Is Vinegar an Acceptably Safe Alternative for Chlorine Bleach when Disinfecting

Dear Home Ec 101,

Can one substitute vinegar -lots of it- for the bleach when cleaning and disinfecting?
I can’t be around bleach, it triggers SEVERE migraines.

Signed,
Pickled in Pickens

home ec logoHeather says:

There are certain times where I am reluctant to give a hard answer. In our litigious climate, I’m sure you can understand my concern. The CDC says the use of vinegar is inconclusive and needs to be studied further and I only found this after using a multitude of search terms to try and weed out the 934462 sites on the web that basically say, “Vinegar is the Greatest Cleaning Agent Ever!!! I don’t have any evidence, so you’ll just have to trust me because I say so”.

Bleach v Vinegar

Do you know how vinegar is made?

Vinegar is the byproduct of ethanol fermentation. Basically, a specific kind of bacteria -genus Acetobacter metabolize (think of it as their equivalent of eating) alcohol and produce acetic acid as their waste. You’re just craving some french fries with malt vinegar, now aren’t you?

Distilled vinegar is the only type of vinegar that should be used for disinfecting. Why? You need to know the acidity of your cleaning agent. Aside from that, you certainly aren’t going to save money by cleaning your toilet with aged balsamic vinegar, even if it does smell nicer.

So here is my advice, given with the understanding that if you have any type of condition that may compromise your immune system, you follow your health care provider’s advice and not mine. Got it?

In most cases, distilled vinegar is acceptable as a disinfectant for hard surfaces in a home.

It is not safe to use as a disinfectant for any medical equipment. If you are looking for information on cleaning home healthcare items, you must follow your physician’s advice.

There’s a whole genus of bacteria Pseudomonas out there that really don’t give a hoot about vinegar. Is Pseudomonas an issue? Well, for some people, it certainly is. If you have anyone in your home with Cystic Fibrosis, it can cause pneumonia, in patients on chemotherapy it can cause skin infections, etc. Ever heard of hot tub rash? Pseudomonas is the likely culprit. So there are cases where vinegar really isn’t the smart choice. In hospitals, Pseudomonas can be particularly devastating, it’s the cause of Necrotising Entercolitis in NICU patients and devastating skin infections in burn patients.

Dilute solutions of chlorine bleach applied properly is the only agent I feel comfortable recommending when disinfection truly matters. If you use chlorine bleach properly, there should not be a significant source of fumes.

Your home is not a hospital.

As humans we actually need some exposure to pathogens (disease causing agents). Encounters with small amounts of some bacteria may actually be good for our body’s ability to recognize and fend off disease. Think of it this way, influenza is especially problematic because of the way it changes. It’s still the flu, but each season new strains of it show up. Because they are just different enough that our immune systems may not have defenses, they cause people to get sick. If the virus did not change, most healthy individuals would pick up a natural immunity to the virus through exposure and it wouldn’t tear through populations each year. It would be more like the chicken pox or other one-time diseases that can be miserable -or worse in cases like polio, but it wouldn’t really have the potential for a pandemic.

Those of us who have healthy immune systems should be exposed to some bacteria. On a related note, there are some really interesting studies that suggest allergies are the result of our lack of exposure to parasites. -I know when I’m sneezing, itchy-eyed, and snot-nosed for days on end, that a low-grade case of hookworms sounds like a fabulous alternative. I am not an advocate of keeping a hyper-sterile home. Despite all this there are times where disinfection matters, in those cases vinegar is a good choice for most of us, but dilute chlorine bleach is the better alternative for those at risk.

Please use your best judgement when making these decisions.

Also? Wash your hands.

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

ref: http://www.cdc.gov/hicpac/Disinfection_Sterilization/3_3inactivBioAgents.html

Learn Your Refrigerator’s Zones for Optimal Food Storage

Dear Home-Ec 101,

I need help!  I like my milk very, very cold, so the temperature in my fridge is very low (38 degrees), but my produce keeps freezing.  I do keep some produce in the produce drawers, and some I put on the top shelf to see if that worked better, and the jury is still out on that one.  Some things did better and some did not.  How can I have my milk cold and my produce crisp?

