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Lemon Aid


Claim:   A study found dangerous microbial growth on 70% of lemon slices served with beverages in restaurants.

MIXTURE

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, February 2008]

Beware the lemon in your drink. It could make you sick.

When restaurant workers place a lemon wedge on your glass of water, tea, or soda, they are apparently spiking your drink with germs.

A new study by a New Jersey microbiologist found nasty bacteria on two-thirds of the lemons that were tested from 21 restaurants.

"It was gross," said Anne LaGrange Loving, assistant science professor at Passaic County Community College."

Loving decided to do the study after noticing a waitress with dirty fingernails delivering a drink to a table.

"They put lemon in my Diet Coke, I didn't ask for it, and so I decided to do a study."

Loving and her team swabbed for bacteria as soon as drinks hit the table at restaurants all around Paterson, New Jersey.

"You would think they had dipped the lemons in raw meat," she said, referring to the high levels of bacteria that she found.

The swabs of lemon wedges revealed everything from high counts of fecal bacteria to a couple of dozen other microorganisms — most of which can make you sick. They found bacteria on the rind and on the flesh of the lemons.

Health laws require lemons to be handled with gloves or tongs. But its common practice for waiters and waitresses to simply pop the little lemon wedge onto a drinking glass with their bare hands.

If an employee's hands aren't clean, however, then touching the lemons is likely to contaminate them with bacteria according to Loving.

This is not the first time that Anne Loving has gone looking for bacteria in unusual places. She did a study several years ago and found bacteria on communion cups.

"You'd just have to know me," she laughed. "I'm a germ freak."

But, Loving says, the results of the study point to a significant problem.

"People need to know that the lemons have bacteria on them that can make them sick."
 

Origins:   The article cited above references a study (published in
the Journal of Environmental Health in December 2007 and co-authored by Anne LaGrange Loving, an Assistant Professor of Science at Passaic County Community College) in which a total of 76 lemon wedges served with water or soda were sampled from 21 different restaurants and analyzed for microbial growth. The study found that 69.7% of the lemon wedges sampled produced some form of microbial growth from the rind and/or the flesh, encompassing a total of 25 different microorganisms including bacteria and yeasts. The study noted that "The microbes found on the lemon samples in our investigation all have the potential to cause infectious diseases at various body sites."

However, this study in itself doesn't demonstrate that restaurant patrons are at high risk for contracting some serious illnesses due to food workers' not observing sufficiently rigorous sanitary standards. For one thing, the study did not determine the origins of the microbial contaminants:
It is not possible to definitively identify the origins of the microorganisms. While the Enterobacteriaceae and nonfermentative Gramnegative bacilli could have come from the fingertips of a restaurant employee via human fecal or raw-meat or poultry contamination, they might have contaminated the lemons before they even arrived at the restaurant. The Gram-positive cocci and Corynebacterium isolates may have been introduced onto the lemons from the skin or oral flora of anyone who handled them, before or after they arrived in the restaurant. The Bacillus species are ubiquitous and could have had numerous sources, including airborne spores landing on the fruit or on the knife used to cut the lemon.
The study also did not determine the likelihood of customers' contracting infectious diseases from restaurant-served lemon wedges, nor did it cite any examples of such an occurrence:
[T]he likelihood [of the microbes' causing infectious diseases] was not determined in this study. An extensive search of the literature yielded no reported outbreaks or illnesses attributed to lemon slices in beverages. Establishment of an infection would depend upon the number of microbes introduced; this investigation did not include a quantitative determination of the numbers of microorganisms on the lemons. Other factors that would contribute to the establishment of an infection would include whether the organisms were resistant to multiple antibiotics, the general health and age of the individual, the status of the immune system, and the integrity of the mucous membranes of the lips and mouth.
What the study uncovered, basically, is a potential problem that requires more study:
Although lemons have known antimicrobial properties, the results of our study indicate that a wide variety of microorganisms may survive on the flesh and the rind of a sliced lemon. Restaurant patrons should be aware that lemon slices added to beverages may include potentially pathogenic microbes. Further investigations could determine the source of these microorganisms, establish the actual threat (if any) posed by their presence on the rim of a beverage, and develop possible means for preventing the contamination of the lemons. It could also be worthwhile to study contamination on other beverage garnishes, such as olives, limes, celery, and cherries, and to investigate whether alcoholic beverages have an effect not seen with water and soda.
Last updated:   30 May 2014

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Sources:

    Loving, Anne LaGrange and John Perz.   "Microbial Flora on Restaurant Beverage Lemon Slices."
    Journal of Environmental Health.   1 December 2007.