Investigative forays into the microscopic-level cleanliness of public restrooms, office cubes, day care centers, fast food joints, and other easily contaminated spaces have long been a staple of shock journalism.
In many ways, these reports have long since worn out their welcome. We take it for granted that touching anything outside of a cauldron of boiling water requires a thorough Purell once-over and prayers for mercy from the germ gods.
That said, this story from MSNBC is a must-read — not because it breaks new ground, but because someone came up with about the most gripping headline I’ve read since the infamous “One-Eyed Invader” debacle:
Turns out a local science professor in New Jersey went to a bunch of different eateries and ordered water with lemon. Then she swabbed the lemons and sent the samples to a lab for analysis.
As the headline suggests, there was all manner of doo-doo on the citrus:
One sample had six different microorganisms on it, three of which are found in fecal material. Although some lemon slices had germs either only on the rind or only on the pulp, 29 percent had germs on both sites. In 15 instances the germs on the pulp were completely different from those on the rind, indicating that the pulp had been in contact with a contaminated surface as or after it was sliced. Sometimes when more than one lemon was sampled during a single restaurant visit, different germs were found on each.
As a former bartender, let me break this down for you, Pax style:
1. At every bar and restaurant in the country, bartenders and waitstaff spend some time before each shift slicing citrus fruits. If it’s Cinco de Mayo and you work at Chi Chi’s, you’re going through about three or four buckets of lemons and limes before the doors open.
2. Most waitstaff don’t work at Chi Chi’s, and 364 days out of the year it’s not Cinco de Mayo. Quite often lemons get sliced and not used. Know what happens next? If you guessed that they get thrown out and replaced the next day, you haven’t been paying attention. Most often, the unused slices get tossed into a plastic bucket or bowl, possibly covered in cling wrap, and shoved in the giant walk-in. Sometimes the bartender, who’s been handling money all night — in between drags on a shared Camel out by the Dumpster — does this himself. Other times a busboy, who’s been busy scraping your leftover pilaf into the trash with his bare hands, does the honors.
It could be days of rough handling before that garnish finds itself perched on your glass rim. Any way you slice it, those lemons are getting reused.
Yes, they may have trace elements of dookie on them. And yes, this may even make you sick. And no, it’s nothing you should be worried about.
Think of how many times you’ve eaten at restaurants and fast food joints. Now consider how often you’ve gotten sick from doing so. The tally for me is 0, though others have had worse luck. Still though, you’re more likely to be abused by Gary Busey than you are to suffer from tainted food products at most places. Just be careful, and remember that Purell is not a condiment.