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Coming Clean About Risk of Finger Food

By Sindya N. Bhanoo
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Come lunchtime, Washingtonians step out of their germ-laden offices to grab a bite to eat. And likely as not, they'll be eating with their fingers.

There are Indian restaurants, with naan that spice lovers dip into curry. And Ethiopian, with injera, the crepe broken off with the fingers and eaten with vegetable and meat stews.

At Nando's Peri-Peri, which opened in Washington's Chinatown last summer, the juicy chicken is finger-licking good, as many customers prove while enjoying their meals.

But all this food touching means the germs from our hands are also touching our food.

With the wide variety of ethnic finger foods available today, along with classics such as french fries and nachos, should more of us be washing our hands before sitting down to eat at restaurants?

Yes, says Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona. Especially at lunchtime.

Gerba is the germ guy. He has spent years swiping cotton swabs across the floors of bathrooms, counters, tables and door handles, trying to figure out where the ickiest of germs live.

"Eighty percent of us work indoors; we're sharing more spaces with more people than ever before," he said.

The work environment is crawling with bacteria, he has found.

"Our offices -- our desktops, our keyboards, our phones -- these are among the worst places for germs," he said. "There are 400 times more viruses on the average desktop than the average toilet, for instance."

Yuck.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that we always wash our hands in warm water with soap before eating.

But 35 percent of Americans don't always wash their hands before lunch, according to a 2008 survey conducted for the Soap and Detergent Association, a trade group.

I began thinking about hand-washing because my parents are from India, and I grew up eating Indian food almost every day. We ate it with our hands -- after washing them.

But at Indian restaurants, I rarely see patrons making their way to the restroom to wash up before dipping their fingers into a plate of samosas or tearing a piece of naan in half to scoop up some chicken tikka masala.

In India, it is common to see sinks with running water and soap in the seating area of restaurants, so customers can wash up before and after eating. A few years ago when I was visiting India, I thought to myself, why not do this in America?

Some restaurants do. Nando's has sinks in the seating area. The question is whether patrons use them.

I stood in a corner of the restaurant during lunch one day (shortly after the swine flu outbreak began, in fact) and started counting.

One, two, three, four, five . . . six . . . all the way up to 58, in a half-hour.

That was my count of how many people walked by the very prominently located sink and didn't wash their hands. They did stop, though, to pick up dipping sauce and napkins, which were located right next to the sink.

I counted three, yes three, people who did wash their hands: two middle-aged men and one young woman.

The two men were together, so I joined them in their lunch booth to find out what inspired them to wash.

"I always wash my hands before I eat," said Mark Raby, 48. "And I like the sink out here; in fact, maybe this will encourage more people to wash."

His lunch companion, Jamie MacAyeal, is not always so diligent.

"At home, in general I do," said Mac-Ayeal, 52. "But not always when I eat out. Our bodies can fight germs."

Raby disagreed.

"Your skin comes into contact with all kinds of pathogens, and why ingest these?" he asked.

"It's like how there's two schools of thought for infants," MacAyeal said, explaining that some pediatricians say that kids should be kept away from germs, while others say exposure to germs builds immunity.

"My dad was a pediatrician," Raby said, eyeing his friend with skepticism. "And he taught me to wash my hands."

Other restaurants offer different solutions.

At Zed's, a popular Ethiopian restaurant in Georgetown, waiters bring every customer a disposable hand wipe before and after they eat.

And at Marrakesh, a Moroccan restaurant neat the convention center, waiters pour warm rose water on customers' hands over a brass bowl and then hand them small towels.

"This is customary in Morocco because we eat with our hands," said Andre Helou, the restaurant's manager. "Everyone is clean before they eat; it gives a good feeling."

Though most customers at Marrakesh do eat with their hands, the restaurant also provides silverware. "Couscous can be hard to eat with your fingers," Helou said, "though traditionally, we form it into small balls with our fingers and place it our mouth."

Until eight years ago, at Meskerem, an Ethiopian restaurant in Adams Morgan, waiters took soap, a pitcher of warm water and bowls to pour water over people's hands. "We tried to show people the traditional way, but everything costs money," said manager Mohaba Mohaba.

Many Americans today are familiar with how Ethiopian food is eaten anyway, he added. "And when we have newcomers we tell them they might like to wash their hands before eating."

Gerba, who has been to Marrakesh when visiting Washington, says restaurants should encourage hand-washing.

"When possible, you should be using soap," he said. "Hands are pretty efficient at picking up viruses."

Does the germ doctor wash his hands every time he eats?

"I sure do," Gerba said. "It's probably always a good idea. But if you're not touching the food and you're using knives and forks, it's not as a critical."

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