In the early 1970’s, the USDA recommended that meat handlers such as butchers and restaurants replace wood cutting boards with plastic. The recommendation was heard as a categorical “MUST”. The assumption was that plastic cutting surfaces were less likely to transfer pathogens. No scientific evidence existed to support their opinion. Years later, researches decided to eliminate the information void by challenging the plastic and wood surfaces with E. coli O157:77, Salmonella, et al. Results indicated that new plastic and wood surfaces were comparable in cleaning and disinfecting properties.
It was discovered that bacteria were not recoverable from wood surfaces a short time after application. Bacteria did migrate into the interior of the wood, however they 1) did no multiply, 2) were not transferable, and 3) eventually died. The same bacterial concentrations on the plastic were transferable, but both surfaces were easily cleaned. Blade damaged plastic surfaces are very different.
Here is the rub: Blade damaged plastic surfaces are very different. First, plastic suffers much greater damage than wood under similar use. More importantly, damaged plastic surfaces proved difficult or impossible to decontaminate while the marred wood behaved much like new wood.
The plastic smoothness factor has reach the street according to my friend Brad Daley, Partner and General Manager at one of my favorite haunts, Cascal, a popular tapas restaurant and bar in Mountain View. He said the Health Department inspectors tell him when the plastic cutting surfaces need sanding. If the surface is visually scarred or discolored, they are told to replace or sand them; no other specifications. I’ll bet there’s an assumption hiding there. Another dangling end is that plastic surfaces vary greatly in chemical properties compared to close-grained wood, and only a few polymers have been tested.
In 1999, the USDA Meat & Poultry inspection manual (official regulations) and the US FDA Food Code (recommendations for restaurants, etc.) permitted the use of close-grained hardwoods, like maple, for cutting boards. Neither has a recommendation for the type of polymer that is acceptable nor do they specify how the plastic surfaces must be maintained. That’s a Gilda Radner “Never mind” to me.