Signed,
Limpy Lettuce

Heather says:

38 is actually a great temperature for your refrigerator, but my theory is the cooling space of your appliance isn’t all sitting at 38F.

Get to know your refrigerator’s zones.

Your refrigerator may have very distinct zones and these zones may be much colder (or warmer) than the temperature indicated, depending on the location of the sensor. Get yourself a thermometer for your refrigerator, they are quite inexpensive -$5 on Amazon¹, significantly cheaper than a service call, no?

Over the course of a day or several days, set the thermometer in different locations in your fridge. Shut the door and allow the refrigerator to do its thing undisturbed for a couple of hours. Please don’t just pop the thermometer on a shelf, and stand there waiting for the needle to stop moving. You won’t get accurate results. The door needs to be shut long enough for the refrigerator to cycle and the temperature to return to normal. Write down the temperature of each zone and create yourself a map of your refrigerator.

How do I know where my refrigerator’s zones are?

Well, it’s going to depend a lot on the layout of your particular appliance, but generally the upper area is cooler than the bottom. In general drawers are more about either organization or humidity than temperature, unless there is a drawer at the bottom of the appliance for holding meat. This drawer may have a small vent from the freezer that keeps this portion of the refrigerator extra cold.

You may find that the temperature of your refrigerator is different from the one indicated. Adjust your refrigerator’s thermostat accordingly or simply change your storage habits. If it’s wildly different, it may be time for a service call.

Ivy, my former partner here, once wrote about How to Minimize Food Waste by Thinking Like a Kitchen Manager. It’s a great post explaining the first in first out concept and other ways to reduce the amount of food waste in a home kitchen.

Additionally know that storing produce in a refrigerator isn’t as simple as just opening the door and plunking it on a shelf. Produce is very persnickety about silly things like humidity. Aside from cooling food one of your refrigerator’s most important jobs is removing excess humidity. The slider on your refrigerator’s produce drawer is more than just a nifty little decoration, it opens and closes a vent to allow or prevent the circulation of moisture from the drawer.

The Unclutterer has an old, but highly useful guide to storing produce in a refrigerator.

Have fun getting to know your appliance.

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

¹Affiliate link

The Freezer Was Left Open, Now What?

Dear Home-Ec 101,

My youngest decided to get a popsicle from my deep freezer and didn’t bother to make sure the door was closed. I know not to eat the meat products since I am not sure if they thawed and refroze, but what about the veggies? Must I throw out the ten tons of french fries and corn on the cob?

(And yes, I’ve invested in a freezer door lock with a padlock to guard against future booboos)

Signed,

Thawing in Thermopylae

Heather says:

I have good news and bad news, depending on whether or not you’ve already thrown everything out.

 

Was the freezer door left open? All may not be lost.

All of the food in your freezer is fine to cook or refreeze as long as there were ice crystals still in it. If your meat hasn’t reached more than 40°F it is still safe to cook and eat. Same with your vegetables. If there are still ice crystals it’s perfectly fine to refreeze them as well. What you don’t want to do is reach a point where bacteria can multiply quickly, freeze and not kill off all of those bacteria and then thaw again where the bacteria again have a good chance to multiply.

Just as an FYI, vegetables can also harbor bacteria. Have you seen the news from Europe? However, do not freak out contamination like that is much LESS likely in frozen foods that have to be blanched before freezing. I’m just noting this after someone was rather smug about not being affected by a beef recall.

If your freezer door was left ajar for a few hours and some foods partially thawed, not fully, they are safe to use. I’m actually more concerned about the motor of your freezer. I hope the freezer is the type that shuts off while the door is ajar so there wasn’t a lot of unnecessary wear on the unit. If your deep freeze was left ajar for several days, you are correct, most of the food is a total loss.

If you have a lot of ground beef to use, simply brown it and store. You can season it if you like, just be sure to label it for its intended future use.

If you have stew beef, go ahead and brown and stew the beef.

Poultry toss into your slow cooker and then separate from the bones to use in a bunch of different recipes. Then use the bones to make chicken stock.

Good luck, I hope this doesn’t prove to be too major of a loss.

