Recently, I enjoyed a great meal at a local restaurant. As we were leaving, we passed by the kitchen, which was visible to the diners. I immediately noticed one of the chefs was texting and proceeded to put his smartphone in his pocket and continued cooking – without washing his hands.
“92% of smartphones have bacterial contamination, and 1 in 6 contain fecal matter.”
Now, this may seem trivial to some, but for anyone who is knowledgeable about food safety and foodborne illness, this is a red flag for potential cross-contamination. A recent study found that 92% of smartphones have bacterial contamination, and 1 in 6 contain fecal matter.
In the US, 65% of foodborne illness outbreaks are a result of food being touched by infected workers. Food service facilities such as restaurants and catered events are where the majority of these outbreaks originate and contact with bare hands and failure to properly wash hands are the most frequent factors.
Hand Washing Versus Hand Sanitizing for Food Safety
So this got me thinking. How does the efficacy of hand sanitizer against foodborne pathogens compare to hand washing with soap and water in food service? In other words, would it have made sense for that food worker to sanitize quickly or is it best always to wash your hands in food environments?
Foodborne diseases caused by eating contaminated food and beverages are some of the most common human diseases in the world. The smartphone, in particular, is challenging as 1 in 6 potentially contain E. coli strains. The top three foodborne pathogens in the world are norovirus followed by Salmonella and E. coli.
“Hand washing is considered to be the gold standard for removing dirt and transient organisms from hands.”
Even though hand washing is considered to be the “gold standard” for removing dirt and transient organisms from hands, in recent years, there has been an increase in hand sanitizing products in food service. Hand sanitizers are convenient and proven to be highly effective in environments such as healthcare, but their use as an alternative to hand washing in food environments has long been debated.
"What separates food handling from patient handling are the type of soils present and the microbes of public health concern,” says Barry Michaels, an infectious disease expert with our 40 years experience.
Particularly, hand sanitizers are not recommended when hands are visibly soiled, especially when it comes to removing food debris and fat from soiled hands. Also, many alcohol-based hand sanitizers have poor activity against bacterial spores and certain non-enveloped viruses such as norovirus, which is the top foodborne pathogen.
Michaels adds, "Just as in cell phone hand contamination case and many more encountered in food handling environments, current CDC healthcare hand hygiene guidelines are applicable. The key is knowing that when there are no offending visual or actual soils on hands then they can be appropriately disinfected with alcohol based hand sanitizers.”
When it comes to reducing foodborne illness, effective hand washing is extremely important to help prevent microorganisms from spreading to food. Though alcohol hand sanitizers should not be used as a substitute to hand washing in food environments, they have been proven to increase bacterial inactivation when used to complement hand washing as part of a hand hygiene program.
Efficacy of Instant Hand Sanitizers against Foodborne Pathogens Compared with Hand Washing with Soap and Water in Food Preparation Settings: A Systematic Review. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27296611
Restaurant employees: Beware of your filthy cell phone
CDC, General Information on Hand Hygiene
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