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This rant begins in that most evil, but for me, in my encroaching decrepitude, useful public spaces, "the fitness center."  Here, I see everyone in caricature and am misanthropic to my core.  For years I simply ran to burn up calories and clear the head, but an essay by the magnificent Sherwin Nuland, surgeon-author, convinced me that if I didn’t lift weights, I would become feeble. So I began lifting weights a couple months ago after a decade away from Nautilus machines.  Everything looked the same but for one serious change: all the machines have a bottle of disinfectant on them.  What’s with this?  In fact there are spray bottles all over the place.  I am supposed to give each machine I use a disinfectant bath, a biohazard washdown if I even look at. Most people I watch seem to spend as much time wiping down the machines as they do actually using them.  If this were some kind of nude fitness center I could see the point, but most of the people who use these machines do not visibly sweat and are dressed from head to toe in clean dry clothing, normal humans desultorily fending of the inexorable decay.  What on earth are people afraid of catching?  When did we become such germophopes?

Yet another facet of America’s many neuroses about food, health and our bodies is a fear of germs and a complete misunderstanding of bacteria and good and bad microbes.  The shelves are filled with anti-bacterial soaps.  People are actually afraid to use the greatest cutting surface available, wood, for fear that it's a secret petri dish for deadly microbes.  Home cooks cook pork till it’s dry, chicken till it’s dessicated fearing pathogens, but think nothing of using a smelly sponge (if you're looking for the petri dish, that's it–why do you think it smells? There's a reason we have noses!  Use them.)

This fear is certainly not keeping us from getting sick, and it’s very likely increasing the probability that we will.  All this came to mind after reading Jane Brody’s Personal Health column, in which she describes the benefits of eating dirt the day I went to the "fitness center."  Not the three-star dirt that I’ve written about, but actual backyard dirt.

In the column, Brody suggests that there may be evolutionary advantages to allowing all kinds of microbes and worms into our bodies via dirty fingers or food in that they encourage our bodies to develop a vigorous immune system.  By fearing germs and bacteria, by being fanatically dirt phobic, buying up all those anti-bacterial soaps and hosing down our kitchens with bleach three times a day, we make ourselves weaker.

Brody suggests this may be why MS, Type 1 Diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and allergies are on the rise in developed countries.

Of course there are real dangers from microbes— E. coli, salmonella, listeria can make people really sick.  But you need to know when to account for them to prevent their growth (with help from McGee, I wrote a concise description of bacteria and their prevention in Sous Vide).  It’s not very complicated and mainly a matter of common sense.

But all these immune disorders.  All these allergies to foods that kids have today. When I was growing up, I never heard of a kid who couldn’t eat peanut butter.  Now, I have close friends whose two boys are seriously allergic to so many foods, cooking a single dinner for all of them is near impossible. This is not another America-is-a-bunch-of-picky-eaters rant—the kids’ allergies are real.  Ming Tsai, a chef, has such kids and has become a huge spokesman for understanding and working with these allergies.

But when did they begin and why?  My guess is that they began around the time their parents began to consume vast quantities of industrial, processed foods.  Sterile food.  Food that can sit on a shelf for a lifetime.  Food that is not even biodegradable.  Did you watch the extras on the Super Size Me DVD?  The McD’s fries would not grow mold, would not break down.  Ever.

In order to keep foods on the shelf indefinitely requires getting rid of bacteria that causes spoilage.  But in keeping our food ultra sterile, we may be killing microbes that help to keep us healthy and fit. 

Yet another reason to eat unprocessed foods, natural foods, a lot of fruits and vegetables.  Wash them, of course, but don’t sterilize them. We aren’t getting more healthy by eating processed food, we’re getting more sick.  I’ll bet the microbes we're not getting when we do is one of the reasons.  Every day your kids come home from school, make them wash their hands.  You don’t want everyone in the house catching colds.  But let’s be reasonable.  The label “anti-bacterial” is a marketing gimmick created to respond to our irrational and harmful fear of bacteria.

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85 Wonderful responses to “Anti-Bacterial America”

  • Ana

    @Lose Weight:

    What? And kill everything that is vital in it? How is that better than processed food? Same result, just more expensive.

  • perdre du poids

    Pathogens are the bacteria which cause harm to human beings. Good hygiene and developing the immune system resistance in the body are some preventive measures. They encourage a bacterial infection cure of these bacteria related infections and diseases.

  • Carrie Oliver

    Late to the party here but thanks for the great post! The “funny” thing about most anti-bacterial claims is just how limited they really are. For instance, the “kills 99.9%” of germs claim doesn’t include all germs. Nor do they kill 100% of the germs that are listed on the label, whether salmonella, e-coli, or staph. I’ve often pondered whether the germs left behind after the use of antibacterial kitchen sprays or hand gels aren’t made stronger by the use of these cleaners. That said, consider this. If two cutting boards were to be smeared with salmonella and then one cleaned with an antibacterial spray and the other with a dirty sponge, it sure would be tempting to choose make my sandwich on the treated board. Troubling.

    I couldn’t agree more that we would in general be better off if we trimmed processed foods from our diets. The yogurt example cited above is a good example, why strip a food of its nutrients only to add them back in? What’s interesting to me about your post is I hadn’t thought that heavily processed foods were essentially sterilized and the potential implications of this.

