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Restaurant Lemons May Come with a Side of E. Coli, Fecal Matter

Jun 13, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Lemon wedges tested from four of six well-known family restaurants were contaminated with fecal matter; one with E. coli.  The findings were the result of a test conducted by the news show, “Good Morning America” (“GMA”).  “GMA” tested lemons from Applebee’s, TGI Fridays, and Chili’s in New Jersey, visiting six restaurants.  They swabbed lemons they were served and sent the samples to a microbiology laboratory at New York University’s (NYU) Medical Center.

The results indicated that yeast and harmless bacteria that are commonly found on fruits and in the environment were on all of the lemons and four samples were contaminated with dangerous bacteria.  E. coli was found at the Applebee’s in Clifton, New Jersey and fecal matter was found at both of the Applebee’s and TGI Fridays.  Chili’s lemons were not contaminated with dangerous bacteria.

The team reported that at half of the restaurants, workers handled lemons with their bare hands, a violation of New Jersey’s health code that mandates workers use tongs or wear gloves.  “I see that people have no concern of where they put their fingers.  They’ll take things with their bare hands rather than gloving up and distributing the food stuff as they should, said Tierno.

Also, in a study released in 2007, Anne LaGrange Loving, a New Jersey microbiologist tested lemons at 21 restaurants and found two-thirds contained bacteria, including fecal bacteria.

It is best to squeeze the lemon’s juice into your drink or on your food and put the lemon itself aside.  Hard alcoholic drinks, such as a martini, can kill bacteria, but the lemon’s acidity and lower alcohol drinks—such as beer—will not.

Meanwhile, six cases of E. coli infection this week have Ohio health officials concerned the cases are linked.  In one case, a 52-year-old woman who was infected with the bacteria died.  

Escherichia coli is a relatively common bacteria found in the human digestive tract and is normally harmless; however, some strains, including those linked to food poisoning, are serious and can cause fatal blood poisoning, cystitis, and deadly septicemia.  In the US, E. coli is the leading cause of food-borne illness.  About 73,000 people are infected and 61 people die from E. coli each year and, last year alone, over 22 million pounds of beef and vegetables were recalled due to E. coli outbreaks.

In the last two years, a variety of food pathogens have killed several people, sickened over 1,300 others, and touched nearly every state in the country as well as Canada.  The problem is difficult to police because the food-surveillance system is outdated, under-funded, and overwhelmed by the emergence of mega-farms, -distribution centers, and -transporters.  Scientists have expressed concern that infections from antibiotic resistant E. coli bacteria are spreading into the greater population and several countries also now report cases of antibiotic-resistant E. coli.  Researchers compare the E. coli threat to the worldwide problem of community-acquired MRSA—methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—an antibiotic-resistant staph developing resistance to the last drug of choice.  And, now, emerging data confirms the negative health effects of E. coli can remain for months and years; can have long-term, lasting effects; and can appear months or years after the original illness.

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