Do restaurant plates harbor viruses such as hepatitis A or avian influenza? That's the question being asked by Dr. Melvin Pascall, an associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at Ohio State University, who has spent the past 15 years working to improve food safety in areas ranging from packaging to food service cleaning practices. His research has been cited by the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and he has helped create national food industry dishware cleaning guidelines. He is currently conducting research to determine if the existing guidelines are enough to keep the public safe from cross contamination. However, with 20 million cases of acute gastroenteritis and 128,000 hospitalizations a year attributed to food-borne illness, Pascall is continually looking for ways to improve the system.
"While there are dishware cleaning guidelines, there are no actual laws that mandate food service businesses must use them. We know that when public food establishments follow the cleaning protocols, they do a very good job at getting rid of bacteria," says Pascall. "But, we dont know if those protocols work to kill viruses and this may help explain why there are still so many illnesses caused by contaminated food."
In 2010, Pascall was awarded with a grant from the Ohio State Center Clinical and Translational Science to test how effectively the current government standards, which are proven to sanitize against bacteria, are able to rid dishes and silverware of viruses. Pascall theorized that viruses could be a bigger health issue, because it only takes a small number of viruses to make a person sick and many viruses could withstand the high temperatures used in commercial dishwashing protocols.
Working with a team of virologists, Pascall set out to test the ability of common viruses norovirus and sapovirus - to make it through a variety of "real life" food service cleaning scenarios. Norovirus is responsible for 90 percent of epidemic non- bacterial cases of gastroenteritis and is commonly associated with illnesses seen on cruise ships and other "closed communities" where the virus can spread easily. Building off these research results, which are currently being compiled, the team will next investigate if hepatitis A and the avian flu virus are able to get past current washing and sanitization protocols.
"I think well find that the current use of heat and chlorine based detergents are able to protect against some viruses, but we may need to bring forward new technologies or new protocols to kill other types of viruses," says Pascall. He also offers the following tips to help consumers reduce their chances of picking up a foodborne illness at home or while eating out:
If you find lipstick on a glass, definitely ask for a new glass, but if youve already taken a sip, dont be too worried that you've picked up something. Most lipsticks already contain an antibacterial ingredient.
Forks are the hardest utensils to clean because of the tines, so always check a fork before you use it. High fat foods are the most difficult to get off, especially raw and fried eggs.
Never eat from a dish or plate that has a crack in it. Cracked dishes can harbor bacteria.
Some states require the certificate of inspection to be in plain sight, you may want to pass an establishment that has had any health inspection issues.
EATING IN: Most dishwashers have several built in sanitizing steps, but if you wash dishes by hand the three critical "Ts" to remember are time, temperature, and towel dry.
TIME: When washing dishes by hand, wash and rinse immediately to reduce the amount of bacteria that grows on the dish. And take the time to make sure all visible food particles are gone.
TEMPERATURE: wash in hottest water possible to kill bacteria and wash away foods that bacteria can grow on.
TOWEL DRY: dry immediately using a clean fabric or disposable paper towel (best) to prevent airborne bacteria from sticking.
Pascall is currently working on other food safety research topics, including an evaluation of electrolyzed water technologies as well as a review of how different materials used in common kitchenware can either promote or inhibit bacterial growth. Pascall has published extensively in peer reviewed journals and is a regular contributor to the Conference for Food Protection.