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Readers Sound Off About Dirty Restaurant Lemons

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Several weeks ago we received a question from a reader about lemon wedges in restaurant water glasses. Our answer started a firestorm of controversy. Visitors to the website sounded off on all sides of this controversy. Read on to see what people have to say. Then comment yourself. We would love to get your perspective on this controversial issue.

Q. One of my co-workers always asks for a slice of lemon in his water. I shudder every time I see that piece of lemon floating in his glass but I don't have the nerve to tell him it's probably loaded with germs. Am I mistaken?

A. You are correct. Microbiologist Anne LaGrange Loving was served a Diet Coke with a slice of lemon she had not requested. She decided to check whether the lemon was likely to be contaminated.

She and her co-author surreptitiously swabbed 76 lemon slices served at 21 different restaurants, then cultured the results. Two-thirds of the lemon slices had bacteria on either the rind or the pulp (Journal of Environmental Health, Dec., 2007). Many of these germs have the potential to cause illness, although the study was not designed to discover if any patrons actually became sick.

You're not the only one to wonder about this. Another reader wrote: "I wish you would address the way water is served in restaurants. It frequently comes with a lemon floating in the water. Tests on lemons from various restaurants found fecal bacteria. They should ask whether you want lemon or not." We agree with that recommendation.


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I read that the lemon wedges put in drinking water in restaurants are often contaminated with germs. Does a slice of lime also contain bacteria? Is it safe to drop a slice of lime in a bottle of Corona beer?

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My family once owned two resorts. I hate to admit (remember this was some years ago) that as a cost cutter, the served lemon and lime wedges would be recycled if not used. No one thought that the wedges had been touched and might carry germs. I thought this practice had been terminated only recently to learn that bars and restaurants were still doing the same "cost-effective" salvage of lemon and lime wedges.

The point: skip the lemon and lime wedges in bars and restaurants. They may have been recycled and now carry whatever germs accompanied those that may have previously handled them.

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Q. You didn't really answer exactly where the bacteria, contamination or germs come from? From the knives they are cut with? Or where? And why lemons? What about other food in restaurants? Isn't other food just as suspect to contamination as lemons? Just wondering why lemons were singled out? Thank you

PEOPLE'S PHARMACY RESPONSE: FROM HANDS OR KNIVES, IN THE KITCHEN OR BEFORE GETTING TO THE KITCHEN. LEMONS MAY OR MAY NOT BE WASHED BEFORE CUTTING AND SERVING.

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The problem with your article about lemon wedges is that it appears to lay the blame on lemons. Nowhere is there any explanation concerning why a slice of lemon would be so dangerous. Doesn't it suggest that the problem lies not in the lemon wedge but in the basic cleanliness of the restaurant and the workers therein? Fecal matter? Do we grow lemons in dung piles? No, the workers don't wash their hands after using the toilet.

Seems to me that the lemons are the least of the problems here.

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Must be the following: lemons are handled by workers with unwashed hands; fecal material may be there from site of origin or picked up in transit; lemons (generally) are not washed prior to use - since traditionally the rind is discarded without direct contact with food or beverage.

I often put lemon slices in water. Will now ensure the lemons are well washed prior to use. Thanks for posting. This has been an eye opener.

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What about the slice of tomato on the side of the plate? What about that nice sprig of parsley? What about anything that's touched in the kitchen or service area? In fact, how about our home kitchens and the foods we prepare and serve and eat? The earth is crawling with bugs. What about just enjoying something, for heaven's sake!

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It's probably because waiters/waitresses commonly prepare beverages rather than the cook staff (who are more likely to wear protective gloves and/or frequently wash their hands). The waiters/waitresses that I've watched do not put on gloves or use tongs to retrieve the lemon wedges but rather use their bare hands (which probably weren't washed since they handled money, dirty dishes etc). If the employee's hands weren't clean then their touching of the lemons is the likely source of contamination.

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This isn't news to READER'S DIGEST or, for that matter, any waitperson who's honest about it. A few months ago that publication had an article: "20 Secrets Your Waiter Won't Tell You." Check it out on rd.com. It can be scary!

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Lemons and limes served with drinks are singled out because they are handled by servers with their bare hands. Even if a server regularly washes her/his hands, he/she also handles trays, money, credit cards, and other items that may not be clean. The lemon or lime may be cut with a sterile knife, but by the time it is put onto the rim of your glass, it may have germs that you don't expect.

This is why you should watch the way a server picks up your glass to refill it. If he/she picks it up near the bottom, that is fine. But if the server holds the glass near the top, then her/his hand may contaminate the rim of the glass where you drink.

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I read this years ago, and the bacteria is on any fruit skin that is not washed. 
Lemons go through dozens of hands from the tree to the table most probably handled by workers in the fields.
 What restaurant takes time to wash (with soap) a bushel of lemons?

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I found the last comment interesting ("What restaurant takes time to wash (with soap) a bushel of lemons?"). Some common contaminants (e.g., pesticides) are oil-based, so that just a rinse won't be very effective, and we're always cautioned to wash our hands with hot, soapy water, so why should our food be washed differently? I always wash fruit and most hard vegetables with soap and water before eating. My wife finds the use of soap disgusting, however, so I have to do it stealthily.

