Bacteria in 5 Paper Kitchen Towels Exceeds Standard by up to 4 Times Variable Performance in Water Absorption and Tensile Strength

15 April 2019
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Bacteria in 5 Paper Kitchen Towels Exceeds Standard by up to 4 Times Variable Performance in Water Absorption and Tensile Strength

Paper kitchen towels are generally better than paper hand towels for water absorbency, so are more commonly used for cleaning, wiping hands and for food preparation.  But the Consumer Council tests on 15 models of kitchen towels revealed that 5 models exceeded the Mainland standard for total bacterial count by up to 4 times.  If these kitchen towels come in contact with cooked food, they may pose a risk to food safety.  The tests also found considerable variation in water absorption level and rate, and tensile strength, and a lack of complete and clear product labelling on the net weight, number of sheets, ply number and dimensions.  Manufacturers and suppliers are urged to provide full and accurate information for consumers to facilitate product comparison, and to tighten the quality, strictly control of the manufacturing process. They are expected to inspect transportation and storage conditions closely to prevent damage to product packaging, which may result in humidity and bacterial contamination, affecting the paper quality, such as tensile strength and odour.

Among the 15 kitchen towel models, 13 were in rolls, and 2 were the folded type. All were 2-ply, with sheets per roll/pack varied from 50 to 182 pieces.  The sheets in most of the models were square, and 3 models with smaller surface area per sheet had closer spacing preset perforation lines to allow usage in different sizes.  The test focused on 3 main areas: hygiene, food safety and paper characteristics.

Paper napkins (including kitchen towels) are not aseptically treated daily products, their hygiene level may well be concerned for consumers.  Based on Mainland standards GB15979 and GB/T26174, 5 models exceeded the total bacterial count standard by 20% to fourfold, ranging from 240 to 1,000cfu/g.  The Council strongly urges manufacturers to do their utmost in quality control to ensure kitchen towels comply with product safety requirements.  The Council has referred the test findings to the Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) for follow-up action.

Though all models were free of pathogenic bacteria, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Staphylococcus aureus and hemolytic Streptococcus, it must be stressed that the total bacterial count standard is one of the hygiene indicators in the manufacturing process.   If kitchen towels with a high bacterial content come in contact with cooked food it is possible that the food may pose a health risk of bacterial contamination; people with weaker immunity should be cautioned.

In the performance test, there was considerable variation among the models in various respects.  Regarding water absorption capacity, the worst performer, with absorption capacity of only 6g, was rated poorly with 2 points; the 2 best performers, one with water absorption capacity of 11.4g and the other 10.7g, were awarded a high rating of 4.5 points.  In terms of water absorption rate, the slowest model took 6.5 seconds to fully absorb water, receiving a mere 1.5-point rating, while the quickest performer took only 3 seconds, receiving a high 4.5 point score.

The models were also tested for dry and wet tensile strength, with fairly ordinary results.  In the dry tensile strength test, only 2 models were rated 4.5, and 6 models were rated with only 2.5 points or below.  In the wet tensile test, over half (8 models)  received a low rating of 2.5 points or below, with 2 of them receiving barely 1 point, showing that when wet, over half of the models easily fall apart, meaning durability is far from satisfactory.     

The test also examined labelling practices.  None of the models showed the net weight per roll/pack; 2 indicated only the number of sheets; 5 provided only the ply number, the size per sheet, or the sheet number per roll/pack; and 2 came without any of these specifications.  Only less than half (6 models) of the models had all 3 of the following information: ply number, sheet size and sheet number per roll/pack.  With only limited product information available, it is difficult for consumers to make a meaningful comparison.  Manufacturers are urged to provide detailed labelling of the product specifications on the packaging to enhance product information transparency.

Price per pack of the models were ranged from $4.23 to $7.97 per roll, a variation of almost a double.  But if calculated in terms of the sheets in a roll, the price varied even more widely from $0.04 to $0.12 per sheet, a twofold difference.  As kitchen towels vary in the number of sheets per roll/pack, the size per sheet, the thickness as well as how tight or loose a roll is packaged, consumers are unable to base merely on the retail price to determine which offers the best value for money.

When choosing and using kitchen towels, consumers are advised to heed the following:

  • Do not re-use used kitchen towels and shall dispose properly. For instance, if they have been used to absorb moisture from food, do not use them again to wipe other areas to avoid the spread of bacteria and contamination of other food or utensils;
  • If you intend to use kitchen towels in direct contact with food or kitchenware, choose products that come with food safety certificates;
  • Store unopened kitchen towels in a clean, dry, well ventilated place, and after opening a package, keep them away from water taps or food preparation counters to prevent contamination by raw meat or other fresh food;
  • Be environmentally friendly, avoid frequent excessive use of kitchen towels, and consider choosing and using products with a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label, which indicates that the product was manufactured from sustainably managed trees and not from illegal logging or from protected forests;
  • If a kitchen cloth is used for cleaning, always keep the cloth clean and dry, wash and dry it regularly, and do not use the same cloth for different purposes at the same time.  As tap water cannot thoroughly clean the cloth after use, boil it in hot water for 5 minutes to kill any bacteria, and if you clean the cloth with detergent, pay attention to chemical residue;
  • If you are not able to sanitize a kitchen cloth every day, replace it once a week, or if necessary, use kitchen towels or washable kitchen towels for cleaning; but when comes in contact with food, it is more hygienic choice to use disposable kitchen towels;
  • Paper napkins are used for everyday purposes with different characteristics.  Paper hand towels are generally thinner than kitchen towels, so they have weaker water absorption ability.  They are manufactured with lax control on aerobic microbial count nor meeting compliance requirements for food safety and hygiene, so they are not a suitable substitute for kitchen towels.

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