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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Eating At Those Nasty Restaurants

Americans love to eat out. For families and friends, enjoying a good meal in their favorite restaurant is a satisfying, pleasant experience. Most people love good food, and they regularly frequent restaurants that serve it. Eating well is an important part of maintaining a happy, healthy life. In fact, famed author Virginia Woolf said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

Did you ever wonder how much money you spend on food? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American "consumer unit" spent about $6,458 on food in 2011. This works out to about $538 per month. That's a lot of "green" for your lettuce, and you know food prices continue to rise.

To many, the shocking part of the food statistic is that Americans spend almost as much on going out to eat as they do on their own groceries. Average food "at home" prices = $3,838 a year (5.9% of total expenditures) while average food "away from home" expenditures = $2,620 a year (4.6 of total expenditures).

Dining out is a huge expense, and it continues to be a large part of the American budget. For their money, people expect to consume restaurant food that is both healthy and nutritious. So much has been written about tightened standards to assure safety and promote good health in food products.

But, how about the standards of cleanliness in restaurants? What do you know about the restaurants you frequent and their attention to microbial contaminants?

Bryan Miller, New York Times restaurant critic wrote:
“Contrary to popular notion, truck drivers know nothing about good restaurants. If you want a reliable tip, drive into a town, go to the nearest appliance store and seek out the dishwasher repair man. He spends a lot of time in restaurant kitchens and usually has strong opinions about them.”



Question: What Restaurant Table-top Item Harbors the Most Bacteria?

Make your guess now, and please don't cheat by reading ahead.

ABC's "Good Morning America" tested just about every item on the table of many restaurants for germs. They tagged along undercover while a researcher with the University of Arizona swabbed the items on the tables of 12 restaurants in three states: New York, Ohio and Arizona.

"These are objects you're going to touch that can serve as vehicles that are transmitting micro organisms that can potentially make you ill," said Dr. Chuck Gerba of the University of Arizona.

After the swabs were collected, analysts at a lab examined them for total bacteria counts and coliforms – a broad class of bacteria found in the environment. The presence of coliforms can indicate fecal matters.

So, the following represents the findings of the limited research.

(Elisabeth Leamy and Vanessa Weber, "Dining Out? Do You Know Which Restaurant Tabletop Item Is Germier Than a Toilet Seat?" ABC Good Morning America, December 30 2010)

Is the dirtiest object the sugar? Actually, sugar had the lowest average count, with only 2,300 bacteria. Maybe the low count is the result of less people handling the item. Healthy people do seem to be very conscious of their sugar intake.

Is the main culprit the salt? Nope. The salt fell in the middle of bacteria counts at every restaurant in the test. Could that be because so many people have cut down on their salt consumption because of a wide variety of health issues?

You may think the germiest item is the ketchup (or the mustard) because it is used by customers on so many different food items and because it sits unrefrigerated on the tables. Wrong. The ketchup was also in the middle of bacteria counts at every restaurant.

According to Snopes, Heinz said "refrigerating ketchup keeps the flavor at its peak. However, unrefrigerated ketchup is safe to eat. But, after several weeks air will dilute the ketchup's flavor."

Donna Scott, a Food Safety Specialist with the Department of Food Science at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in New York, does advise storing both condiments in the refrigerator after opening. She says, "Despite their acidic ingredients, neither condiment is sufficiently acidic to kill bacteria and microorganisms, including mold, that may be introduced to the containers after opening. But, refrigeration does not kill bacteria and microorganisms either, yet does slow the growth. Refrigerated, ketchup should keep for up to 6 months; mustard, 1 year."

The pepper may be your "dirtiest" answer. Almost everyone likes to grab a little spice to liven up their order. And, guess what? Pepper had the second-highest average bacteria count with 11,600 organisms.

Maybe so many diners grab pepper simply because it can aid health. Pepper stimulates the taste buds in such a way that an alert is sent to to the stomach to increase hydrochloric acid secretion, thereby improving digestion. Also, black pepper is an excellent source of manganese, a very good source of iron and vitamin K, and a good source of dietary fiber and copper.

