Every Kitchen’s Dirty Little Secret:
Bacteria Superstore & Roach Motel

From March 2003 NEHA Journal Of Environmental Health
Guest Commentary By Ken Krall


Now that time & temperature and basic food handling issues are commonly known Critical Control Points, efforts can be directed towards the more detailed "back alleys" of commercial kitchens. In the July/August 2001 NEHA Journal an article regarding oven mitts as a vehicle for cross contamination is an excellent example.

Let’s talk about cardboard. We all know cardboard crates for produce are traveling interstate Roach Motels. Darkness, moisture, lots of food- the next best home for cockroaches are the kitchens they are delivered to. However there are much smaller creatures lurking in cardboard. A recent laboratory study confirmed that
E. Coli, Salmonella, Listeria and Shigella grow and flourish in cardboard under normal kitchen environmental conditions. A separate study sampled cardboard plastic film and foil boxes taken directly from use in random commercial kitchens. This study revealed up to 27 million CFU/g –Colony Forming Units per gram. That is twenty seven times the amount of general bacteria & filth necessary to start food spoilage.

Examples of daily cardboard usage in most commercial kitchens include:

  1. Cutter boxes for plastic film and aluminum foil View Graphic Image
  2. Pop up dispensers for foil & wax sheets
  3. Food service food handling glove boxes
  4. Parchment paper boxes
  5. Produce & meat boxes

Most Overlooked Vehicle for Contamination

Probably one of the most overlooked vehicles for cross contamination is the cardboard cutter box for plastic film and aluminum foil. They are found in virtually every retail food establishment. These boxes are nothing more than shipping containers with a blade attached. The cutter box is used as a piece of equipment on food contact surfaces. In a normal day this box can be splashed with raw egg, chicken, fish and other meat juices, sanitation chemicals, virtually any moisture found on and around cutting boards and work surfaces. Cardboard is absorbent and cannot be washed. Recognizing these cardboard cutter boxes as equipment used on food contact surfaces makes them a direct violation to the 1999 Food Code, as stated in Chapter 4 and Annex 3. Cardboard is a high carbon source. When combined with moisture at normal kitchen temperatures, it is a prime breeding ground for bacteria growth. If pathogens are present in raw or undercooked meat juices etc. and absorbed into cardboard, the feeding frenzy begins. Any foodservice employee knows that the plastic film and foil boxes are carried by hand from work table to cutting board to shelf or wherever, all day long, over and over again.

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Method of Cross Contamination

Lacking space in any kitchen, the box usually starts its day where it was left the night before, on the prep table. The chef has a bucket with a stack of "cardboard" egg crates on the table. The cracking of 20 dozen eggs begins. This creates inevitable splash and running of raw egg on the table due to the fast pace of this action. Next to the chef, the prep cook has just sliced open the breakfast ham for steaks with its juices oozing onto the table. The plastic film is conveniently placed next to the cutting board so the ham steaks can be wrapped. Next the prep cook grabs the cutter box with bare hands and places it on a shelf below the table to make room to butcher a case of chicken breasts. Is that shelf sanitary? Is that case of chicken breasts made of "cardboard" and filled with melting, bloody ice? The butchering, portioning and pounding the case of chicken breasts is completed. Now the cutter box is picked up by hand from the shelf and placed back on the worktable. One can assume this table has a nice raw chicken juice layer ready to absorb into cardboard. The prep cook then individually wraps the breasts as part of portion control procedures. The chef has prepared two pans of lasagna for a dinner special. The pans are on another prep table. The chef asks the dishwasher to bring the plastic film to the table in order to wrap the pans for refrigeration. The dishwasher grabs the box with his hands and places it on the table and goes back to sorting the silverware. Next the chef places a cutting board down to filet a salmon. Is the cutter box moved away? No, it will be needed in a few minutes to wrap the individual salmon filets to preserve freshness. The usual raw fish juice runs along the cutting board to the table where the box naturally absorbs the moisture. The chef cleans up and of course performs a hand washing. He or she then grabs the cutter box and places it on a shelf, to be used later. Now the cardboard has sufficient moisture to stay moist all day. Not only will bacteria begin to grow rapidly, general filth will easily adhere to the moist cardboard surface.

