The scrubby sponge is a work horse in the camp kitchen from scrubbing dishes and pots and pans to absorbing liquids and wiping up messes. Along the way it can also absorb harmful food borne pathogens.
Though you can’t eliminate 100% of germs lurking in a sponge, there are several ways to dramatically reduce the risk of cross-contamination—which can lead to food poisoning.
To lower the risk of cross-contamination, you should clean and sanitize your sponge daily. At home, you can pop a damp sponge into the microwave for one minute or run it through a dishwasher with a drying cycle.
In camp, we wash our dishes using a 3 tub system. Hot water wash, hot water rinse, cold water and bleach rinse (about a capful of bleach per gallon of water). When we’re all finished washing dishes, I clean the sponge and rinse it in the bleach water.
While cleaning your sponge daily helps reduce the risk of food poisoning, you should consider replacing your kitchen sponge regularly. If your sponge starts to smell at any point—toss it out immediately. I always keep a couple of spares in my chuck box.
Speaking of storage, it’s important to not only wring out your sponge completely after each use and wash off any loose food or debris, but you should also store it in a dry location. Letting your sponge lay wet in your wash tub takes longer for it to dry and allows harmful bacteria to multiply quickly as well as increases the opportunity for bacteria growth. Also, avoid leaving any damp sponges in an enclosed area such as your chuck box. In camp, I clip my sponge to my clothesline so it can drip/air dry when I’m not using it.
Using your sponge to clean up juices from ground beef or poultry can increase your chances of spreading harmful food borne pathogens. Instead, use a paper towel or disinfectant wipes to clean up spills and other bacteria-loaded messes.
And, don’t neglect your dishcloths. While less porous than sponges, dishcloths should still be laundered frequently as they can harbor enough harmful bacteria to make you sick. Remember to wash in hot water and dry them on high heat in the dryer and consider having separate dishcloths for different purposes (e.g. hand washing and dish drying). After every camping trip, we pull out all our sponges, washcloths, and dishcloths and launder them before returning them to our chuck box.