on your spinach, it is because somehow a certain quantity of [ahem] has come into contact with your food. Sorry if that’s nauseating, but it’s the truth. And it strikes me as perhaps too accepting of things being “just the way they are” to say that we all must microwave our sponges for two minutes to be safe when there is [ahem] in the food.

…this doesn’t mean we have to accept things the way they are. And it doesn’t mean we have to blame the sponge.

– Alex Loud

Really, if someone came into your house and told you there was cyanide on your cutting board, how would you react? Chances are you would recoil in horror and call the police. But here we’re being told, in essence, that a similarly lethal pathogen is on the counter, the spatula or the sink, and the recommendation is that we blithely wash up and hope for the best.

Of course, this is the reality of our food system today. To their credit, the Obama administration, through the Food Safety Modernization Act, has been working to institute some important changes. But the wheels of government, as they say, turn slowly. The past several months have already seen a six-state E. coli outbreak linked to sprouts, and a listeria event traced to cantaloupes that has killed more people than any food-borne illness in the U.S. in the past 100 years.

Still, this doesn’t mean we have to accept things the way they are. And it doesn’t mean we have to blame the sponge. There are a couple easy things you can do, including the following:

Eat local. Yes, I know Slow Food is always preaching ‘eat local,’ but food from small New England farms carries a very real benefit in terms of food safety. The spinach that triggered the nationwide E. coli outbreak in 2006 actually came from only one farm in California. Because, however, that farm sold its spinach to a larger distributor who co-mingled it with product from many other farms, the pathogens spread chaotically through the whole system.

When you go to the farmers market and buy a bunch of spinach (or lettuce or sprouts) from your favorite farmer, on the other hand, you’re getting product from one place and likely even one plant. As such, the odds of actually ending up with [ahem] on your cutting board are greatly reduced.

Talk to your supermarket. The major food companies have generally resisted making safety improvements that hurt their bottom lines. The American Meat Institute (an industry trade group) last year even opposed the USDA’s September decision to outlaw six strains of E. coli in ground beef.

…maybe we can all learn to love our sponges again.

– Alex Loud

Supermarkets, however, are in a different position. Their brands are wholly reliant on consumer trust. It’s simply too easy to drive the extra mile to the next supermarket. Not surprisingly then, a number of chains are pushing their way to the forefront of food safety issues. Last year, for example, Costco began testing all the ground meat and pre-packaged vegetables sold in their stores for pathogens. This deserves loud applause. Whole Foods has for years undertaken audits and surprise inspections of their suppliers, albeit through a third party.

So, if you shop elsewhere, why not stop by the management desk next time you’re in the store and ask what they’re doing to protect their customers? And if you don’t like the answer, maybe even call their headquarters and ask the same question.

Then maybe we can all learn to love our sponges again.

Read Alex’s previous post: Slow Food USA Comes of Age.


8 thoughts on “Your Sponge, In Context

  1. Brian

    Asking grocery stores to protect their customers doesn’t mean they will do testing–they will pass along the cost to their suppliers by having them do the testing (as well as other costly measures to ‘protect’ consumers, like excluding all wildlife from production areas). This will cause a further reduction in the ability of small and medium sized growers to supply grocery stores, consolidating food production and distribution further and exacerbating the potential for widespread contamination. Consumers need to take some responsibility for food safety–nuking a sponge for a couple minutes doesn’t seem too steep price.

  2. Alex Loud

    Hi Brian,
    Thanks for the comment. Two thoughts on this: First, my point is that some supermarkets need to be made aware of the fact that their competitors are working harder than they are to protect their customers. Pushing audits onto the suppliers hardly qualifies as a proactive response to customer concerns. The Costco news is a pretty big deal and it’s a serious differentiator for them. Second I don’t think food safety audits have to preclude buying from smaller growers. I don’t know of any large market group that buys more from small growers than Whole Foods–there may be others but I haven’t seen them–and yet they manage to have some of the more rigorous standards in the industry. But again, they clearly see food quality/safety as a differentiator for them.

  3. Hillary

    “Consumers need to take some responsibility for food safety…” I don’t know, that sounds an awful lot like the argument behind the bottle bill, which places the burden of returning recyclables on consumers rather than requiring large corporations to adopt environmentally sustainable manufacturing processes or take responsibility for reclaiming their bottles.

  4. Lenore George

    How about regularly cleaning the sponges? I’ve heard cleaning with bleach (and rinsing well)and microwaving both kill bad stuff.

  5. Eric M. Jones

    YEARS ago, I switched back to what my Grandparents used: A dish brush and kitchen towel that is washed frequently. Sponges are just modern madness and they always stink. No form of sterilization short of atomic disintegration will clean them. It takes about two seconds to make the switch back. Do it.

  6. Brian

    Thanks for the response Alex. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with GAP programs that have sprung up and are being considered for passage into law. GAP programs are a rather simplistic (though far from simple or cheap for growers to implement)method to lay the onus of food safety on growers. I agree that growers bear a large responsibility for making sure their products are as safe as possible when they leave the farm, but an inevitable consequence of imposing expensive and complicated regulations on farms will be to favor the large producers who are easily able to absorb additional costs and capital requirements. This will also likely result in more concentration of produce in a few distribution points, where (as you point out) relatively small incidences of contamination can quickly mushroom to epidemic proportion–incidences of foodborne illness originating on small and medium-sized farms that distribute their own product are extremely unfortunate, even tragic, but they are self-limiting in scope and easy to trace to the source. Many supermarkets are currently requiring growers to get GAP accreditation as an easy and cheap way for the supermarkets to ‘pass the buck’ on food safety issues. I think every link in the food chain up to and including the consumer bears responsibility for food safety (and I don’t have any problem with the bottle bill). I am a careful and conscientious grower who sells directly to the public, and though I eat stuff right out of the field, and though we wash most everything we grow, I always tell customers to wash their produce again before they eat it. Sorry for the rather heavy response to an article I think you intended to be in a lighter vein.

  7. Judy Mintz

    This piece reminded me of something I wrote that started: “When I found out that Osama Bin Laden had been found and killed I couldn’t suppress a small, internal “Ooh Rah,” even as I thought, “Uh oh, now what?” That’s a lot to worry about first thing on a Monday morning so instead I decided to confront a simpler question: Should I swap out the kitchen sponge?” Amazing what worrying about a dirty sponge can do to a girl! You can read the rest at:

  8. Pingback: No more stinky kitchen sponges! | Starpulp