The truth about cutting boards

Plastic or wood?

I remember a time when all cutting boards were wood. Then one day, we were urged to throw out our wooden boards and switch to plastic. We were told that wood is porous like a sponge, and plastic is not, so plastic is better.

It turns out that the idea that plastic is good and wood is bad was only a hypothesis. Dr. Dean O. Cliver was challenged to investigate. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture told us that they had no scientific evidence to support their recommendation that plastic, rather than wood, should be used in home kitchens.”

Dr. Cliver, N.O. Ak, and C. W. Kaspar tested plastic and wood cutting boards with a variety of disease bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter, listeria, and staphyloccus, and measured the amount that could be recovered off the board surface. The study concluded that wood has special properties against bacteria that made it actually better than plastic, which could be scarred by knives.

If you browse the Internet, you’ll find criticism of Cliver’s research.
You can also find newer research that support the original conclusions about the safety and advantages of wood.

In commercial kitchens

The 2013 USDA Food Code permits hardwood cutting boards in commercial kitchens. (I couldn’t find anything on Canadian food codes.) But commercial food operations also have disciplines and routines that we wouldn’t follow at home. Fiacco’s, the famous old butcher shop in the West Village of New York City uses butcher blocks for work surfaces. Notice how the block dips in the middle.

Fiacco's West Village in New York City

The floor of this old deli and meat shop is covered in sawdust. That’s because every night they sand down the surface of the butcher blocks to clean them.

Board care

“Plastic vs. wood” is almost a religious debate. You can find opinions and logic to support either choice. So, pick what you like, but remember that nothing matters if you don’t address cross contamination first:

  • Keep one board for meat, and one or more for everything else. That way you won’t end up using the same board for cutting chicken followed by cucumbers.
  • Pay special attention to vegetables and fruits that come into contact with the ground, even if you peel them. The soil is where many food-borne pathogens come from. Always wash your watermelon, canteloupe, squashes, etc. before you set them on the cutting board.

The way to clean a board depends on the material:

  • A plastic cutting board can be cleaned in the dishwasher or by hand. Sanitize it with bleach and water.
  • A wood cutting board should be sanitized with a quaternary ammonia (e.g. Mr. Clean) and water. The problem with bleach is that it combines easily with organic materials. It would neutralize the antibacterial properties of the wood.

Let your cutting boards dry where the air can circulate. I set mine on the grates of my cooktop.

You can find more on cutting board science at the Safe Food From Farm to Fork blog. Some of Dean Cliver’s posts are here as well.


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