Thursday, March 27, 2008

General Health Topic - Dirty Lemons, San Antonio Investigation

Hello Everyone,

The other day I wrote about DIRTY Lemons. The original article that I cited tested lemons in restaurants in the Northeast.

Well, a local TV station and reporter Jaie Avila, saw the article also, (maybe they read my post) and decided to do their own testing. They recruited Dr. Annette Fothergill at the University of Texas Health Science Center to do the testing of restaurants in the San Antonio Texas area. What follows are the results the WOAI News 4 investigation copied from their website:

"We tested lemon slices from 10 restaurants around San Antonio, and believe it or not, half of them were found to be contaminated with either E-coli, or fecal bacteria from human or animal waste. Who knew lemons could be such a magnet for germs? Even some researchers assumed it might act as a natural disinfectant for your drink.

Dr. Fothergill said before the tests, "Citrus fruit is very acidic, so I'm thinking a lot of bacteria won't survive that kind of environment."

Well, the petri dish doesn't lie. All kinds of nasty stuff showed up when the Trouble Shooters took lemon wedges from local restaurants, and had them tested.

We started by visiting restaurants in different parts of the city, where we ordered water or tea with a slice of lemon. Then, as researchers instructed us to, we used hand sanitizer before putting the lemons into sterile plastic bags and taking them to the lab.

Some of the restaurants kept their lemons pretty clean, like the Denny's at 410 and Perrin Beitel. The lemon slice we got at the Village Inn on Southeast Military also got high marks; nothing but some common, harmless bacteria. When we tested a lemon we were served at the Pizza Hut in the 600 block of San Pedro, the petri dish turned bright pink.

"This is an indication of a coliform, Klebsiella species, and it is an indication of fecal contamination," explained Dr. Fothergill.

That could mean the lemon wasn't washed, it was cut with a dirty knife, or an employee didn't wash up after using the restroom.

In a statement, Pizza Hut told us, "We have strict guidelines and this restaurant has very high health department scores. We are committed to providing a clean and safe dining environment for our guests."

We got a similar result from the lemon slice we got at the Sea Island Shrimp House on Southwest Military. Lab tests showed definite signs of fecal contamination. Sea Island said it was surprised by the findings, since it has received 6 perfect health scores and 3 Kitchen Cops Blue Plate awards, but adds, "We always welcome opportunities to improve our company practices and are identifying steps to go above and beyond the FDA and industry protocols."

Fecal bacteria was also present on the lemon wedge we were served at the Thai Corner restaurant in the 8400 block of Fredericksburg Road. The owner told us his "employees take great care in their own personal hygiene, including hand washing...And a dedicated cutting board and knives are prevent cross contamination."

So, who served us the dirtiest lemon? That dubious distinction went to the Hooters in the 8500 block of Wurzbach. The lemon they put in our drink contained 3 different kinds of fecal contamination. "We have a mixture, a nice fecal cocktail here," said Dr. Fothergill.
Unlike the other places, the source of the bacteria is almost certainly human. Fothergill explained, "Quite clearly someone did not wash their hands before they handled lemons and sliced them, and put them on the cup."

We went back to Hooters to ask them about the results. One of the managers told us their policy is that servers use a fork to grab the lemon slice, instead of touching it with their fingers.
John Totin, Hooters Assistant Manager, explained, "So we use forks to put the lemon on to the drink."

The results of our investigation even made an impression on the researchers who conducted the test.

"I have now decided I will no longer put any citrus items in my drinks so I order them without. I don't even want them touching the glass anymore," explained Dr. Fothergill.

Some of the restaurants told us they would be changing the way they do things because of our findings.

Mama's Cafe on Nacogdoches, which served us a lemon containing E-coli bacteria, said it will no longer allow servers to put the lemon slice on the edge of the glass by hand, and anyone who handles them will use gloves or tongs.

That may have you wondering, what are the health department's rules for handling lemons?

Servers can only use their bare hands to handle or squeeze lemons if they wash their hands and use hand sanitizer each time. Even the restaurants admit, that 2-step process is so time-consuming, nobody does it."

As more and more health officials, restaurant workers and consumers become aware of the potential problems, they will demand / force a change in the way food service workers handle our food. My thought is that we should also look at other citrus fruits that are commonly put into drinks. Has anyone thought to test the cherries or olives that they put into drinks? I think the tide has only just started to roll.

I eat at or have eaten at most of the restaurants listed in the WOAI article. Hopefully the restaurants that had problems will take the results as constructive criticism and do what is right.

Just as at the end of my last post, I think I'll go grab another glass of tea....with lime!

Until later,

Dr. Paul

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