  • CheapandEvilGirl

    While I understand the need to wipe down machines (I saw a man on an eliptical trainer in front of me SPIT on the floor. Yes, at a gym that charges $150/month membership fee), what caught my eye and made me say YES was the statment relating allergies and processed foods.

    I truly believe that many of our health issues today are due to consuming foods comprised of ingredients we cannot spell, nor pronounce. Is it really the bacon or the butter or is it the nitrates and hormones being used? Chemicals – for taste (since all real tastes is lost during processing), scent, texture, preservatives – hormones, anitbiotics, the state of industrialized “meat farms”, vegetables grown by giant agro-chemical compaines contamiated with “upstream run-off”…I cannot help but believe that we are poisoning ourselves.

    My grandfather ran a small grocery store and butchershop- I remember meat being cut fresh, the smell slightly sweet, never seeing a strawberry other than in may/june, tomatoes july& august (my favorite breakfast during that time was fresh baguette from the local bakery with a tomato from the vine and some fresh basil)m root vegetables in the fall and winter. Bacon was REAL and not in slices in plastic packages -and yes, we used the bacon fat as flavoring for other dishes. There was no obsession around carbs, fat, proteins…both sets of great-grandparents lived into their late 80′s/90′s and my grandparents the same. And I believe it is beacuse of their approach to food.

    Don’t even get me started on the use of plastics/tupperware…I can’t begin to imagine what that is doing to us.

    I just do my best to eat real food, whole foods, natural foods. I’m not too worried if my strawberries are small or only last a day or two (mostly because I will eat them) or not so pretty. I care that they actually have a taste and aren’t mutant giants. I can’t imagine how families in other areas of the US struggle to get healthy food on the table given today’s economic conditions, the hours at the office, etc.
    We have to keep trying and understand that “variety and convenience” can be found in the simplest ways…

  • denis bider

    If I recall correctly, a New Scientist article a few years ago reported on research finding that dirt as such does not make you healthier, but that mycobacterium vaccae might. Apparently, kids who grew up on farms with cows around had an incidence of allergies several times lower than kids who merely grew up in rural areas, not necessarily around cows.

  • Devon

    Here Here! Replacing germs with chemicals is not the answer. Our bodies can deal with germs but they are no match for all that stuff created in labs.

  • Kim

    On allergies and cleanliness: It’s all about balance. My husband had the misfortune of growing up in a house where house-cleaning was reserved for special occasions; we are talking major funk. He is allergic to everything and his brother has terrible asthma. Coincidence? Probably not. Keep it decently clean and keep it whole; keep the processed food to a minimum. Just my humble opinion…

  • Gabrielle

    I absolutely agree about the antibacterial craze (it’s crazy how hard it is to find soap without antibacterial on the label). We’ve never used them (especially not purell – ick). And I don’t eat fast food. But I still have a daughter with a peanut allergy and it sucks. Who knows what I may have done to cause it? But it’s definitely a guilt that I live with daily. I just hope that she outgrows it some day. Until then, we do our best to keep her out of a bubble and let her act like a normal kid (and no, she doesn’t attend a nut free school).

  • Allison

    Haven’t you said in the past that you use Dial soap, even on your hair? That’s anti-bacterial. Deodorant soap = anti-bacterial soap.

  • Christine in the 'Nati

    As someone who has managed to contract scabies not once, but TWICE, from skanky gym stationary bike equipment, I’ll keep on sanitizing, thankyouverymuch. When I don’t know what YOU have, I’ll protect myself–there’s no sense in taking needless risk.

    In my own home and in the homes of those I know well, I’m not a germ freak. Plain old soap and water works well for me, and I only give the kitchen a good scrub with other cleansers when I’ve been working with raw meats.

    I have noticed that my husband and I are rarely seriously ill, nor do we have any food allergies or sensitivities. We also both work in the health care settings, where, presumably, we come in contact with all kinds of creepy crawlies. Still, we rarely get more than a standard cold in the winter, and I chalk it up to be in contact with germs all the time. Exposure and building a healthy immunity (unless you have some immunity-compromising illness like cancer, HIV/AIDS, etc.) is really the way to go.

  • Janet Nelson

    Every temple my daughter visited in Japan last summer had some
    kind of special healing water in a vessel with a dipper that everyone
    used. This, in germ-aphobic Japan!

    Do these fears have something to do with the demise of the public
    water fountain?

  • Kanani

    “My guess is that they began around the time their parents began to consume vast quantities of industrial, processed foods. Sterile food. Food that can sit on a shelf for a lifetime.”

    It stuns me how many parents walk around with those little bottles of hand disinfectant, yet think nothing of shoving some highly processed food in their mouth. Worse, they do it to their children.

    I volunteer 2x a month at a bbq for Marines at Camp Pendleton who have finished their 20km hike. There are crews of home bakers who bring in cookies, under the directive to not bake everything with nuts.

    This week, the military announced peanut butter is going to be taken OUT of MRE’s. For those who don’t know, MRE’s are packages of food around 4,000 calories meant so sustain someone over a long period of time where they won’t have access to either food or water. Peanut butter was a major source of protein, fats, and sugar needed for the long haul. So now, they’ll substitute it with something else. Michael –maybe you need to get in on this.

