Unsanitary Restaurant Kitchens Could Lead to Food Poisoning

Research by England’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) has revealed that over half the cleaning cloths sampled in restaurant kitchens were found to contain unsatisfactory levels of bacteria, which are a sign of poor hygiene and potential cross contamination. The study was carried out by the HPA’s Food, Water and Environmental Microbiology laboratories and was done in collaboration with the local health authorities in the North East of England.

The team sampled 133 cloths, from 120 different establishments, and found that 56 percent contained unacceptable levels of bacteria. The most common of which were Enterobacteriaceaeand E.coli.

Cloths used in kitchens need to be changed or disinfected frequently to destroy bacteria, which could cause food poisoning. Any breakdown in these procedures means that bacteria can be spread from the cloths to the hands of kitchen staff and to work surfaces and equipment. Where kitchens prepare both raw and ready-to-eat foods, there should be separate cloths for each area to reduce the risk of spreading bacteria.

Foodborne diseases cost the United States an estimated $152 billion each year in health-related expenses, according to a study from the Food Safety Campaign at the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports an estimated 76 million Americans are sickened by contaminated food every year and 5,000 of these people die. A simple procedure involving a jug of chlorine bleach, a measuring spoon and some tap water make a dent in those statistics.

A public health partnership of the National Environmental Health Association, the Water Quality and Health Council and the American Chemistry Council has developed two new free, user-friendly resources on disinfecting food-contact surfaces, including kitchen cloths, countertops and utensils. These resources are meant to serve as educational tools to inform the public about food safety and disinfection in personal and commercial kitchens alike. The Safe Food Depends on a Clean Kitchen poster series was designed for restaurant and institutional kitchens. The poster displays simple, stepwise directions, available in both English and Spanish, to instruct kitchen staff on the proper ways to disinfect the food prep area as well as items in the sink bay.

The resources are featured on the Water Quality and Health Council’s new “Disinfect for Health” webpage (www.disinfect-for-health.org). Posters are freely downloadable and magnets may be ordered online (one free magnet per person).

The research from England serves as an important reminder that bacteria can spread through various different mediums and proper disinfection of surfaces, utensils and cooking areas is vital to protecting everyone’s health.

(Barbara M. Soule, R.N. MPA, CIC, is an Infection Preventionist and a member of the Water Quality & Health Council.)