According to a message that began cirulating back in 2007, a scientific study found potentially dangerous bacteria in lemon wedges included with drinks ordered in 21 different restaurants.
The information circulates via email and has also been posted to various blogs, online forums and other websites.
The study mentioned in the message is genuine. It was conducted in 2007 by Anne LaGrange Loving, Assistant Professor of Science at Passaic County Community College. It is a common practise for restaurant staff to include a slice of lemon on the rim of a glass or in the drink itself. Staff often include the lemon slice as a matter of course, even if the patron did not specifically request it. The purpose of the study was to determine if these lemon slices contained microbial contamination that could be inadvertently consumed by patrons.
In order to conduct the study, a total of 76 lemon samples were collected from 21 restaurants during 43 separate visits. Water and soda were the only drinks used in the study. Each sample was collected as soon as the drink was served and without the knowledge of restaurant staff. The collector took the sample using a collection swab without actually touching the lemon slice and before consuming any of the drink.
The collected samples were then cultured in the laboratory. Results revealed that 69.7 percent of the cultured samples showed microbial growth in the lemon’s rind, flesh, or both. The microbes found in the lemon slices all have the potential to cause infectious diseases in humans.
Thus, the warning message is basically factual. The lemon wedge in your restaurant drink may well contain potentially harmful bacteria. That said, however, the study acknowledges that it did not attempt to determine the actual likelihood of people falling ill as a result of contaminated lemon slices. It notes that an “extensive search of the literature yielded no reported outbreaks or illnesses attributed to lemon slices in beverages”.
The warning message implies that the microbial contamination in lemon slices is the result of poor hygiene standards by restaurant staff. However, the study itself states that it could not definitively identify the actual origin of the microbial contamination. Bacteria may indeed have been transferred from the fingertips of restaurant staff during drink preparation. On the other hand, contamination could also have occurred before the lemons arrived at the restaurant or even as a result of airborne spores settling on the lemons or implements used to prepare them.
The findings of this study show that potentially harmful microorganisms can definitely survive on lemon slices and restaurant patrons should certainly be aware of this fact. However, the study was unable to establish how much of a threat such contamination actually poses to patrons and suggests that further research into the issue may be warranted.
Furthermore, it seems reasonable to suspect that, not only lemons, but other drink garnishes such as limes, cherries or olives might also have the potential to be contaminated. And, of course, if restaurant workers fail to maintain high standards of hygiene, bacterial contamination of the meal that accompanies your lemon-garnished drink could occur. As stated earlier, there are as yet no reports of illness caused by contaminated lemon slices. However, outbreaks of disease caused by contaminated restaurant meals are well documented and not uncommon.
An example of the warning message:
Subject: Harmful bacteria on lemon slices used in restaurants Interesting...and worth reading. Restaurant Lemons Are Loaded With Germs Beware of 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.