    So when I go to these bbq’s I can’t believe how many are allergic to nuts. But I still don’t get it. Weren’t these kids introduced to peanut butter at an early age? I mean –wasn’t everyone? I guess in the era I was raised, food was fixed for us and the breadth of what we had gave us a natural immunity to most things. WE’d pick fruit off trees, eat meat cut on wooden boards, and bread my Mom made. (Though I remember feigning an allergy to my mother’s overcooked zucchini).

    And Michael –Gyms are gross. Just go buy some stuff and throw it in the garage like everyone else. And don’t forget to stretch –keep those muscles and joints limber. It’ll help when you’re a geezer. ;0)

  • Palapala

    I would have agreed with your statements about finicky, overzealous gym users. Right up to about two months ago, that is, when I discovered I had a nasty case of ringworm on my thigh. Since the gym is the only place I wear shorts in the winter, and because my exercise routine includes one where I roll the bar over my thighs, there was little doubt where I picked it up. Very embarrassing for an older woman with excellent personal hygiene to be wearing this badge of shame on her leg. My dermatologist suggested I do as he did: buy my own equipment and use it at home. Haven’t done that yet, but I’ve become much more wary and cautious during workouts, and hurry straight home to scrub from head to toe.

  • Lydia

    Testify. There’s a Purell dispenser over the hand sink at my culinary school, and we were taught to use it after washing our hands. I skip it every time except for when the teacher’s looking!

    I appreciate your thoughts on why kids are developing such severe allergies. I’ve had similar ideas, but couldn’t express them as well as you.

  • Maura

    I’m more worried about what the bleach might do to my food, than about what a little dirt might do to me.

    Amen to that, Tea. I do use bleach for a few things, but I keep it away from food.

    I knew hysteria had set in when I read an article in Elle Magazine saying that we had to worry about the bacteria on the surface of our soap. I mean, it’s soap. Do we need special soap to clean the soap? How does that stay bacteria free?

  • Tea

    Great post!

    A friend wipes down her kitchen counters continually with bleach wipes. I’m more worried about what the bleach might do to my food, than about what a little dirt might do to me.

  • rockandroller

    FYI: I meant “covering your mouth when you cough,” not just covering it for no reason.

  • rockandroller

    @ruhlman – I’m just conveying to you that it’s seen as proper by others, just like covering your mouth, which probably also does nothing, or like washing your hands after you use the bathroom. You might not think it “does anything,” and your hands might not necessarily get dirty when you go to the bathroom when out, but if you don’t participate in the gesture, you will be talked about. There are plenty of people on my floor at work who are talked about because they are known for not washing their hands (or for doing a “splash and go” like a race car driver at a pit stop) after the bathroom. There are also people at my gym who say things like, “Have you ever had to work out next to the tall, blonde girl with the big hair? Not only does she talk on her cell phone most of the time, she never wipes down the machines when she’s done. So rude!”

    You are free to ignore it, just like any other social nicety, but like it or not this is the culture now. Not participating in it doesn’t make it go away, but people DO definitely notice.

  • Guy

    Well the MRSA thing is a bad thing – and yes you can get it easier than just in hospitals – new research showing that if one family memeber gets it the rest of the family is not that far along from contracting it – anyways- but the anitbacterial wipes have always been a peeve of mine. Before my career change to the chef life I worked in a large university medical center and all of the docs said when did soap and water get replaced. These wipes that “kill %99.8″ of bacterias – well it is that .2 that I worry about. Anti-bacterial drugs losing the umph to make us better because we have desensitized ourselves to money making panic driven wipes and gels. Scares me. I had the pleasure of sitting in on some very leading docs on Aids and HIV. One of them was a little scarey talking about mutations due to the drug crazed populations for every little sniffle becauee they want a pill for every ill – we are now faced with a wipe for every ill. Work out, sweat and then good ole soap and water.

  • Jill

    As a mom, it drives me crazy when I see other moms who are nutty about cleanliness. You don’t have to live in a pig sty, but going overboard with the anti-bacterial is a bad idea. Kids who are never exposed to germs don’t develop any immunities.

    Regarding kids with allergies, my mom is a nurse practitioner, so I asked her why there are so many kids allergic to peanuts these days (my kids often have someone like this in their classes, yet growing up, I never knew or even heard of anyone with a life-threatening food allergy). She said, “Because they used to die.”

  • DKSampson

    There is also some evidence that anti-bacterial chemicals can also tamper with our hunger detectors, making us feel hungry when we are not and delaying the full feeling. I saw a chart with a direct correlation between the rise childhood obesity and the rise in sales of anti-bacterial hand soaps.

  • thm

    There has been life on Earth for something like 3 billion years, and for the first 2.5 billion years, until the Cambrian explosion, it was nearly all single-cell organisms like bacteria. The complex life forms started to evolve, in the past 500 million years, in an environment that was absolutely saturated with micro-organisms. So of course bacteria are supposed to be a part of our lives!

  • carri

    oooh…Debbie is right about the meat department thing. I’ve actually scoped out the hiding place where the butchers stash a roll of paper towels and use them myself…why they don’t make them available to everyone, I don’t know! It’s not bad to have a towel on hand (the ‘hitchhikers guide to the galaxy’ says so!) because, let’s face it, life can be messy…just leave the antibacterial chemicals out of it please!

