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Dishing Up Disease: Food Server Follies

Opinion

(This article was originally posted here and is reposted with permission.)

Few jobs are busier than being a food server during peak eating hours. And for many waiters and waitresses, the job includes more than just taking orders and delivering food. It also includes busing tables, taking money to the cashier, and some minor food preparation, such as making desserts or drinks.

We expect food preparers to wear gloves and practice appropriate food safety procedures. But food servers don’t wear gloves since they are not expected to touch your food. On the other hand, they do touch your plate, eating utensils, cups, and glasses. And they may have touched these things just after busing a table and touching the same items used by other patrons, some of whom may have been sick.

waitressworking-406All this exposes the food server to germs, which can be spread to other customers by dirty hands.

In the hectic bustle of their jobs, food servers rarely, if ever, take the time to wash their hands between customers and different aspects of their job. Tables need to be cleared of past customer refuse and be prepared for waiting customers, food orders need to be taken (with a pen that is never cleaned), glasses of water and other drinks need to be prepared and served, food needs to be served, desserts need to be made, and checks need to be paid. And this all happens at the same time with customers at various stages of the process.

Some customers blow their noses into napkins that are left at the table. The food server who also buses tables will handle these napkins and will also remove the glasses of water left on the table by sticking their fingers into the glasses and pinching them together to carry them. These same servers may then deliver fresh glasses of water to new customers, handling the glasses near the rim where people put their lips. The server also touches the rims of the food plate, which can contact food as the customer eats.

Food servers who also make desserts will rarely wash before preparing the food. And I have personally witnessed servers licking their fingers after accidentally touching whipped cream topping. Of course, this usually happens out of sight of the customers.

This makes the food server a potential vector of disease. Even if the servers are healthy, their contact with the public exposes them to pathogens which can spread through hand contact. And given the fact that some servers also bus tables, making them part of the clean-up crew, they are in a position to dish out food and disease at the same time.

What is a concerned restaurant patron to do? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Restaurants should have dedicated busing staff to avoid contamination of food server hands.
  2. If servers are also busing tables, ask your server if he or she washes their hands each time after busing and before serving.
  3. If the server brings you a glass of water or other drink while handling the glass near the rim, it is a bad sign. Either ask for a straw to avoid touching the rim with your lips, or leave the restaurant. Chances are that if they handle your glass near the rim, then they have little regard for other food safety issues.
  4. Make sure the server looks healthy. Many people work despite being ill.
  5. Restaurant management should remind staff of the need for clean hands and make hand sanitizer available.
  6. The host or hostess should take payment at the end of the meal so food servers don’t touch money. Of course, servers will pick up their tips, but they should wash their hands immediately afterward.
  7. Food servers are the “face” of the restaurant that the customer sees. If you see poor hygiene practices in the wait staff, it is an indication of what might be happening in the kitchen, too. Unless you want to get sick in addition to getting fed, choose your restaurant by the quality of its servers.

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