But, what is the germiest item on the restaurant tabletop? If you guessed menus, you're right. The menus carried the most germs, with an average count of 185,000 bacteria.

"You probably have about 100 times more bacteria on that menu than you do a typical toilet seat in the restroom," Gerba said. "Haven't you ever gone to a restaurant before and you stick to the menu? I've done that a lot of times. Sticky menus are not really on my diet," he added.

Update: How About A Consideration of ALL Surfaces at a Restaurant?

ABC News Consumer Correspondent Elisabeth Leamy went undercover to do a little investigation of her own at 10 restaurants in three states. She collected swabs, and then sent the swabs to Dr. Philip Tierno and his team at the New York University Microbiology Department lab where he tested the samples. Leamy says, "Visible goop didn't always translate into bad bugs, and some spotless surfaces harbored major microbes."

(Elisabeth Leamy, "10 Germiest Places in a Restaurant (Hint: Bathroom Isn't No. 1)" ABC News, November 20 2012)

Here is the latest from ABC and Elisabeth Leamy:

Salad Bar Tongs
The salad bar tongs weren't that bad -- maybe because Americans don't eat enough salad.
Ketchup Bottles
The ketchup bottles weren't harboring anything too awful.
Bathroom Faucets
Bathroom Door Knobs
"The faucets, the door handles ... were some of our least germy items, because they get cleaned," Leamy said.
Rims of Glasses
The hidden cameras caught waiters gripping glasses right at the top where we drink, which gives pathogens a direct route into our bodies. Tests on the samples Leamy took detected multiple bacteria, including one linked with tuberculosis.
Here's a clue as to how tables could be so germy. Leamy and "20/20" were shown photographs of parents changing their baby's diapers at the table and toilet-training their toddlers in restaurants.
Salt and Pepper Shakers
Half of the swabs Leamy took from them were contaminated. How is that possible? They're used often but are rarely cleaned.
Lemon Wedges
One of the most frequently occurring contaminants in the test results was fecal matter. Half of the lemon wedges tested were tainted with human waste.

How does fecal matter get on lemons in the first place? Cameras caught restaurant workers grabbing lemons with their bare hands, reaching in again and again without gloves or tongs. If they haven't washed their hands well after using the bathroom, germs spread.
Leamy found the bacteria that causes staph infections on one, and the germs that cause strep throat on another.
Seventy percent of the chair seats Leamy tested had bad bacteria on them -- 17 different kinds, including strains of E. coli. Why? All customers sit on them, and most restaurants don't think to sanitize them.

My Take

Don't panic. Most of the bacteria found were not harmful, but experts say the most common illnesses you can pick up are respiratory infections. Maybe the safest bet to assure your good health would be to place your order and then go wash your hands before eating. It is also recommended that you should keep the menus away from little children since they love to put them in their mouths.

As for whether there's a difference between plastic and paper menus, experts say paper menus retain fewer germs than plastic ones do. Paper is not a great breeding ground for germs, but plastic allows bacteria to hide and grow in the tiny crevices.

What about those nasty seats? Well, I hope this doesn't alarm you more; however, The Daily Mail has reported on a new and disturbing study. According to swabs taken at 30 different restaurants, the amount of bacteria found on high chairs was significantly greater than the amounts found on public toilets. Toilets had an average of eight bacteria per square centimeter. High chairs had 147. The study was done in the United States, not England.

(Lucy Elkins, "Restaurant High Chairs Harbour More Bacteria than the Average Toilet Seat," The Daily Mail, October 11 2010)

You parents are now being warned to ensure that the high chairs are cleaned before use because of the risk that your child could become ill as a result of the germs lucking there. Of course, you can carry your own antibacterial wipes with you and give the surface of the chair a good cleaning before placing your kid inside.

Adult seats? As Elisabeth Leamy says, "Luckily, we don't lick seats." According to Leamy, the real cross contamination point is your hands. For that, the solution is simple: Wash your hands thoroughly after you sit in a public seat, especially before eating. If you don't have access to soap and water, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer solution is effective in killing germs.

Read the ABC articles:

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