  • Dick Black

    I read that article at MSNBC that someone graciously provided a link too.

    I am not sure what the point was. The “article” reminded me of 6 th grader’s attempt at writing a science paper and today’s topic was cheese. Good or bad.

    MSNBC will allow ANYBODY, I mean ANYBODY, to write articles and reviews for them and this dumb piece does tremendous disservice to cheesemakers around the world.

    I know it is the Internet and all but people see the NBC and the Peacock and think this is gospel.

    If I was a cheesemaker, I would be plenty pissed. What shall we eat now. American singles from Kraft ?

  • David

    I remember seeing this, and thinking that maybe your gym should put a few of these machines in, and folks could push the equipment through when they’re done using it.

  • mirinblue

    I think it is a matter of exposure and agree with MR wholeheartedly!

    I mean, stop and think for a moment, the most classic case that comes to mind is not drinking the water in Mexico (or elsewhere). Because we are not exposed to the types of germs, parasites, (whatever) that are living in the water, it makes us sick. For the natives – no problem, because they have built up defenses in the body to combat that exposure.

    My doctor told me when my son was small that he believed the best way to prevent allergies in children was EXPOSURE! I was told that children who grow up with cats/dogs often are less allergic than those in petless homes. That introducing honey after the age of 2 would expose him to spores that would help create a healty immune system, that digging in the dirt would not be harmful in any way, and go ahead and let him drink that well water! And voila! a 28 year old who has never been allergic to anything!

    And what, after all, are allergy shots? Simply injecting the allergen in small doses so that the body builds a tolerance to the thing/things that are causing the problem.

    It is common sense to me.

  • Kristen

    Thanks so much for this post — as a biologist (also married to another biologist), we’ve known some of these things for at least 10 years, and we take it for granted how obvious it seems to us that a hyper-sterile environment is not a good thing. We have never used antibacterial liquid soap. And yet after the NYTimes article, it was shocking to me how many non-scientist friends of mine had never heard such things, and I even had to argue about this with my mother. The more press, the better!

  • Debbie

    I have never been germ phobic and was alway healthier than my friends who would get dipped in antibacterial products daily. I do consider myself to be fairly clean and hygenic.

    Regarding the supermarket, I am not into wiping down the carts but considering the number of diapered bottoms that probably sit in the carts I understand why people would.

    I really wish they would provide wipes or paper towels in the meat department instead. I can’t tell you how many times I have picked up a leaky package of meat, poutry or fish and ended up with juices on my hands with no way to clean it off to avoid cross contamination. I carry wipes in my purse for those situations.

  • Sara

    @Josh: As someone who knows people with peanut/nut allergies (and who grew up in the glorious 80s with glorious parents who did not care to sterilize anything, much less make sure my sister and I weren’t eating those mud pies we made [we were]), it is very, very, VERY hard to be “unaware” of that allergy. I don’t know anyone with a nut allergy who just sneezes a little, or gets a rash: every single one of them goes into severe, and nearly instant, anaphalaxis. And you don’t miss that. So I don’t think it’s an awareness problem, at least in the case of nuts.

    I don’t think processed foods have lowered my immune system, but I don’t eat too many of them (ok, look, Cheetos are REALLY GOOD. I know they’re made of, like, plastic, but can’t I indulge just a little bit?!?!). I absolutely agree about exposure to germs, though: I was barely sick as a kid, and am still pretty resilient (the change in the weather at each season inevitably brings one badass cold, but it only lasts a couple days), and I ate a LOT of dirt.

  • ruhlman

    rockandroller: why should it be incumbent upon those who are not scared of cooties to spend their time wiping down a clean dry seat cushion? if you’re so afeared, shouldn’t you do it each time you use the machine. how can you trust i’d do a thorough job. especially with MY attitude.

  • Ben

    This topic reminds me of a Saturday Night Live fake commercial from the 90s for Hamburger Helper Antibacterial.

    That burning sensation means it’s working!

  • rockandroller

    @maryann, yes, you are supposed to wipe down the equipment after using it. Whether you agree with the practice or not, if you don’t, someone is going to look at you not very nicely and/or say something about you behind your back to others. Of course, it’s everyone’s right to be a social outcast if they want to, I’m just telling you this is the social expectation now at a public gym. IMO either comply or don’t go.

  • Eric Reuter

    As an organic farmer who grows/butchers/milks/makes much of our own food, I fully agree with all of this. Since moving onto our current farm, it’s been fairly clear that the only illnesses we’ve had have come from travel or things my wife brings home from her off-farm job (where people are always coming in sick). Nothing from the hand-milked dairy products, manure-fertilized produce, well-used cutting boards, or outdoor home-butchered meat.

    I haven’t used any form of sterilizer on cuts for many years, and I draw a lot of blood in this work. Mostly they heal right up; sometimes they get mildly infected, hurt for a couple days, then heal. I can’t prove it, but it seems to me that regular workouts are better than imperfect prevention for an immune system. I suppose that’s true until one doesn’t heal and makes me sick, but that hasn’t been my experience.

