The wooden table controversy

April 22nd, 2015 | Posted by greg in Daily life...

Seldom are the days where the sun bathes a wooden bakery table nowadays… He might be playing hide and seek with the clouds, but that’s not really the culprit here. Hong Kong rental prices would rather be one of the reasons, pushing operators to hide kitchens and bakeries below ground, away from the expensive limelight. Business is business and of course cost is critical. These are reasons for the sun not to be anywhere near that wooden table, if there is any that is…

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Back in the 60’s there were books being published to explain that smoking while being pregnant was possible and good. In the 80’s they made us believe that margarine was good for health, the scariest part being that most of us believed it, can you imagine! And the list goes on… Today, they are trying to make us believe that those wooden tables are not hygienic.

Often blamed for being dirty and unsanitary, deliveries of ingredients in wooden crates are to be decanted at receiving, claiming it might carry parasites and other form of dirt from the mighty outside world (sometimes that’s how I feel when I walk into some strictly HACCP ruled kitchen, a complete aseptic environment afraid of the outside, bathing in sanitizer). Between you and me, I have seen plastic trays a lot more soiled than wooden crates! But anyway, this depends more on the handling of the supplier rather than the actual material the crate is made of, so we can rule out wood being bad here. Now, there is a natural association made by most people that if wooden crates are bad, then wooden tables are bad, well, because it is wood. Nonsense.

According to HACCP guidelines and quite a few Food Safety rules manual, wood is to be replaced by PET material, notably on cutting board. There is the danger of having splinters from the wood, and according to these hygiene guru, wood is not safe for hygiene in food production. Yet, according to studies, the bacterial development in PET material is a lot higher than in wood where natural bacterial defense is present and with a natural ability to expel humidity and dry versus PET where humidity stays trapped. The microbiological analysis from that same study mentions and concludes:

“The results of our research shows that number and species of microorganism are statistical different on PET and wood (p < 0.05). According to the results obtained can be confirmed that the material have statistically significant impact on the presence of colonies in CFU/20 cm2, except for the Enterobacteriaceae and Yeasts, where the statistically significant difference is not present. It is evidently that the materials of pasta tray have influence on bacterial number and that wood is more hygienic material than PET.” [1] [2]

As a baker, I could also tell you that working on stainless steel, marble or PET is the perfect plan after 20 years to have joint pain and terrible back pain after so much bread shaping on hard surface; wood absorbs shock and is better for your body. During my research readings for this article I came across amazing practices for sanitizing wooden bench, for example in Russia, where the team would cover their wooden table with an inch thick of salt and keep it like that overnight. The next morning, they would wipe the table and start working. In other instances, people used to scrub their bench with salt and vinegar as sanitizer daily for periods of over 60 years! I am not saying that those are best practices, but it says a lot.

Overall, we can say that education is, again, a key point here. If you use wooden board and toss them in your washing machine after service, it might be very unhygienic on the long term. Yet, science and nature shows us that wood has some advantages and that good practices, environmental knowledge (notably on the kind of wood to use), and of course food safety knowledge. Additionally, wood is a renewable material, and if made from responsible sources, it has a massively lower impact of the environment and is definitely cheaper to decompose than PET. So, we can just seat on this, right here, and look at it just like when we stared at margarine in the 80’s and think everything is going well. Or we can choose to learn and be responsible; using a wooden table has now officially become a special skill!

I wouldn’t trade my bakery wooden benches for anything in the world! 

[1] Almedom AM, Blumenthal U, Manderson,L. Hygiene Evaluation Procedures: Approaches and Methods for Assessing Water – and Sanitation – related Hygiene Practices. London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, International Nutrition Foundation for Developing Countries (INFDC) 1997.
[2] http://www.formatex.info/microbiology4/vol1/188-194.pdf

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5 Responses

  • Jeanne says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly! I had this very discussion with my father-in-law who teaches biochemistry at medical school. He pointed out that studies show that plastic boards seal over cuts–thus sealing in the bacteria–and they are very hard to truly get clean. Wood, on the other hand, does not seal over cuts, which allows the bacteria to be scrubbed out.

  • Lina says:

    Am reading this and thinking about my wooden spoons, wooden chopping board, my wooden baking board…and my wooden table(!). Let’s concentate more on basic food handling hygiene , frequent handwashing and ensuring proper storage of chilled foods than blaming the poor oll wooden table :P



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