The Dirtiest Thing on a Restaurant Table Is Not What You Think

published Dec 12, 2018
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When you head to a restaurant this time of year, you’re probably in search of a nice meal, a pleasant evening, and maybe a festive cocktail or two. You’re probably not heading out in search of a cold to catch. But it’s the season of germs everywhere, and ABC News set out to find where those germs lurk in restaurants around the country — and it may make you rethink using the salt and pepper shaker.

The reporters teamed up with researchers from the University of Arizona to swab the tabletop items at restaurants in New York, Ohio, and Arizona, analyzing each of them for total bacteria counts and coliforms. Because this is a food site, we won’t get into details on what coliforms are, but they’re gross and these are the kinds of germs that will get you far more sick than a mere cold.

Of all the items on the table, the sugar had the lowest average count, with only 2,300 bacteria. Dr. Chuck Gerba, one of the investigators, surmised that was because it’s handled the least. So, what’s handled the most? Well, the pepper fell second-highest in the bacteria count, with almost 11,600 organisms. “Bacteria like pepper,” Gerba says. So not only is it already a happy home for the bacteria, it’s something that you’re shaking directly on the food. Lovely!

The only thing that ranked higher than the pepper shakers was the menu, coming in with a walloping 185,000 bacteria. “You probably have about 100 times more bacteria on that menu than you do a typical toilet seat in the restroom,” Gerba told ABC. Think carefully about that the next time you feel something a little sticky on your menu.

If you’re totally grossed out now and swearing off restaurants, slow your roll just a touch: most of the bacteria they found weren’t harmful, and probably the ones that would just give you a respiratory infection. That said, you might consider washing your hands between ordering and eating — and rethinking just how badly your food needs seasoning.