    Regarding gyms, it’s a balance. I used a gym for a while, years ago after a neck injury, and it was pretty nasty to see how much sweat built up on a machine or a seat. I didn’t feel the need to sterilize it, though, just dry it off some. If you’re really worried, you could always wear gloves and bring a towel to sit on (or if you’re one of the heavy sweaters).

    It also depends on lifestyle and location. Concentrated populations are breeding centers for disease; it’s just biological reality. If I lived in a downtown city in a teeming apartment building, sharing doorknobs and air with millions of worldwide-travelling vectors, I’d probably be more worked up about anti-bacterials than I am on a rural farm. Let’s not judge all situations the same. But, yes, medications are no replacement for a healthy lifestyle and healthy immune system.

  • Allen

    I was saved by the beanie babies. During the beanie baby craze I had to drive around to different McDonald’s and collect those stupid little critters and got a happy meal with each purchase. The first few batches of fries were salty, crispy and good, then they became disgusting. To this day I can’t stand the smell of them. As for the gym: go outside for exercise, fresh air and no monthly dues. Get some surgical tubing to replace the weights.

  • maryann

    I was just thinking this exact same thing after joining a gym instead of doing my daily walks. (it’s cold and icy here)
    I was shocked to see everyone using most of their time wiping down equipment. I began to feel guilty that I wasn’t. I didn’t need to, did I? I didn’t leave puddles or marks. I didn’t cough and sneeze haphazardly.
    My grandmother always used her wooden board. For EVERYTHING. And no one got sick from it.She passed that board down to me and I do the same. My mom always said that a little dirt is good for you. Kids need to get dirty! Wash them later after they are done playing. Which is another pet peeve of mine. Kids don’t go out to play anymore. In the old days our moms threw us outside and said don’t come home til supper. What did we do? We played, dammit. LOL We got dirty doing it too!It was fun! Now kids play sports on Nintendo.
    Good post.

  • derek

    omg, it’s mostly that the idea of sitting in someone else’s sweat is kind of icky. you know how you are supposed to wash your hands after you go to the bathroom even though urine is sterile? same thing.

  • Tags

    -
    If you’re wondering why a gym in Cleveland is so focused on germ prevention, you need look no further than Kellen Winslow and Joe Jurevicius. The Brownies would’ve had a much different season if not for streptococcus.

  • Phil

    What I wouldn’t pay to be at that Connecticut Forum on May 14th. Watersgate – I love that.

  • Josh Lindsay

    I enjoyed the post, but I have heard that the “outbreak” of kids who cannot eat peanut butter is more a matter of higher awareness, as no one thought so much about this stuff 30 years ago.

  • TikiPundit

    Great post. This allergy thing with kids (and now, adults) has bugged me for years. Why is this happening?

    I’m no researcher or GP so I haven’t delved into it too much. But as others have posted about, when I was a kid I was into so much “crap” outdoors that I should have been an allergenic basket-case by now.

    I’ve pondered the following:

    –kids not playing outdoors and with other kids as much as they used to, and therefore not going “through” the spread of bacteria and viruses, thus not developing a stronger immune system

    –pre-processed and “fast” food, and high-fructose sugar; and excessive sodium from fast food restaurants and those fakey “neighborhood resto” chains

    –obsessive house-cleaning by well-meaning parents with well-marketed “new and improved” house-cleaning chems

    –the “Ask Your Doctor” pleadings by chem-pharm moneymakers in their media ads; these sow fear in those well-meaning parents

    –factory farming; everyone knows products from this system don’t taste as good. Maybe there’s more to their impact on human bodies

    Perhaps these all have a common core: fear. Fear of failure, when not fear of loss of life. That’s been marketed, too.

    Me, in a gym, I’d prefer a wipedown more to avoid “Sweaty Chester’s” bodily fluids, than I am worried about his seeping bacteria infecting me (and, to be gender-neutral in these modern times, the dripping viral emanations of his sister Sweaty Betty).

    I do admit to anal-retentiveness in the kitchen regarding cleanliness, but I don’t think this is causing guests to develop allergies. It’s just some basic stuff that every reader here already knew before I figured it out. But I must confess, I’ve never used bleach in a kitchen. I don’t even like it when washing clothes.

    The grocery cart news was shocking regarding bacterial counts and feces (!) found in them. I bag everything up now, unless it has a skin the thickness of the Great Wall of China.

    Finally, I think Americans have gone so overboard with what they consider cleanliness that their fear and fear of contamination impacts their quality of life. Take if from someone who knows what CLEAN is: I grew up in Germany, and a Hausfrau could lecture at college on cleanliness, if there were such a college.

  • amber

    great post!

    like milo said, there is a strain of MRSA that can infect unbroken skin. it’s a nasty bug. i don’t lay down on equipment in the gym without a towel first for this very reason.

    i work in public health, infectious diseases to be specific, and the anti-bacterial stuff is waaaay overused. good old plain soap and water is much better for you. we are definitely living in a world where we are scared of every little germ and microbe. some are definitely problematic, but we’ve become so over the top about it, we’re causing more problems than we’re solving.

    and don’t even get me started about overuse of antibiotics…. ugh!