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

How to Clean Kitchen Laundry in a Public Laundromat

Dear Home-Ec 101,

I love your website, your tips have been extremely helpful to me. I have a question, though, whose answer I couldn’t find in your archives.Maybe you can help me out?

I don’t have a washer at home so I take most of my laundry to a laundromat. I’ve been washing my dishcloths in a bucket with regular laundry detergent and dish washing liquid for stains. But when it comes to bigger items like aprons and table cloths… I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve been buying new ones because it just feels strange to wash them on a public laundromat, even if I wash them separately from my clothes.

If I don’t have a washer, how should I wash kitchen things?

Thanks a lot,
Clueless Germaphobe

Heather says:

If you had your own washing machine and knew what exactly was being washed and when I’d suggest you take a deep breath and not worry. You can always disinfect your own washing machine after doing something awful like cleaning up after a toilet overflow or dealing with toddlers and potty training accidents. Let’s face it, not everyone out there is considerate and when it comes to food safety, go ahead and let your germaphobe tendencies run free.

The following information is from the New Mexico State University Agricultural Extension:

Use a disinfectant when washing at a laundromat. Illness from another family can be passed on if the washing machine is not disinfected before it is used. Wipe off the surface of the machine with a disinfectant, then add disinfectant to the wash cycle. Follow the directions on the disinfectant’s label.

We’ve talked, in the past about how to use chlorine bleach safely.

First of all, in your situation it makes more sense, both from an economical and food safety sense to use paper towels for any clean up involving the preparation of raw meat and grease.

Next, you most need to remember when laundering your kitchen dishtowels, aprons, and dish cloths in a public laundromat is to not overload the machines. Your wash cloths and towels need enough room to move freely and enough water for the the dirt and germs to be suspended in the wash water so they do not end up re-deposited on the clothing.

Use the dryer on the hottest setting possible. Most bacteria can’t survive the heat of a dryer.

Don’t use the same laundry basket you used to bring the icky dishcloths and towels in -use a laundry bag that also gets washed- to transport the clean laundry home. OR simply give it a good wipe down with a sanitizing solution while you wait for your clothing to dry.

So here’s the short and sweet answer:

  • Use chlorine bleach – not the fancy scented kind, the traditional, plain sanitizing sodium hypochlorite version in your wash water -this is why I highly recommend buying cheap bar towel style dish cloths and towels.
  • Disinfect the surfaces of the machine and the folding table. Pretty much assume someone has used it as a changing table without cleaning it.
  • Use the largest load setting possible and don’t overload the machine. Use an appropriate amount of detergent.
  • Use the hottest setting of a dryer.

 

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com

Ground Turkey and Meat / Food Safety

Dear Home Ec 101,

We want to start using ground turkey instead of ground beef. There is a fantastic sale on Jennie-O ground turkey, but I know they had a recall last year due to salmonella poisoning. If we cook the meat to the right temperature, and wash our hands well after handling the raw meat, should we be safe eating it?

I also noticed that the recall was announced in June 2011, but the meat it applied to had a sell by date of December 2011. I had no idea meat was sitting around for that long. I’m just curious if they freeze it or if it can really be safe for that long? I’ve never purchased meat that had a sell by date 6 months out.

Signed,
I was the turkey all along!*

Heather says:

Washing your hands and cooking ground turkey to 165°F is exactly the right procedure to prevent food poisoning.

Don’t forget to thoroughly clean any surfaces which come into contact with raw meat products. Just don’t forget that sanitizing is a two step process.

I spent some time researching the Jennie-O Ground Turkey recall and the recall applied to frozen ground turkey patties. The reason the ground turkey had such a long sell-by time was the product was frozen, not fresh.

Freezing food does not necessarily kill bacteria.  Typically freezing a food just keeps the bacteria from multiplying, while refrigerating simply slows the bacterial growth rate.

Here are some previous Home Ec 101 posts on Freezer Safety:

How to Freeze Food (part 1)

How to Freeze Food (part 2)

How to Cook Homemade Frozen Foods

Food Safety and the Deep Freeze

Can you put hot food into the refrigerator?

I hope these articles help you feel confident in avoiding food poisoning in your home kitchen.

*You win one Internetz if you can tell me where I got this quote?

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.