OPINION: Critics of wooden serving boards are barking up the wrong tree

Restaurant chains have been using wooden boards for serving food for years, but that hasn’t stopped suppliers of alternative materials casting aspersions over their food hygiene qualities. In actual fact they are as safe as they possibly could be and, what’s more, there is scientific evidence to prove it, writes Patrick Gardner of T&G Woodware.

It has been claimed by some plastic board manufacturers in the past year that wooden boards used for serving food are unhygienic. As a company that majors in wooden boards and platters we certainly take issue with these claims — and while it is said that wooden boards are porous it is this fact that makes wooden boards hygienic.

This is one of the reasons why, for the past 20 years, there has been huge growth in the use of wooden boards for serving and presenting food with the compliance of Environmental Health Officers all over the UK, the US and most of Europe.

One of the main criticisms from plastic board producers to discredit wooden boards is that wooden boards are porous and absorb smells, dyes and fats into the upper layer, thus building a favourable medium for the development of micro-organisms. 

However, two researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US — Dr. Dean O. Cliver and Ms. N. O. Ak — beg to differ. They set out to find ways of decontaminating wooden kitchen surfaces and “ended up finding that such surfaces are pretty good at decontaminating themselves”.

They began their research comparing plastic and wooden cutting boards after the US Department of Agriculture told them that they had no scientific evidence to support their recommendation that plastic rather than wooden cutting boards be used in home kitchens.

Then and since, the US Department of Agriculture’s Meat and Poultry Inspection Manual (official regulations) and the US Food and Drug Administration’s 1999 Food Code (recommended regulations for restaurants and retail food sales in the various states of the US) permit use of cutting boards made of maple or similar close-grained hardwood.

In the case of the UK, Beechwood, Heveawood — wood from the rubber tree — and Acacia meet this criterion of a close-grained hardwood.

I have read at least one supplier of melamine platters with wood effects claim that traditional wooden platters can only be used to serve certain types of food. This is without evidence and without stating the types of foods. There is no restriction on any foods in association with wood, except liquids would be best in ceramic or synthetic and plastic materials.

Wooden boards are not only hygienic but are easy to clean for hygienic further use”

Food and wood are both natural organic materials, tactile to the touch or taste. Plastics including melamine do not have this aura. When it comes to wood being difficult to clean efficiently, studies show that wood surfaces washed three minutes after contamination were found to yield essentially no bacteria, whereas residual bacteria were found on both the new and used plastic boards.

When the level of contamination was high more bacteria were found on used than new plastic boards. Left overnight at room temperature, the bacteria had completely disappeared from the wood but had multiplied on the plastic.

It was found that the natural cellulose in wood absorbs bacteria but will not release it. It seems to strangle the bacteria. These results seem astonishing, but unlike the plastics, trees have spent hundreds of millions of years fighting off bacteria. They should, by now, be pretty good at it. They live longer than almost every organism. Even when a tree is dead it continues to resist the attacks of micro-organisms. Slaughtering a few salmonella is child’s play.

From these US reports there is no doubt that wooden boards are hygienic, but although all the procedures were applied scientifically they were not applied to melamine.

However, our point is not questioning the hygienic value of melamine boards and platters but that under even extreme conditions of bacteria applications to various wooden boards the mechanisms within wood rendered the bacteria inert after a short period. Wooden boards are not only hygienic but are easy to clean for hygienic further use.

In an industry where hygiene comes first, correct information is essential and I hope that this information helps to correct any misconceptions on the value of wood in the hospitality industry.

Patrick Gardner is the managing director of T&G Woodware, a leading designer and manufacturer of products for the catering industry. www.tg-woodware.com

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