Kathryn Rem: Gross garnishes at restaurants
You might want to think twice next time you mindlessly ask a restaurant server for a wedge of lemon in your glass of water or iced tea.
It could be teeming with bacteria.
Anna LaGrange Loving, an assistant professor of science at Passaic County (New Jersey) Community College, conducted a study, published in the December 2007 issue of the Journal of Environmental Health, in which she set out to find out how pristine those ubiquitous restaurant lemon wedges are.
She was prompted to undertake the research after noticing a waitress with dirty fingernails delivering a drink to an unsuspecting table of diners.
Health laws require that restaurant lemon wedges be handled with gloves or tongs, but it’s a good bet that some workers pop the citrus in the drink or on the rim with their bare hands.
Without telling restaurant staffers, the researchers swabbed 76 lemon wedges served with cola or water in 21 different eateries. The fruit was tested as soon as the beverages were served, before researchers touched them or any sips were taken. The project involved 43 restaurant visits.
Despite the acidic nature of lemons, microbial growth was found on 69.7 percent of them, either on the flesh, the rind, or both. Intruders included 25 different microorganisms, including bacteria and yeasts.
The report suggested some of the bacteria “could have come from the fingertips of a restaurant employee via human fecal or raw-meat or poultry contamination,” or the lemons may have been contaminated before arriving at the restaurant.
The yeasts, cited the report, “could have originated from oral, fecal, or vaginal secretions contaminating the fingertips of a restaurant employee or another food handler.”
This is why the signs say to WASH YOUR HANDS after using the bathroom, for God’s sake.
According to the report, “The microbes found on the lemon samples in our investigation all have the potential to cause infectious diseases at various body sites.”
However, the researchers could find no documented instances in which anyone got sick from restaurant lemon wedges.
Still, the report concluded that “restaurant patrons should be aware that lemon slices added to beverages may include potentially pathogenic microbes ... . It could also be worthwhile to study contamination on other beverage garnishes, such as olives, limes, celery, and cherries.”
Food editor Kathryn Rem can be reached at email@example.com.