It all happened by accident. One day this past spring, Erin Carr-Jordan, mother of four and professor at Arizona State University, rushed into a Tempe McDonald’s because her three-year-old child needed to use the bathroom. Before they left, her child wanted to spend time at the fast-food restaurant’s playground.
What happened next surprised her.
Following her child into one of the slides, Carr-Jordan found this supposedly fun play tube had rotting food in every crevice, a used Bandaid inside, and gang signs and profanity scrawled all over.
“It was every little thing you wouldn’t want your child near,” said Carr-Jordan.
Outraged, she went back the next day to complain to the manager. She came back a third day to check to see if anything had been done — it hadn’t. Carr-Jordan continued to complain, six times to four different managers, over the course of a month and finally called McDonald’s corporate headquarters. But, still, she got no satisfying answer.
So she took it upon herself to see if this was an isolated case. Visiting fast-food restaurants all over Arizona, her fears were confirmed — nearly all the play areas she looked at were cruddy and gummy with food residue. She swabbed structures, and sent the samples to a lab for testing.
Then, on a recent Midwest vacation, she visited as many cities as could, swabbing more fast-food restaurant play structures. In all, she took bacterial samples from restaurant play toys in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The lab test results were concerning. In every fast-food play area in every state she visited, there was at least one structure harboring an opportunistic pathogen — the kind that can sicken small children, who are apt to put their fingers, or every little thing they pick up, into their mouths.
“We’re talking about children, not adults who have stronger immune systems. They haven’t developed immunities to pathogens,” said Carr-Jordan.
Tests of Carr-Jordan’s swabs found strains of Bacillus cereus, fecal coliforms, Enterobacter, multiple strains of Staphylococcus, Acinetobacter lwoffii, and Acinetobacter baumannii, among others that can cause infection or illness, especially in individuals with weak immune systems.
Her findings provide another reminder to parents to make sure to wash their kids’ hands not only before they eat, but after they play at a fast-food restaurant.
For every playground where Carr-Jordan found an opportunistic pathogen, she filed a complaint with the local health department. She said the typical response was disappointing — while play structures must appear to be clean, their actual cleanliness is not under health department jurisdiction.
She also discovered that there are virtually no public hearth regulations at the state or federal level regarding sanitary conditions of fast-food restaurant play areas.
“It is a gaping hole, to me unconscionable, that there are no regulations with this,” she said.
Carr-Jordan says she has also received a cold shoulder from the fast-food chains themselves. “They are the king of re-direct … I’ve gotten a cookie-cutter response about everything.”
“PlayPlace sanitation and cleanliness is a top priority for McDonald’s,” Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s USA, told this reporter. She added, “PlayPlace components should be cleaned daily to ensure that the PlayPlace is free from debris or spills that could pose a hazard.” She went on to say, “(We) pay special attention to handrails, stair treads, the slide entrance and exit, the inside of domes, entry portholes, and other areas that are touched frequently and become soiled quickly.”
Asked whether Carr-Jordan’s campaign has had any effect on the cleaning protocols of McDonald’s, Proud declined to comment.
Burger King also declined to address whether Carr-Jordan’s efforts have had any effect on their cleaning protocols, merely saying that the company has cleaning standards.
These standards include, “procedures for daily, weekly and monthly cleaning of playground equipment, pads and foams. On a quarterly basis, restaurant playgrounds are also required to be cleaned by a professional cleaning service,” according to Denise Wilson, the associate manager of global communications for Burger King Corporation.
Carr-Jordan said she found one fast-food restaurant that stood alone, both in its serious approach to sanitary play areas, and in its responsiveness to inquiries about its cleaning process: Chick-fil-A. She said Chick-fil-A. outlets sanitize nightly, disinfect bi-weekly, and use steam as a disinfectant.
Carr-Jordan acknowledges that her campaign for sanitary play equipment has so far produced only minor changes. In some instances, she noted, after a story about dirty fast-food play areas has been reported by local media, the franchises in those towns have hired professional cleaning companies to regularly clean and disinfect.
But at the corporate level, it’s unclear if any policy changes have taken place, she said.
Carr-Jordan isn’t done. She has reached out to lawmakers at the state and federal level, lobbying for regulations that mandate fast-food restaurants adopt good cleaning protocols following the Chick-fil-A model.
Meanwhile, her passion for change hasn’t wavered. “I really just want kids to be safe,” she said.