We love to eat out for any meal with the whole family. Detective Foodsafe® does too.
Besides the most obvious place – the kitchen, where food safety and foodborne illness could impact you when you eat out, there are many other potential gaps that could open the door to a foodborne illness in the restaurant.
Most of us are unaware or simply never stop to consider that the surfaces we — and others — touch freely in a restaurant could be the source of germs leading to food poisoning, not just the food.
If you or someone in your family hasn’t yet been a victim of food poisoning, Detective Foodsafe reminds us that you could be next. In fact, 1 in 6 people will become ill from food pathogens (foodborne illness) this year.
Yes, 48 million of us each year!
Germs Are Lurking in New Places
Unfortunately, germs are just waiting for us to touch them so that they can enter our bodies and make us sick.
Restaurants are rampant with lurking germs, often in places we don’t think twice about touching.
Most staff in restaurants have been taught about proper hand washing, wiping down tables between guests, and keeping the kitchen clean and sanitized.
Did you know that table top surface testing found bacteria, even after they were cleaned by staff?
But what about all the other places each restaurant goer touches every time they visit any eatery, large or small? These places staff rarely clean between guests.
Touchscreen devices for ordering your meal are fast replacing traditional paper menus and in some restaurants even order takers. These devices are touched and swiped many times by each customer throughout the hours of operation and may only be cleaned at the end of the night (if then).
Do your kids or grandkids play games on a touchscreen at the dinner table? Do you?
Are the screens used by both servers and customers? Do you use it to pay the bill?
Are they cleaned at least from one shift to the next, between customers as the tables are cleaned or nightly upon closing? Are they ever cleaned unless sticky?
Some bacteria can live on dry surfaces of touch screens for months, according to one study.
Not a pleasant thought when encountering one on your table.
Detective Foodsafe knows that customer’s hands are often the source of pathogens and they transfer these germs to non-food surfaces such as the touchscreens at the table. Proper and timely sanitizing can reduce the likelihood of cross contamination between guests if the tablets were cleaned when the table gets cleaned. Using digital screen sanitizing wipes is easy enough to protect us from foodborne illness.
Scientists have found through testing that our mobile phones are ten times dirtier than a toilet seat. Not very surprising since the toilets are cleaned regularly, as often as hourly in some businesses. But even though we tend to use our mobile devices anywhere, anytime, we have few cleansing cloths in sight.
Mobile devices were found to be contaminated with pathogens such as Streptococcus, MRSA, and E. coli, which can all lead to illness. There is no reason to believe that these menu ordering kiosks and tablets at the tables are any different. In a restaurant, servers use often have their personal phones and touch them while working.
Restaurant staff using personal mobile devices that have been shown to be contaminated with pathogens should also be restricted according to Detective Foodsafe. We all see the phones in pockets and at work stations when we eat out but don’t think about staff using their devices while they prepare or serve our food.
Many restaurants do restrict their use during working hours now. The current food code already restricts cell phone use in the kitchen and Detective Foodsafe encourages restaurants to enforce the code.
Contamination of paper and laminated menus that are handled by many customers and not sanitized as frequently as they should also exposes us to illness causing germs. Who hasn’t been given a sticky menu or one that has visible food dropped on it?
Some menus were found to have higher levels of bacterial contamination than the restroom in the same restaurant.
Experts, including Detective Foodsafe, recommend cleaning traditional menus between customers or at the very least, at the beginning and end of server shifts in the same way that touchscreens should be cleaned.
Another place that doesn’t get cleaned as it should but is on many restaurant tables across the country is the condiment caddy.
You know, the one that holds the ketchup, salt and pepper shakers, BBQ sauce, sweeteners or steak sauce. At breakfast it will have jelly and pancake syrup too.
Detective Foodsafe observes the staff and has rarely seen them cleaning a ketchup bottle before they set it back in the holder.
But we use and touch those bottles and the kids do too. Sometimes adults allow kids to play with the condiments, especially salt and pepper shakers, while they wait for their meal to arrive.
Does everyone always wash their hands before a meal or touching the condiments? Do they have germs on their hands? Detective Foodsafe warns us that germs may not be visible or sticky, but they are still lurking on the salt, pepper, and ketchup bottles (and our hands!).
Prevention Through Hand Washing
The best defense against what may be lurking in the non-food surfaces of your favorite restaurant is frequent hand washing on your part.
Perhaps carrying sanitizing wipes to clean your hands before you eat and after you have touched the menu or to wipe a touchscreen with one before you use it would be a helpful way to prevent illness.
In addition to scheduling touch screen cleaning between customers and menu cleaning policies, restricting all mobile devices, such as the staffs’ personal cell phones, is another recommendation Detective Foodsafe hopes catches on.
Hopefully restaurants will realize the gaps in their cleaning process and clean screens, menus, and other frequently touched spots that could be hiding pathogens and help us all practice food safety when we enjoy a meal in our favorite places without paying a price with our health later.
In the meantime, be sure to wash your hands after you review the menu and order.
Detective Foodsafe will continue to keep a close eye on cleaning too!