Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Setting the Record Straight

Earlier this week, a television station in Charleston, SC reported on an investigation, which they had carried out, into the (un)sanitary state of restaurant menus. The intrepid reporter, armed only with swab kits, invaded several restaurants, swabbed a menu at each location and then retreated to a local lab, where the swabs were analyzed for bacteria.

The reporter made it clear that she wore a sterile glove to avoid contaminating the menus herself, and swabbed the same size area on each menu. She also refrigerated the swabs until she was able to transport them to the lab. Once she received the lab results, she discussed them with the head of Infectious Diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina.

In her news segment, the reporter stated that one of the menus had no bacteria on it, and that three of the menus had “...normal levels of normal staph...: The remaining menus yielded Enterobacter durans, Acinetobacter calcoaceticus, Bacillus cereus and Flavimona (sic) oryzihabitans.

According to the news item, Enterobacter durans grows in “...feces in the human gut...”; 100 units of Bacillus cereus is enough to cause nausea and diarrhea; and Acinetobacter indicates contamination with fecal matter. About Flavimona, the report was silent.

While the intent of the news investigation was perhaps admirable, the accuracy of the report was abysmal. Acinetobacter calcoaceticus is a normal inhabitant of human skin; it takes many times more than 100 Bacillus cereus to cause food poisoning; “Flavimona” is actually Flavimonas (or Pseudomonas) oryzihabitans and is widely distributed in the environment; and Enterobacter durans is also an inhabitant of the environment. None of these microbes are indicators of fecal contamination - of menus or anything else!

The media have an important role to play in educating consumers and food handlers about food safety. And the medical practitioners have a responsibility to make sure that information they provide to the media is both accurate and clearly understood. I applaud the desire of this reporter to publicize a potential food safety issue. But I deplore her inability to get the story straight.


  1. I'm glad you could shed some light on this! I remember working in a restaurant in college, and in between every customer we wiped down the menus with bleach water. Boy do I remember that wiping! It was Mexican restaurant, too, so LOTS of salsa everywhere. But we did try to clean them.

    I'm confused a little about the one menu that didn't have ANY bacteria on it... how is that possible? It seems that bacteria are everywhere! How could they not be on that one menu?

    Thanks for trying to keep us all safe and informed! I'm going to poke around more now.

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    Maybe that one menu had been wiped down with bleach or some other disinfectant. Or perhaps the reporter didn't swab that menu correctly.

    From the results she reported, it sounds to me as though the lab that did the tests wasn't familiar with the tests that are significant to food safety. No self-respecting food microbiology lab would have looked for some of those bacteria!


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