wooden or plastic cutting boards which are safer? the facts

The quick answer is most woods are food safe and for cutting boards most used wooden boards in real world situations are more hygienic than most used plastic cutting boards. This may be surprising for some so lets run through the background in a bit more detail and I’ll also point you to all the regulations and science I know of on the subject so you can reach your own conclusions.
There is much conflicting info on the web, beware and read carefully, little is backed by scientific research.
First let’s look back to the early 1990’s when Professor Dean Cliver Professor of Food Safety at the University of California began research comparing plastic and wooden cutting boards after the U.S. Department of Agriculture told him they had no scientific evidence to support their recommendation that plastic, rather than wooden cutting boards be used in home kitchens. Interestingly though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code (recommended regulations for restaurants) permitted use of cutting boards made of maple or similar close-grained hardwood.
Anyway Professor Cliver and his team took wooden and plastic boards, smeared them with bacteria, cleaned them by washing with detergent then tested them to see how many bacteria they could recover from the surface. 

“disease bacteria … were not recoverable from wooden surfaces in a short time after they were applied, unless very large numbers were used. Wooden boards that had been used and had many knife cuts acted almost the same as new wood, whereas plastic surfaces that were knife-scarred were impossible to clean and disinfect manually …” read the report here

Interestingly Professor Cliver cites an unconnected study in California of sporadic salmonellosis which included cutting boards among many risk factors by Professor Philip Class. It revealed that those using wooden cutting boards in their home kitchens were less than half as likely as average to contract salmonellosis, those using synthetic (plastic or glass) cutting boards were about twice as likely as average to contract salmonellosis.

This is as far as I can find the only academic research comparing wood and other materials, the results clearly say a new plastic board works well as does a new or old wooden board, the real dangerous one is a plastic board with cuts in it, which of course they all have once you have used them. So if you inevitably have cuts in the board sensible advice would be to use wood? well no current advice is as soon as your board has cuts throw it ways and get a new one. 

UK Food Standards Agency link

“True or false? Plastic chopping boards are more hygienic than wooden ones.

False – it’s a myth
There isn’t any strong evidence that one type of chopping
board is more or less hygienic than another, whether plastic,
wooden, glass or even marble. What is important is that
the board gets cleaned properly after every use and is
replaced if it gets damaged, for example from deep cuts or
scoring. You could also use separate chopping boards for
raw and ready-to-eat foods.

Food safety authority of Ireland link

“Wooden chopping boards can be used for food preparation once they are kept in a clean and hygienic condition. Generally, all surfaces which come in contact with food must be of sound condition and be easy to clean and where necessary disinfect. They must be made of smooth, washable, corrosion resistant and non-toxic material. Chopping boards must be constructed in a way that will minimize the risk of contamination. They must be kept in a good state of repair.

Whether wooden or plastic chopping boards are used it is essential that they are in good condition. Deeply scored chopping boards are more difficult to clean and can harbour harmful microorganisms which can contaminate food. They should be re-planed or if this is not an option they should be thrown away and replaced by new boards.”

USDA link

“Which is better, wooden, or plastic cutting boards? Consumers may choose either wood or a nonporous surface cutting board such as plastic, marble, glass, or pyroceramic. Nonporous surfaces are easier to clean than wood.

All plastic and wooden cutting boards wear out over time. Once cutting
boards become excessively worn or develop hard-to-clean grooves, they
should be discarded.

Despite the evidence and official advice there are still lots of folk out there that think plastic just has to be better. This advice from was recently sent to me it’s a photograph of advice in a National Trust volunteers basecamp kitchen. I will be asking the Trust on what evidence they base this advice.

Some of the many articles online are simply wrong and misleading such as this there are many folk out there making a lot of money from making and selling cutting boards of various types and many of the online articles are linked back to folk on a sales pitch. The wikipedia article on cutting boards changes regularly depending on whether the bamboo, wood or plastic folk edited it last. Whilst I sell wooden bowls and plates and have an interest in sustainable local materials I do try to present objective facts so folk can make their own mind up. 

Whatever board you use be aware that the most common way to make yourself ill in the kitchen is cross contamination, you cut raw meat then use the same board, knife or fingers for the lettuce or bread then leave it in a warm environment for an hour for the bacteria breed up to dangerous levels. BBQ season is best for this, not because we under-cook the chicken but because blokes doing the cooking in the garden don’t understand the danger of cross contamination and are not so hot on hygiene.

4 Responses to wooden or plastic cutting boards which are safer? the facts

  1. Gorges Smythe July 28, 2012 at 9:00 pm #

    Bottom line? If you cook the meat properly afterwards, you could cut it up on a manure shovel.

  2. Richard Law July 30, 2012 at 7:24 am #

    I think the essential is that wood contains tannin which inhibits growth of bacteria, see this article by YW Huang from University of Florida fshn.ifas.ufl.edu/seafood/sst/AnnPdf/18th_234.pdf

  3. Robin Wood July 30, 2012 at 7:57 am #

    Thanks for the input. Gorges whilst heat kills most bacteria it does not kill all pathogens nor food spoilage chemicals so thorough cooking is not a substitute for good food hygiene.Richard tanin does inhibit bacteria as shown in the linked paper but many woods are low in tanin. Cliver's paper studied 10 species and found no discernible difference between species. We don't know why bacteria don't breed in wood that research has not been done yet, we do know they don't and that is important if you want to stay healthy.

  4. Lluis August 1, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    Hi Robin, just thought I´d like to mention a visit to our craft workshops today by a Portuguese part-time furniture maker, Carlos Gabreu, from Lisbon in Portugal. He came to our workshops in north Spain via your blog post about our studios in Cristosende and the folk museum of Grandas de Salime in Asturias, as well as the knife makers of Tarramundi? He´s a fan of your blog and those posts you wrote about our hand-weaving and basketry studios, Casa dos Artesans, the museum at Grandas de Salime and the knife makers of Tarramundi inspired their summer holidays this year! Wishing you a great summer, Anna and Lluis in Cristosende!