It’s one of the “germaphobes” biggest fears: sitting down to eat at a favorite restaurant only to worry about dishes and utensils laden with bacteria and other nasties. If you’re one of the individuals with a fear of germs and bacteria, you might be wondering how restaurants wash their dishes.
Technically the word “germaphobes” doesn’t exist, but you get the point. Their worries when it comes to the dishes in restaurants are not completely unfounded, according to a 2007 report from Science Daily. Normal washing techniques do a good job of killing some of the bacteria and germs on dishes, but not all of them.
What do FDA guidelines call for?
The FDA guidelines regarding washing dishes and utensils include scrubbing them in water at a temperature of at least 110°F. After that, they’re supposed to be rinsed in clean water and bathed in some sort of sanitizing agent. Whether they actually are is different from one geographic area to the next.
The thing to remember is that FDA guidelines do not carry the force of law in terms of health code. They are just that―guidelines. Every individual restaurant follows the regulations of its own local county health department, whether or not they match up with FDA guidelines.
What’s more, local and county health codes often change depending on the individuals tapped to oversee them. As an example, a county health commissioner and his board may determine that the restaurants in their county must use bleach as a sanitizing agent, but when that commissioner retires 10 years later, a new commissioner could get rid of the bleach requirement altogether.
In terms of local and county health codes, nothing is static forever. That’s one of the reasons why restaurant owners and health inspectors don’t always have the friendliest of relationships.
Are dishes normally washed by hand or machine?
In this day and age, large chain restaurants typically rely on automated washing machines that take all the guesswork out of clean dishes. But it’s not uncommon for family restaurants and mom-and-pop outfits to still wash dishes by hand. Many a teenager still earns a part-time wage bent over a sink for hours on end.
As a general rule, hand-washed dishes are divided into three sinks. The first sink contains the hot, soapy water where dishes are initially scrubbed. The second sink contains the rinse water, and a third contains a water and sanitizer solution. It is the second sink that causes some of the concern.
The wash water is uncomfortably hot at 110°F, thus prompting many dishwashers to use cooler water for rinsing. But if that rinse water is only lukewarm, it still may be warm enough to attract germs floating in the air or on the hands of the dishwasher. Some of those germs may be strong enough to withstand the sanitizer.
Is there anything that can be done differently?
The Science Daily report mentioned a study undertaken by Ohio State University in which cold water was used for washing and rinsing. The idea behind the study was to see if using cold water reduced the likelihood that bacteria would remain on dishes even after washed, scrubbed, and sanitized. What they found out was interesting.
Regardless of the temperature of the water used, bacteria levels were well below FDA recommendations as long as dishes were washed, rinsed, and sanitized. The study seemed to suggest that the soap and sanitizer were much more important to the equation than the temperature of the water used. Furthermore, getting dishes washed before food was able to dry on them was critically important.
Once food dries, bacteria is allowed to flourish. Unfortunately, however, dried food is also much more difficult to remove from dishes. By getting to dirty dishes quickly, and using good soaps and sanitizers, bacteria and other germs can be controlled quite well.
Are machine-washed dishes better?
Restaurants that use an automated washing machine generally don’t have issues with dirty dishes if they’re rinsed properly before going into the machine. The key to machine-washed dishes is to make sure no dried food particles remain. Otherwise, bacteria can attach to those particles and thrive just as easily on these dishes as it does on their hand-washed counterparts.
On the bright side, there are relatively few illnesses among restaurant customers due to dirty dishes when compared to the millions of meals served every year. And when bacteria is present, it is nothing most healthy people can’t deal with by way of the normal functioning of the immune system. The vast majority of us will never get sick as a result of eating at our favorite restaurants.
The next time you sit down for a New York strip steak or veal parmigiana at your favorite Italian joint, don’t let your meal be ruined by a fear of germs and bacteria. Enjoy yourself with the knowledge that you will, in all likelihood, be fine in the morning.