The next time you’re out to eat, you may want to consider whether you really need to add salt and pepper to your meal. It turns out, pepper shakers are one of the dirtiest items in a restaurant.
According to a study from ABC News, pepper shakers harbor one of the highest bacteria counts at a public dining facility with counts reaching 11,600 — second only to restaurant menus. (And for your complete disgust, restaurant menus were found to carry the most — an average bacteria count of 185,000 — and have 100 times more bacteria than your typical toilet seat.)
The study examined swab samples taken from common table items at 12 restaurants throughout New York, Ohio, and Arizona. The swabs were then examined for “total bacteria counts and coliform — a broad class of bacteria found in our environment. The presence of coliform can indicated fecal matter.”
Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, told TODAY that E.coli “loves to grow” on top of pepper shakers in restaurants possibly because, “It’s a plant-based product.”
Items tested included ketchup and mustard, sugar, and salt, to name a few.
“These are objects you’re going to touch that can serve as vehicles that are transmitting micro organisms that can potentially make you ill,” said Gerba.
And if you think about it, of course they’re dirty. Pepper and salt or ketchup might be refilled, but rarely are the bottles ever emptied and sanitized. Plus, potentially, hundreds of people touch them every day. And parents sometimes let their kids play with table items, which means that anything on their little one’s hands — or their drool — can get deposited on the item you’re about it sprinkle on top of your salad.
You can help by bringing individual salt and pepper packets with you, but ultimately whether or not you use the shared seasoning and condiment items at dinner, you’re still subject to the germs. These items are often moved around the table between dining parties or brought into play by those you’re eating with.
Of all the items test, the bacteria count on sugar came in the lowest, with only 2,300 bacteria. “Probably fewer bacteria on sugar, because it might be handled less,” Gerba said.
Of course, if every bacteria we came in contact with were deadly, none of us would be here. And thankfully, most of the bacteria the researchers found on these table items are not particularly harmful, but the possibility of picking up common illnesses like respiratory infections is still there.
As far as menus go, be extra wary in restaurants when touching plastic-coated menu pages. According to experts, plastic allows bacteria to breed in the tiny crevices. Paper isn’t a great host for germs, so if given an option, for any reason, go with paper in a restaurant.
Simple advice for anyone dining out: place your order then go wash your hands before eating. And parents, please keep menus away from the young kids, since they love to put them in their mouths. It will be best for all of us.