  • Bob Y

    This all reminds me of an old Jacques Pepin/Julia Child TV show. Julia complained that J hadn’t washed the chicken before roasting it – J said that the damn bird would be in a 450 degree oven for close to an hour and that any critters surviving that heat deserved to live. We have a bacteria-obsessed culture created by, who else, the advertising industry. Somehow, I’ve reached the age of 60 – with about 30 yrs of gym-going and never even heard of what you’re talking about, I haven’t washed a chicken subject to high heat since J, I don’t use anti-bacterial products and somehow, it must be a miracle, I live and prosper!

  • JoeW

    I really appreciate this rant. I am absolutely blown away by the duplicity of food safety. On one hand, you have all these processed foods that are triple-packaged. They will not make you sick, but will not keep you healthy, either. On the other hand, there are perfectly wonderful foods that are being poorly handled by producers in the US. SINCE WHEN IS PEANUT BUTTER POISON!?!?!?!?! How about spinach and strawberries and peppers? I will continue to support CSA programs as my (minor) rebellion against industrial food production. Hopefully programs like these continue to gain popularity so that I can forgo trips to the supermarket for produce.

  • John

    I work for a recreational cooking school in Chicago and I must agree to the level of insanity that people have reached when it comes to fear of… everything…

    I can honestly say, based on my experience with many students, that the average person is afraid to TOUCH the same piece of food in it’s raw form, that they are later going to put into their mouth as a “finished product”.

    I can’t explain how this makes me feel… or I may lose my job.

  • Kate F.

    AMEN. I am much more scared of the antibacterial soaps and processed foods and “sterilize your veggies” washes and steam baths than I am of some nice natural dirt. I am sensible about food safety but I don’t believe in using anything but soap and water to clean. We need microbes and pathogens! (By the way, I am amused by all the yogurts out there that remove all the live cultures, then add them back in. Sigh.)

  • Kate in the NW

    It does seem that the sickest people I know are also the cleanest. “Go play in the dirt” isn’t just an empty slogan.

    Seattle public schools have disallowed antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers for years – a great step, and yet another example of why education, political action, community involvement and public policy matter.

  • David Dadekian

    Yes! Yes, yes, yes yes yes. Purell is everywhere and ironically I avoid it like the plague. My daughter is 1, she’s not perfectly sterilized every day and she eats pretty much anything I give her (nothing processed so far, though I can’t speak for what happens at Nana’s). As much as the dog drives me crazy I should credit her for the minor amount of dirt and fur that’s tracked around the house that may be helping my child. We’ll see.

  • Roberto N.

    I’ve been thinking this for a while. Specially when I see that mothers these days don’t even let kids get dirty. I remember playing in the dirt. Drinking water from faucets. I’m not usually sick… We need to get dirty.

  • Maura

    I never thought about packaged food being sterile, and being a culprit in the rising rates of food allergies and lousy immune systems as a result. It makes sense though.

    I’ve been saying for a long time that a little dirt never hurt anyone. We’re sanitizing our kids to within an inch of their lives, thinking we’re doing them a favor, when it’s just the opposite. The corporations who make sanitizers feed on parents’ fears about their children’s health. “Use our product or your family will die.” Why not just lock them in a round room with soft walls?

  • Chico

    MRSA is a big problem in places other than hospitals…it runs rampant in the juvenile hall I work in, jails and prisons, locker rooms, gyms, etc. Unfortunatly, our fixation with anti-bacterial products doesn’t help. We keep using way to many strong chemicals to kill germs, the germs get “stronger” and more resistant in response, we add harsher chemicals, where is it going to stop? Soap and hot water are wonderful things. Now, for a really important question. Are you and Bourdain having a spat? No comment on him and Alice Waters??

  • xen

    I agree, but also disagree.

    I agree we are getting a bit too scared of germs, but at a certain point it is okay and some times we have to.

    There are people out there who actually have a low immune system by default, so they have to be a bit careful than others. We also have people who have no sense about personal hygiene that being in their presence will make you ill.

    The anti-bacterial soap is overboard, I agree, but some have to be a bit careful. And sorry, I’m not too into sharing bodily fluids and germs with everyone.

  • Chris De Noia

    Back in the day, sports teams used to all drink water from the same bucket with a common ladle. These men typically never got sick for years on end. Immunity is like any other muscle, and can get stronger if exercised.

  • xen

    @Matt:

    I grew up in a normal clean home. Not too dirty, not too sterile. The typical neat home. I plaid outside during winter and all the other seasons. I ate snow, fell hand flat on sand and ate some candy later.

    Still I was attracting a cold like a sponge can suck up water. I dreaded the winter, even if I loved the snow, because I had the common cold several times during winter.

    I ate very healthy which I still do, or now I actually eat even healthier. When my GP draws blood from me they see nothing wrong with my values. I get all my vitamins and minerals they want me to get.

    Still I get knocked out cold when I get a common cold and I have IBS.
    If you haven’t noticed there has been a link between people who have IBS, low immune system, autoimmune diseases and such when you have been born through a c-section.

    I was born with messed up immune system. I do my best at improving it, but now and then it seems like it has no effect.

  • matt wright

    My favorite post of yours so far. I too have wondered where the heck all these food allergies have come from. Like you, I don’t remember a single kid having a peanut allergy, now it seems like 50% do. Like you, I put this down to terrible packaged/processed food, and the chemicals that get sprayed on almost all non-organic foods these days.

