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Upon Closer Inspection ...

Every restaurant has to have regular health inspections to stay in business. But even if one gets a passing grade, chances are you're going to come into contact with a few unhealthy germs there. Some are more likely than others, so it's a good idea to know where to watch for them and how you might avoid them.

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Menus

Sometimes the germiest things on a restaurant’s menu may literally be the menu. Studies have shown that traces of E. coli and S. aureus (staph) can be found on menus, thanks to their being passed from hand to hand.
 

Plastic menus are more germy than paper menus, especially if they get wet. Plastic can't absorb water, so it sits there until it evaporates, which gives bacteria plenty of time to grow. Washing your hands after you touch a menu and before you eat anything, especially finger food or foods that are shared, can help prevent the spread of germs.

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Touch Screens

These can make it faster and easier to order, but they also can make it faster and easier to pick up germs.

London Metropolitan University tested touch screens at several restaurants and found traces of E. faecalis and staph on some screens. Both of those can cause infections.

The better move is probably to deal with the line at the counter.

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Ice

Bacteria can thrive in water, so it makes sense that it can find a home in ice. A study of ice taken from bars and restaurants found several types of bacteria that can cause infections, but not at high enough levels to do so.

Interestingly, in another study, scientists contaminated ice cubes with four types of bacteria and used them in drinks with vodka, whiskey, gin, peach tea, tonic water, and soda. Only the whiskey drink was without live bacteria.

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Lemon Wedges

They may look pretty and provide a little flavor, but those pieces of sour citrus can spread germs. In tests, 70% of samples had organisms on them, some as many as 25.

Your stomach acids can neutralize most of these, but some can cause tummy trouble. If you have diabetes, have had kidney failure, or get chemotherapy, you could be more likely to be affected by them.

Either way, if you can, it's a good idea to see if the servers use gloves or tongs to garnish drinks before you order yours.

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Buffets

Unfortunately, all-you-can-get germs can come with an all-you-can-eat buffet. One big issue is that people breathe on food or touch it and the serving utensils while in the line. You can follow a few tips to protect yourself and others:

  • Be sure meat served hot is under heat lamps or on a heated surface, and cold meats are on ice. 
  • If you go back for seconds, get a new plate and new utensils.
  • When serving yourself, don’t use the same utensils on different foods.
  • Don’t eat in the buffet line.
  • If you’re not feeling well, have someone else fill your plate.
  • Look for a “sneeze guard” -- the little glass windows above the food. They help keep germs away.  
  • If you have to sneeze, step away from the food before you do.
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Salad Bars

As with a buffet, these can be a friendly home for germs. Make sure cold foods are kept cold. Check the freshness of vegetables and fruit too, since they’re out in the open. Sneeze guards can be helpful here too, and you should use fresh utensils and a fresh plate if you go for seconds.

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Cafeteria Trays

Using a tray to carry your food from a buffet or salad bar doesn’t mean you’re germ-free. One study showed that cafeteria trays had an aerobic plate count -- the level of germs in a product -- of more than 200. That’s double the number of a tray that’s considered clean. It’s also higher than bathrooms and gym mats, which are cleaned more often.

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Condiments

Things like salt, pepper, ketchup, and mustard are meant to add flavor to your food, but they can also add germs. Items that are handled and passed, like condiment bottles and salt shakers, can be home to fecal bacteria like E. coli and coliform.

If you have hand sanitizer or a disinfectant wipe, you may want to give those bottles and shakers a onceover before you use them.

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Table Surfaces

The idea of germs being wiped out when your server wipes down your table before you sit down is good in theory. But it’s a theory that’s not quite true. Bacteria that can cause illness can be found on the very cloths used to clean tables in a food court.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 05/24/2019 Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on May 24, 2019

IMAGES PROVIDED BY:

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3) WebMD / David Williams

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SOURCES:

Journal of Food: Microbiology, Safety & Hygiene: “Pathogen Persistence in Restaurant Menus: Comparison Between Materials.”

Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “Bacterial Presence On Common Objects At Bar-and-Grille Restaurants.”

London Metropolitan University: “Tests Find Traces of Faeces On Popular Restaurant Touchscreens.”

American Council On Science and Health: “Bacteria Can Live In Ice Cubes, But Not In Whisky.”

Cleveland Clinic: “What You Should Know About Dirty Lemon Wedges In Restaurants.”

American Nutrition Association: “Safer Buffets.”

Food And Culinary Professionals DPG: “May 2011 Webinar.”

NSF International: “Germiest Items In Public Places.”

Epidemiology & Infection: “Bacterial Communities On Food Court Tables and Cleaning Equipment In A Shopping Mall.”

Washington State University: “Food Safety and Buffet Etiquette.”

Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on May 24, 2019

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.