This scenario continues on throughout the day and night until everything is carefully wrapped up for the next day. The same goes for aluminum foil as well. The cross contamination potential is obvious.

Eye Opening Results

Is this scenario realistic? In fact, it is rather simplified. A simple inspection of the bottom and sides of any cutter box used for more than one day in an average volume kitchen will reveal moisture and deteriorated fiber. Keep in mind some of these boxes are used for weeks at a time before the roll inside is used up. However, these boxes are a violation the moment they are put into use. The older the box the more deterioration will occur. You will find decaying cardboard and holes. Where are the decayed cardboard fragments? The cardboard exfoliates onto cutting boards, worktables, bare hands and food. Obviously a foodservice environment is extremely abusive. Plastic film may also be found in Dental offices, tattoo shops and laboratories.


Many cardboard cutter boxes completely deteriorate before a roll of film or foil is used up. Industry estimates that, on average, 10% of all film and foil are thrown out in order to open a new box. A good dispenser allows for the entire roll to be used. If basic pride and professionalism is not enough for a foodservice operator to take action, saving money often will. As stated these cutter boxes are nothing more than shipping containers with a blade attached.

Public Health Significance

Elimination of cardboard from food preparation and service areas will greatly reduce the risk of cross contamination and the transfer of general filth to consumer food products and prepared meals. The elimination of cardboard will also contribute to the overall goals of the HACCP program and the dedicated efforts of food safety and environmental health professionals.

Recommended Solution

Identify the following as food contact surfaces:

    1. Plastic film/wrap, including continuous and perforated rolls

    2. Aluminum foil, including continuous roll and pop up sheets

    3. Individual wax and paper sheets used for portioning and wrapping

    4. Parchment paper

    5. Food handling gloves, including latex, non-latex etc.

In fact film, foil, wax paper etc. are all used in direct contact with raw and
cooked foods for storage and cooking uses.


Bottom line – The cardboard cutter boxes for plastic film and aluminum foil are every kitchens dirty little secret, a virtual bacteria and pathogen superstore. Along with oven mitts, we can safely say these boxes are some of the most overlooked vehicles for cross contamination. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of our Health Departments and legislators, sanitation awareness and training are bringing to the forefront the "back alleys" of commercial kitchens. Entire lines of products have been developed to solve the challenges associated with proper food handling and common sense sanitation issues.

Fortunately there are plastic dispensers available that replace the cardboard cutter boxes. It should be noted that not all of them are NSF approved. NSF approved film and foil dispensers are readily available that work very well and are less than $50. Kenkut Products Inc. in Petaluma California distributes NSF approved film and foil dispensers. Complete information is available by contacting Kenkut Products Inc. (see corresponding author information below). Their website, offers an excellent insight to the content of this article.

Contact the author: Ken Krall

Click here for Complete Printable PDF version of this article

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Reference    click below links to view

1999 FDA Food Code Chapter 4 Paragraphs 4-101.11/ 4-101.111/ 4-201.11/ 4-202.11/ 4-202.16

1999 FDA Food Code Annex 3 Paragraphs 4.101.11/4-101.111/ 4-201.11/ 4-202.11/ 4-202.16/ 4--601.11/ 4-602.13

Marin Biologic

Food Development Centre

Journal Of Environmental Health, July/ August 2001 Paul Weklinski, Oven Mitts as a Vehicle for Cross Contamination…
Corresponding Author: Ken Krall, President, Kenkut Products Inc. Ken is a former professional chef and restaurant owner, Culinary Institute of America Graduate, inventor and currently an equipment dealer/consultant


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