With recurring scares on salmonella outbreaks and food borne infections, an important and somewhat surprising study has shown that wood, rather than plastic, is the safest material for a cutting board used in the kitchen. The study was conducted by Dean O. Cliver, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Food Safety at the University of California, Davis. Plastic would seem to be safer because it provides a water resistant, nonporous surface. On the contrary, he found that wood pulls the bacteria beneath the surface of the cutting board, where it eventually dies off. So the message is clear, wood is the safer choice for kitchen cutting boards.
Plastic is often incorrectly assumed to be a safe choice because the surface of a plastic cutting board doesn’t absorb liquid, like a wood one does. That difference is actually why wood is better:
1. Plastic doesn’t absorb water so moisture collects and stays longer in cut marks – allowing bacteria to grow.
2. Wood absorbs moisture, which speeds up the drying process. When the moisture is gone, bacteria die.
Dr. Cliver, who has been studying this issue since the late 90’s, found that even old wood cutting boards with deep grooves had low bacterial levels, similar to what was found with new boards. He found that the bacteria never reappear on the surface of wood cutting boards, even after they have been used many times with sharp blades.
While relatively new plastic cutting boards can be cleaned and disinfected to the point where few bacteria remain, the same cannot be said for the typical knife-scarred plastic cutting board used in a kitchen. With knife-scarred plastic cutting boards, Dr. Cliver and his team typically found bacteria in the knife grooves. They also determined that dishwashers didn’t eliminate the problem. Cleaning with disinfectants such as chlorine bleach also failed to kill residual bacteria hiding in the grooves.
Dr. Clivers experiments have been questioned by government scientists but after replicating his research, both the USDA and the FDA have changed their food preparation recommendations to include cutting boards made of maple or other hard wood surfaces. However, please note that safety improvements gained by using wood are negated if the board isn’t cleaned properly (as appropriate for any type of cutting board)– AFTER EACH USE.
For a good example of Wood Cutting Boards handmade by a Texas Craftsman, visit this fine Cutting Board Website.