The Dirtiest and Most Germy Item at Restaurants

Posted by Eric Troy on 13 Oct 2017 21:00

Sometimes the logic of the restaurant industry, and of professional chefs, escapes me. Or, rather, the lack of logic.

Should you never eat on on Valentine's day, like Gordon Ramsay says, because it is the busiest restaurant day of the year? Sure, let's all make sure to never eat out on a busy day. Restaurants should embrace the reduction in profits.

You may not get the highest quality food and service on the busiest days but, on the other hand, a restaurant's ability to deliver the best experience on any day is what separates the good from the bad. Why offer excuses for bad service or lack of attention to details? Anyone can claim to be perfect on a slow day!

And don't get me started on the "foods you should never order" claims. I've already discussed the oft-stated warning that you should never eat complimentary bread at restaurants. But, we also hear you should never order the special because of what some chefs do. In fact, many such warnings are based on personal preference, what a chef noticed one or two other chefs doing (which becomes a vast data pool), or the fact that sometimes dishes made from a certain ingredient, like chicken, isn't always highly inspired at restaurants.

Then there is the advice that is based on something a bit more substantial. For instance, avoid fish at restaurants nowhere near the coast unless they can show you it is fresh. After all, we expect fresh fish at restaurants. If you wanted to settle for frozen, you'd cook it at home. And, oysters, well, if you value your health, you really should only order them at places where the fresh oysters are available, at a minimum, 100 miles away. The longer the time and distance the oysters have to sustain, the more likely they will be bad. And bad oysters are very bad. And, common sense should tell you not to eat pretzels or peanuts out of some nasty little bowl at the bar.


Are restaurant menus the grossest, dirtiest, and germiest items
in the restaurant? Are they even worse than the restroom?


Are restaurant menus the grossest, dirtiest, and germiest items
in the restaurant? Are they even worse than the restroom?

See related article: What Is The Leading Cause Of Food Poisoning in the United States?

Regardless, little of this is based on scientific evidence or even statistical evidence. I prefer something with actual data behind it, rather than personal opinion and anecdotal experience. So, when I see results from experiments checking for bacteria on surfaces at restaurants, I perk up and take notice.

Good Morning America, which has a thing for testing sundry items for germs, went out with a researcher from the University of Arizona to swab typical table-top items at 12 restaurants in New York, Ohio, and Arizona. These swabs were then examined in a lab for total bacteria count and coliforms. Coliforms are a large class of bacteria which, if found, can indicate the presence of fecal matter.

The Menu Is the Germiest Item on the Table?

What do you typically find on a restaurant table? Ketchup, mustard, salt, pepper, sugar, sauce, etc. All these items could have been handled by dozens of people. Which do you think harbors the most germs? The menu or the condiment containers?

According to this test, it was the menu. You can guess that a restaurant menu can be very germy, but the germiest? It surprised me as well. But, if you think waiters or the host staff regularly wipe down menus between seatings, you are mistaken. And when they do, it's probably with a germ-infested cloth. The proper way to disinfect menus would be with a food-safe disinfectant and a clean cloth.

The menus tested had an average count of 185,000 bacteria. That is around 100 times the amount you'd typically find on a toilet seat! These results make perfect sense. While the condiments and sauces will be handled by some diners, the menus are handled by everyone, including the waiters.

Oddly, although you'd think the ketchup bottle would be number two, it was the pepper shakers with the second largest number of bacteria. Although the story does not make it clear, it seems that the researchers actually found bacteria in the pepper itself, not just on the outside of the shaker. Apparently, according to Dr. Chuck Gerba of the University of Arizona, bacteria like pepper. Ketchup tested somewhere in the middle, and sugar had the lowest count.

As icky and scary as all this seems, don't freak out and become a compulsive restaurant hand-washer. Most of the bacteria found were not all that harmful. While you could pick up a respiratory infection, and while the very young or very old should be of more concern, you've probably handled hundreds of nasty menus in your life. You may just have become sick from some of them but, obviously, you usually don't.

There is not much you can do about the tabletop condiments and sauces besides to avoid using them. You could, I suppose, ask for fresh and clean containers but you'd have to take your waiter's word that they were "fresh and clean." While some restaurants do clean the outside of the containers, and regularly empty out salt and pepper shakers to sterilize them, don't count on it. The most you can hope for is a quick wipe with a (dirty?) cloth if one of the containers appears grubby.

But as for the menu, well, you can simply go to the restroom and wash your hands after you order, apply a hand sanitizer such as Purell, or use Purell Sanitizing Hand Wipes.

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