    I just about remember the constant sick kids at school.. Who were they? They were the kids that had to wear 30 jackets in the winter, that weren’t allowed out to play in the dirt.

    I am just wondering where all this will lead. As “we” fight to destroy every single last bacteria in our homes/schools/offices we aren’t making the places more hygienic, we are making them breeding grounds for stronger, more deadly bacteria.

    You only have to look at meat curing for an example.. you get rid of any white mold on your hanging meat, and you have a ripe old area for the nasty stuff to grow.

    I like your remark about the kitchen sponge. The amount of times I have seen people wipe up something off the floor with the kitchen sponge, then use it to wipe a fork/dish/apple is crazy.

    And aren’t plastic cutting boards meant to be less hygenic than a decent wooden board?

    Keep the rants going, I personally love, and agree with them.

  • milo

    So if hot soapy water doesn’t kill salmonella, then you *should* spray with something stronger on surfaces that have had contact with raw chicken, right?

  • michael ruhlman

    hot soapy water should clean a wood cutting board. allow it to dry as well. if you’re very paranoid keep a bottle of bleach below the sink and wipe down your board with this after working with chicken or uncleaned intestine or anything your concerned about. no need to go overboard though

  • Vivian

    I brew beer and make cheese here so I constantly make sure that I sanitize properly with food grade sanitizers and since we have those products around I use them on the surfaces of our cutting boards whenever we do poultry otherwise everything just goes into hot soapy water.

  • michael ruhlman

    milo, no, hot soapy water not enough to kill salmonella, but the soap can carry bacteria off the flesh. heat kills salmonella. remember that salmonella on the exterior of the flesh will be taken care of in a hot oven even if the inside is medium rare.

    I cook chicken legs till they’re very cooked (to tenderize them); I cook breast just past pink, a little pink ok. pork i cook medium rare depending on cut. i sauteed magret duck breasts last night till very rare, like a strip steak.

    when making tartare from beef and lamb, best to buy a whole cut of meat, rinse and dry it well and give it a good coating of kosher salt for an hour or so, and always keeping it cold until and after you grind or chop (unlike meats you will cook, which should come to room temp before cooking).

  • Creighton

    If you watch the video bit of Supersize me, there is something that stands out in my mind about the fries.

    They are not touched by human hands for the most part, unlike each burger he touches as he puts it in the jar. The Fries are also not touched by the worker’s hands of McD’s after leaving the oil.

    Not that it explains everything, but it does make ya think, considering how dirty hands can be.

  • maryn

    Hi, longtime reader, infrequent commenter. MRSA is a tangled topic, here are some resources:

    - Milo is right above: There is community MRSA and hospital MRSA and they generally behave differently, though the strains are converging. MRSA is a risk for people who have no connection to hospitals. When you hear of kids dying suddenly, within 24 hours, of MRSA, that’s community MRSA they’re talking about. Lots of resources here: Superbug.

    - And gyms (and sweaty skin-to-skin contact) are a risk. The CDC is publishing an article today about MRSA in a high-school football team.

    - But yes, you can make yourself crazy being overly germ-conscious — which is an especially silly position to take when you consider that we’re not sterile beings, we live in a microbial world.

    - And finally, MRSA is becoming a food issue: There’s recent research in the Netherlands, Canada and last week in Iowa and Illinois that a new strain is spreading in food animals.

  • carri

    Here at the Bakery, we started making our own cleaning products years ago…a simple formula of a spray bottle of warm water a squirt of dishsoap and 10 drops or so of lavender or tea tree oil (which are natural antibacterials) and used like any all purpose cleaner…the smell alone is enough to make you never buy that other awful stuff again! I’d ride an eliptical that smelled like lavender any day.

  • dp

    I work in cell and tissue culture and a big part of my job is to keep germs out. It’s so surprising to see the lengths people will go to to sterilize stuff. Anti-bacterial, ultra-concentrated this and that when simple soap and water will do the trick. If you must “sanitize” the kitchen counter and soap and water isn’t good enough, use 70% ethanol, not bleach or some toxic spray guaranteed to kill 99.9% of germs. How about some salt on the wooden cutting board. I wouldn’t go so far as to eat the dirt in my backyard, but just being out in the backyard and nature in general will help with exposure and build a healthy immune system.

  • Jeff

    If the autoimmune system isn’t exercised from time to time, I suppose the body decides “what’s the point?”

  • Ulla

    I had to link this on my blog because I think it is so important what you are saying.
    Cheers!
    I could not agree more.
    I grew up on a farm and it was not at ALL clean. My chores was shoveling shit out of stalls for example but I have no allergies.
    I was listening to that guy about using worms to cure diseases. Great idea. I want some now just for good measure;)

  • milo

    Based on the info online, it looks like there are two types of MRSA – the more recently discovered “community associated” version doesn’t need an open wound for transmission and has been found to be transmitted through gyms – athletes are listed as one of the groups found to get it.

    Personally, I think it’s good for gyms to have towels and something to spray down the machines since they can get pretty sweaty and gross – I just think it should be soapy water instead of something antibacterial.

