The One Place You Should Be Cleaning More in Your Kitchen (But Aren't)

Not, it's not your sink or kitchen sponge.

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When’s the last time you cleaned your spice jars?

You know germs can lurk on cutting boards, in the sink, and the sopping kitchen sponge. But those tiny spice containers can also harbor bacteria and other pathogens, a recent study finds.

For their work, researchers asked 371 people to make a meal with turkey patties and ready-to-eat lettuce salad. The turkey contained MS2, a harmless virus that could easily be traced. The participants made their meals in a variety of test kitchens from small apartment-style kitchens to larger kitchens found in community centers and food banks.

After the meal was prepared, a dozen areas—including utensils and cleaning surfaces—were swabbed for testing. Researchers found that about 10% to 20% of swabs were positive for MS2 on most surfaces. However, a whopping 48% of spice containers showed evidence of the bacteria. The researchers said that spice containers had the highest concentration of any of the kitchen surfaces tested.

“We were surprised because we had not seen evidence of spice container contamination before,” researcher Donald Schaffner, a professor in the Department of Food Science at Rutgers University, told Food Safety News.

“Most research on the cross-contamination of kitchen surfaces due to handling of raw meat or poultry products has focused on kitchen cutting boards or faucet handles and has neglected surfaces like spice containers, trash bin lids, and other kitchen utensils. This makes this study and similar studies from members of this group more comprehensive than previous studies.”

The study was published in September in the Journal of Food Protection and was funded by the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.

How to Clean Spice Containers

Because it’s easy to spread germs throughout the kitchen as you’re preparing food, wash your hands regularly and clean everything you touch. And that includes your spice containers.

“Spice jars are tricky because they’re often touched in the process of cooking. The ideal solution is to wash your hands while cooking, before touching the spice jars,” Jessica Ek, a spokesperson for the American Cleaning Institute, tells Spruce Eats.

“However, if you forget to do that, the jars can be wiped down with a damp cloth and a little dish soap. Alternatively, you can use a disinfectant wipe.”

It’s also a good time to check the expiration date on your spices and toss anything that’s old. If you’re starting over, empty spices and wash in warm, soapy water, making sure to remove all bits of spice. Dry containers completely before refilling with fresh spices.