How clean was the cloth used to clean tables in your restaurant

A reader asked Katie Fairbank of the Dallas Morning News, "Why do restaurants use those filthy rags to clean off your table

Fairbank says there have been plenty of times that I’ve watched a disgusted lunch companion wipe down a table right after it was swiped clean with a sopping wet dish towel.

"I am one of those people," said restaurant legend Gene Street. "I carry my little thing with Clorox wipes around in my car. When I go into a restaurant, I wipe it all down – especially the salt and pepper, since everyone touches their nose or their mouth and then touches them. Can you imagine what could be on those?"

The state and cities have regulations on exactly what restaurants need to do to clean tables. If that rag really is "filthy," the restaurant is not up to code, and the inspectors would like to know about it.

"There are a lot of viruses out there that can be transmitted from a surface," said Chauncy Williams, sanitarian supervisor for the city of Dallas. "Bacteria tend not to live long, but there are instances where a wet surface can help sustain it."

Dallas regulations require restaurants to have wiping cloths available to clean work areas, equipment, counters and customer tables. The cloths are always soaking wet, because they must be stored in a sanitizing solution. The solution itself must be tested periodically throughout the day to make sure it’s the right concentration. If it’s too strong, it could be too toxic. Too weak, and it doesn’t do the job.

Cafes, bars, restaurants and fast-food joints are also supposed to change the solution several times each day to make sure it hasn’t gotten dirty.

Restaurant cleaning cloths pose health risk, says study

I have a number of anecdotal studies going on whenever I go to the supermarket, a restaurant, a baby doctor, and other places.

When we go to a roadhouse-style restaurant, I often watch the servers clean the table with some sort of cloth, and I’ll ask, what is the cloth cleaned with or soaked in? They usually point to some sorta sanitary solution, but aren’t too knowledgeable about how often it’s changed or cleaned. Same with those aprons the chefs are always wiping their hands on – I have dreams of large sample sizes.

The U.K. Health Protection Agency does have some resources so set about to sample those clothes used to wipe down tables in restaurants and takeaways and found they are often contaminated with E coli, listeria and other potentially dangerous bacteria.

The Guardian reports that cloths used to clean surfaces where food is prepared need to be changed regularly or thoroughly disinfected to prevent the growth of bacteria that can cause food poisoning.

HPA researchers sampled 133 cloths used for cleaning in 120 restaurants and takeaways in the north-east of England. They told the HPA’s annual conference at the University of Warwick today that 56% of the cloths contained unacceptable levels of bacteria. The most common were enterobacteriaceae (found on 86 cloths) E coli (21), Staphylococcus aureus (six) and listeria (five).

Only a third of restaurant kitchens (32%) were following the recommendation to use disposable cloths and change them regularly. The remainder had reusable cloths; in 15% of the kitchens, staff were unsure how often they were replaced.

John Harford, of the HPA’s food, water and environmental microbiology laboratory, said there was no reason to suppose restaurant kitchens in the north-east operated differently from those elsewhere in the country. He pointed to the potentially serious consequences for those eating food in or from such restaurants, adding,

"We have had certain outbreaks of food poisoning at a restaurant where we have isolated salmonella from the person who has eaten the meal and we have found salmonella on the cloth in the kitchen as well.”

While most restaurants disinfected their reusable cloths every 10 to 24 hours, a number of restaurants left it longer than 24 hours and some did not know how often their cloths were disinfected.