  • Paul Kobulnicky

    To this day, I still enjoy yanking a carrot from my organic, but compost laden ground, giving it a minimal wipe to ensure that my fillings do not get cracked on little stones and then munching down that, ahem, earthly goodness. I have been doing this since I was old enough to steal carrots from my neighbors gardens as every young male did when we shed our diapers and were turned loose to run with the pack.

    I too do the fitness center thing and wipe down the machines with my own little dry towel. Let them throw me in anti-anti-bacterial jail.

  • Feisty Bourbon Girl

    Okay, I have to disagree with the points about MRSA. I worked in a school district where the entire football team was affected – and yes they did pick it up from the gym and locker room. And come on people, a guy sweating all over a Nautilus machine is just disgusting. Wipe it down! People just on it for a minute or two? Don’t need to. But Sweaty Chester? He needs to. (great points about processed foods – I agree with this wholeheartedly).

  • milo

    I agree for the most part.

    Could someone clarify, is hot soapy water sufficient to kill the things potentially found in raw chicken?

    And I’m curious, Michael, what temperature do you cook your chicken and pork to? 160, or lower than that?

  • Jaxie Waxie Woo

    After watching the guy on the elliptical machine next to me a few months ago cough and sneeze all over it during his 40-minute workout, all the while wiping his nose with the back of his hand before returning it to his death-clutch on the handholds, I cannot help but wipe them down now before climbing onboard myself. Having seen it once, I visualize it happening again and again and again throughout the day. No medical book in the world will convince me to do otherwise!

  • David Barto

    I only use bleach in the kitchen after cutting raw chicken.

    I have 3 wood cutting boards, and use them. Daily.

    I run the sponge through the dishwasher along with everything else. Keeping it clean and fresh.

    I keep my own garden and eat what it grows. Fresh always wins for this type of food. Asparagus tastes best when picked and eaten like corn.

    I avoid processed foods and always wonder “who eats that stuff?” When I think about how I cook and eat, I can safely say that I’m probably in the 90th percentile of ‘good eaters,’ and I don’t try to stay away from fat, oil, and good meat, I just eat them in moderation with the fruit and veg that I can get.

    And I’m not the health nut this would make me sound like, just someone who cares about good food, well prepared and presented.

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you for your post. I have a micro-biologist friend that warned me away from anti-bacterial soaps and sprays years ago, as well as unnecessary antibiotics-especially if you don’t take the whole course. These things contribute to creating ‘superbugs’, like staph that can’t be killed with normal antibiotics.

    I have also thought that processed foods, with all their chemicals and 12 different kinds of corn products, have been contributing to or worsening so many of the new weird things we have, not to mention the non-weird things like Type II Diabetes. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ll stick with real food over heating a box or can of something just to be sure.

  • Kansas City rube

    My girlfriend worked in a hospital lab that studied MRSA and she said it was the most overblown, misunderstood scare in a while. Pretty much no danger to anyone not having surgery. Of course, if you pay attention to the media you would think it’s SARS, bird flu, and Y2K all rolled into one.

    Michael, I love your blog so much. All of these issues including allergies and bacteria fear have been percolating in my head for years, but your eloquence and brevity knows no equal. Thanks again.

  • rockandroller

    These wipes on carts and spray bottles at the gym have come about as a result of numerous news stories where they go out and test these things for bacteria and find an alarming and astounding amount. To some extent, it is hysteria and to some, particularly at the gym, it isn’t. There are a lot of people at the gym who are sick, at least my gym, and a lot of people who do not wash their hands after going to the bathroom. I see lots of women exit the bathroom in their workout clothes, having taken a mid-workout break, and head right back out to the machines. I really don’t want that junk on my hands. I also think it’s really gross to sit down on a machine or a recumbant bike after someone really sweaty has been sitting in it, which is quite common in my gym (maybe you’re lucky if it’s not yours) and I just think it’s gross, plus the sweat often STINKS really bad. I’d rather spray eqiupment down and wipe it with SOMETHING than sit where it’s all wet and sweaty, so it cropped up as a courtesy for hygeine and cleanliness. If people aren’t sweating in your gym, perhaps they’re not working hard enough.

    I agree all the anti-bacterial soaps and obsessive hand washing has gotten out of control. I have 2 friends who refuse to get anything out of the library because of the “germs” that would be on borrowed items. My own sister insists that everyone get up and wash their hands after ordering at a restaurant because of the bacteria on the menus, which I just think is silly. But some of it does have merit.

  • Darla

    I’m likewise dumbfounded by the antibacterial wipes now found next to the grocery carts.

    And you have to wonder – not only is processed food sterile, it contains all sorts of hidden problems that could be making us sick. Have you seen the latest report that there’s mercury in high fructose corn syrup? What’s THAT doing to us?

    (Story summary here: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2009/1/27/16186/8693/886/689659)

  • Aaron

    At least for gyms, the bug being worried about is MRSA. You don’t want that one.

  • Phil

    100% dead on target, Michael. As a whole, we’ve become weak here. Not to say other countries don’t sell canned goods that have preservatives in them, but we definitely lead the pack.

    Earlier this month, the FDA opened an office in Costa Rica to ensure the security of foods imported into the US. I have to wonder why we need food imported from Costa Rica at all? Isn’t the stuff we grow here fresher?

    Maybe our real problem lies in the fact that, overall, we want what we want when we want it. Sounds like a bunch of spoiled Americans to me.