A 2015 report found that 60 percent of Americans report eating out at least once a week. Restaurant dining can be easy, enjoyable, even decadent — but are you prepared for the germs you may be exposed to along with your side of fries?
Here are eight things you should never touch at a restaurant.
Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, found significant numbers of E. coli and coliform bacteria on restaurant tabletops — enough to present a danger to the public — particularly young children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems. And the bacteria numbers were even higher after the tables were wiped down, suggesting a direct connection between dirty rags and bacteria. The solution? Ask your server not to wipe your table before you sit down.
It’s hard to avoid touching a menu — which is probably why they’re some of the germiest things in any restaurant. Think about how many hands touch them on a daily basis, and how infrequently the menus are cleaned (or replaced). Also, restaurant staff may wipe down laminated menus with a rag. (Remember how filthy those are?)
A 2013 study found that menus are an ideal vehicle for different types of bacteria. E. coli can survive on a laminated menu for as long as 24 hours, and salmonella for as long as 72 hours. Donna Duberg, an assistant professor of clinical laboratory science from Saint Louis University, suggests paying attention to how your menu feels. “If there is visible food on the outside or if it feels ‘sticky,’” she tells Yahoo Health, “it is most likely harboring germs, bacteria, and viruses from everyone who has sat there or worked there over the last few days.” Be safe and give your hands a good wash after ordering (and before eating).
The ice in your drink
Like a cold drink? Restaurant ice makers aren’t cleaned nearly as often as they should be (ideally once a month), and may harbor bacteria. The bottom line? Ask for your soda without ice — your stomach will thank you.
The lemon and lime wedges in your drink
Whether you request it or not, restaurant drinks often come with a slice of lemon or lime. But a 2007 study found that 69.7 percent of lemon wedges tested showed some type of microbial growth — either on the rind or the flesh. Why? By the time it reaches your drink, that piece of fruit may have been handled by multiple people — plus, there’s no way to ensure proper handwashing practices have been followed. Although it won’t be as tasty, it’s wise to take that beverage straight up.
The ketchup bottle and salt and pepper shakers
“These are most likely never wiped off — and if they are, it is with a cloth that has been used to wipe off the table, chairs, trays, and has been ‘rinsed’ in a tub of dirty water,” Duberg says. Beyond that, it’s impossible to know who touched these before you (and whether they washed their hands). You’ve got your antibacterial wipes, right? If you need that ketchup, give the bottle a once-over before squeezing.
Just like the condiment bottles and menus, trays are rarely wiped down (and when they are, it’s with that same rag — yuck). Duberg suggests you avoid touching your tray as much as possible. “When eating in a fast-food establishment with trays,” she says, “I use hand sanitizer before touching my food, and never touch the tray after I sit down until after I am done eating.”
Yes, buffets are as dirty as you thought they were. “It is a rare day when I will eat at a buffet or a salad bar,” Duberg says. “There are very few assurances that the food has been kept at the proper temperature (hot or cold); the remaining food from the container being replaced is often scooped into the container of fresh food, and the serving utensils are usually reused over and over again.” These latter two actions can carry bacteria, which have been multiplying all day, from one batch of food to the next. All you can eat? It may not be worth it.
It seems obvious, but the bathroom is often a reflection of how clean the rest of a restaurant is. Duberg suggests checking to see whether there’s a cleaning schedule posted on the door. “And use the sniff test,” she says. “If it smells dirty, it most likely is — wash your hands with lots of soap and water, dry with a paper towel, use the paper towel to open the door, and use hand sanitizer at the table before eating your food. Reminder: People who are not feeling well often go into the bathroom to vomit or have diarrhea, and may not wash their hands as well as I do.”
Thanks to Pete Cuomo for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.