(This article was originally posted here on Nov. 2, 2015, and is reposted with permission.) We all connect with the world around us with our hands, touching all sorts of objects, surfaces, and other hands, which is why diseases are often transmitted by hand contact. Of course, dirty hands can be washed. The problem is when we don’t wash them and use our dirty hands to deliver pathogens into our bodies by rubbing our eyes, scratching our nose, and then picking up food with our fingers. Finger food is an American favorite. While forks and knives keep our fingers clean of food and the food clean from our fingers, there are lots of favorite foods we happily eat with our fingers. From sandwiches, hamburgers, hotdogs, and fried chicken to chips, nuts, cookies, fruit, and candy, there is usually nothing between the food and your hands, making this a common way for pathogens to enter your body as you eat. Eating sandwich with dirty handsAll the food preparation safety in the world cannot stop you from getting sick from eating if you use dirty fingers to hold your food. This makes eating finger food a risky behavior, especially during flu season. Sometimes, you have no choice but to use your hands to eat. For example, airlines often serve snacks, such as peanuts or potato chips or small sandwiches, and you are expected to use your hands to eat them. However, after being in pathogen-rich environments like airplanes, finger food becomes a vector of disease. Some snack packaging allows you to avoid touching the food, as with a small box of raisins. You can lift the box to your mouth and pour the food in. But some snack items are pure finger food. For example, how can you eat potato chips without touching the chips with your hands? How can you eat a pickle or hold a hotdog or hamburger without using your hands? Sandwiches are often eaten with dirty hands. The outer covering of bread seems like a wrapper keeping our hands clean of the food inside. But dirty hands can deliver pathogens to the bread and from there to your body. Clean utensils are the best way to avoid food contamination from hand contact. But finger foods are made to be eaten without utensils. How can we have our cake and eat it too without utensils? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Wash your hands before eating. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer.
  2. Hold the food with the wrapper if possible.
  3. For foods such as potato chips, where you can’t just pour the product from the package into your mouth, the food manufacturer can attach a sanitary hand wipe packet to the food package.
  4. If you are really hungry and have no practical way to clean your hands to eat a sandwich, try holding the sandwich in one place only and discard that part.
  5. Don’t forget to wash your hands after eating as well since food left on the hands can feed pathogens and make your hands an even greater threat to your health the next time you eat.

Finger food is fine if your fingers aren’t filthy. A little common sense and good hygiene can help you avoid foodborne illness.

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