Are Restaurant Plates Making You Sick?

bacteria-restaurant-platesPut that burger down.

When eating at your favorite restaurant, the last you thing you want to think about is their commercial cleaning habits – but maybe you should. New research suggests that restaurant tableware may be an overlooked stomach flu hotspot.

“We know that when public food establishments follow the cleaning protocols, they do a very good job at getting rid of bacteria,” said Melvin Pascall, associate professor, Department of Food Science and Technology at Ohio State. “Now we can see that the protocols are less effective at removing and killing viruses — and this may help explain why there are still so many illnesses caused by cross-contaminated food.”

Stomach Flu Survives Commercial Cleaning Dishwashers

To test their theory, the research team at Ohio State infused two difficult to clean foods – cream cheese and reduced fat milk – with murine norovirus (stomach flu), E. coli K-12 or Listeria innocua. The researchers then applied the infected food to ceramic plates, glassware and stainless steel utensils. The tableware was then washed, using either traditional hand washing or a commercial dishwasher.

And the results?

The team found that both the commercial cleaning dishwashers and manual hand washing reduced E. coli K-12 and Listeria innocua to safety standards. However – neither method was able to significantly reduce the presence of murine norovirus.

In general, commercial dishwashers were more effective at eliminating both the presence of bacteria and viruses (no surprise there), but they’re still not enough. Norovirus is highly contagious – even just a few particles are enough to infect an unsuspecting diner.

“Proper sanitation and handling remain the single biggest factor that can prevent cross-contamination of food and dishware at food service establishments, said Pascall. ”However, it appears that we need to identify better agents or methods to significantly reduce the presence of norovirus and work to update the protocols.”

Noroviruses can lead to severe diarrhea and vomiting, and remain a major cause of gastroenteritis in hospitals, cruise ships and other “closed communities” where the virus can quickly spread.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons