Bacteria In The Cafeteria: What To Look For

By:    Published: August 16, 2012

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We come into contact with countless germs on any given day, but there are certain areas that have a higher bacteria count. Cafeterias are one of those locations, and for many people it’s a place they visit on a daily basis. Learn more about what kind of bacterial threats exist in cafeterias and how to protect yourself against these germs.

Worst Spots For Bacteria

There are numerous places in cafeterias which tend to be the worst when it comes to forming bacteria. A prime example is the tray used to collect food in a cafeteria. In a report from Real Simple magazine, swab tests from NSF International indicated that a cafeteria tray has 204 colony-forming units (CFUs) per square inch. This is a relatively high amount for any space (to provide some perspective, a shopping cart had only 2 CFUs per square inch while a public park sandbox had a whopping 7,440 CFUs). Other spots in the cafeteria include any area where lots of contact with the human body occurs, such as chairs, tables and serving utensils.

If you think the example of a tray is alarming, then prepare yourself for this next germ-friendly cafeteria spot. In the same NSF International swab test, the cafeteria water-fountain spigot had an incredible 62,000 CFUs per square inch. That’s nearly twice the next leading offender, which was the classroom faucet handle with 32,000 CFUs. Clearly, the water fountain is not the best place to quench your thirst at the cafeteria.

[Related: The 5 Grossest Things you Might Find At The Mall]

In addition, there’s the food itself to consider. Food at a cafeteria is more prone to bacteria when served buffet-style. Those risks increase when the buffet is not protected by a sneeze guard above the food. Other concerns include food temperature violations or the presence of mice or insects in a cafeteria. In an article on MSNBC, health inspectors reported finding the following in various school cafeterias they had visited:

  • Food not heated or cooled to proper temperatures (one of the most common violations)
  • Dead and/or live mice
  • Mouse droppings near food
  • Insects on or near food
  • Glass mixed in with fruit
  • Dented cans and/or broken seals
  • No place for employees to wash their hands
  • No sneeze guards over the food

Disinfecting Methods

The level of bacteria in a cafeteria depends on the efforts of the staff there. Employees are required to do the following to reduce the presence of germs:

  • Wash all food appropriately
  • Do not use any food products that arrive cracked, dented or partially open
  • Wear gloves and hair nets
  • Wash all dishes, utensils, trays and serving surfaces appropriately
  • Disinfect other cafeteria surfaces (table, chairs, etc.) regularly
  • Provide proper protections against rodent and insects

The extent to which cafeteria staff follow these rules is unknown to visitors in most cases. However, health departments generally do regular visits to any place that serves food in order to make sure that it is clean and healthy. The grade which a cafeteria receives on this inspection may provide insight into how sanitary the food and the location are for visitors.

Tips For Avoiding Germs In The Cafeteria

Unfortunately, even the very best efforts from cafeteria staff can’t protect cafeteria visitors from all bacteria. Therefore, there are several things you can do as a cafeteria visitor to avoid encountering and spreading bacteria when you eat:

  • Disinfect your hands by washing them thoroughly before and after eating or using hand sanitizer (see How To Properly Wash Your Hands).
  • Use disinfectant wipes to clean off tables or chairs (don’t use these on eating surfaces or utensils).
  • Avoid touching your mouth, nose or eyes after touching a potentially dirty surface.
  • If you are visiting a cafeteria or your children eat at one at school, ask about the cafeteria’s adherence to health department standards. Most cafeterias are graded on their performance during random, unannounced inspections. Avoid cafeterias with poor results on these tests, or encourage your local school system to make cafeteria improvements.
  • Instruct your children in how to properly wash their hands or use hand sanitizer. In addition, teach them basics about avoiding the spread of germs, such as covering their face when coughing or sneezing and recognizing areas that are potentially breeding grounds for germs (water fountains, cafeteria tables, etc.)

[Related: 10 Common Places Where You Can Catch The Flu]

Final Thoughts

Keep in mind that, although the information in this article may seem alarming, most germs are benign. The vast majority of the bacteria we encounter on a daily basis don’t make us sick. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take measures to avoid excessive contact with germs, particularly in places with higher bacteria counts like cafeterias. If you use the steps and tips described above, it will help you decrease your risk of encountering or spreading bacteria in a cafeteria setting and will thereby reduce the chances of you getting sick from eating in one of these establishments.

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