If your kitchen was tested they would find the same bacteria. You cannot touch anything that doesn't have germs on it. We've lived side by side with them for millions of years and it never bothers most people. They are on everything we eat, sit in, sleep on, and breathe. Healthy people will build up immunity to the little bugs. Don't worry so much about them... there's nothing you can do to get rid of all of them.

Such paranoia !! Hasn't it recently been written in People's Pharmacy that a reason for the uptick in allergies and asthma is our obsession with germs and the proliferation of sanitizers?? If the lemons don't get you, something else will (like stress.... from worrying about germs). Nobody gets out alive. Enjoy it while you're here.

PEOPLE'S PHARMACY RESPONSE:

There are germs and there are GERMS! Sure there are a lot of relatively benign or even healthy germs in, on and around us at all times. But, there are a fair number of bad actors out there.

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), "foodborne disease found in foods consumed in the United States each year cause 9.4 million illnesses, 55,961 hospitalizations, and 1,351 deaths...As a group, we estimate that these unspecified agents [microbes, chemicals, or other substances known to be in food] cause an additional 38.4 million gastroenteritis illnesses, 71,878 hospitalizations, and 1,686 deaths each year."

Just some of the nasties lurking on food include Salmonella, Toxoplasma, Listeria, norovirus, Campylobacter and E. Coli. Perhaps there is too much paranoia out there, but if you get sick because of gastroenteritis caused by bacteria you might be a bit more cautious.

Besides handling by certain employees, much of the contamination comes from lemons that are typically cut at the beginning of the day or shift (as examples) and are left in the open sitting in an unwashed or contaminated dish or bin for the remainder of the day (or longer!) where they are touched by every person who prepares a beverage with the lemon (or lime) slice.

Often, the lemon or lime slice is slimy or slightly shriveled and very not fresh by the time it gets to your table or your drink. These containers are almost never washed thoroughly but usually only rinsed out at the end of the day. Sometimes, multiple lemons and limes are sliced in advance and are stored in large plastic jars with screw-on lids in the fridge, and as stored the supply can last a day or a week. I am certain that these storage jars are rarely if ever washed out.

I use a diluted white vinegar spray to wash all produce -- it is inexpensive and won't hurt you if you should ingest it.

I heartily agree with Stan's message. A healthy living style should build up your immunity to most common bacteria. People who are ill--yes, they should take steps of caution in dealing with everyday types of bacteria.

Even worse than the lemon on the rim of the glass is the pitcher that the wait staff member rests on the rims of glasses. This can transfer saliva from glass to glass. Nice restaurants don't hand out straws as a rule.

Overshadowing this whole subject, as some writers alluded to, are the habits of servers nationwide. Have you ever watched a server clearing a table??? Many of them stick their bare fingers down inside glasses to gather up 3 or 4 at a time and then bring out your glass later carrying it with their fingers wrapped around the top. What do you think is on your glass, hmmm? And high class restaurants do not have wait persons handling money for the same reason--unfortunately, a lot of the places where many of us eat do not have a separate person taking our money. Lemons are just a small part of this whole subject.

I understand that the lemons may have bacteria on them, but I thought the acidity of the lemon would help counteract the bacteria. Also I heard Noro virus can be on ice in a drink and the lemon could help disinfect the ice and water. Is this the case? Thanks!

I have a spray bottle of straight white vinegar from gallon jugs. I spray all my fruits with it, let them sit for a minute and then rinse. I believe it removes germs and pesticide residue AND, a simple rinse is all that is needed, even for grapes, to remove the vinegar. I also use it in cooking pots to remove the smells of bacon grease and spaghetti sauce. It takes off the nasty white edge left from boiling pasta. It is an excellent, natural, food safe cleaning agent.

PK, you are right. I worked in restaurants as a server or bartender for years. The drink garnish containers and their contents get touched by all of the servers and bartenders that are working and the storage containers rarely get washed. Sometimes, large amounts are cut in advance and if business is slow, these are kept and used long past when I would have thrown them out at home. The food on your plate, on the other hand, is likely only touched by the prep workers and chefs in the kitchen. Less hands means less bacteria, and I hope that these works are diligent about hand washing.

Yes, my husband and I are thoroughly disgusted when a wait person touches our glass with the pitcher. And using a straw won't help when the beverage has passed over the contaminated pitcher rim and is deposited into your glass. Now you're just drinking germy tea, water, etc.

I work in a restaurant. The lemons are not washed. Personally I don't think that owners care. Or most I should say. They pass the cutting of produce and fruit sometimes unwashed to bus boys or workers in the back who don't speak English. They have come to this country with a poor education and upbringing. Not knowing any better. Does anyone ever wonder how eating out is safe? When the health department comes periodically they can pass by things that I feel never get addressed. But then they are probably understaffed and after all it is tax money for the city. So the consumer pays in the end. Both ends shall we say.

Let us get real for a second. The American public has been drinking beverages with a lemon wedge for years. Now we are told they are contaminated? Pleaseeeeee, get a grip. anything coming out of a restaurant kitchen has been contaminated in one shape or form... My wife's family was in the food business for over fifty years, and my wife is a professional food person. No matter how hard she tries to decontaminate the kitchen, it is a losing battle. Servers, cooks, dishwashers, all have some type of contamination. I suggest that all food servers be sprayed with Clorox bleach. I am sure the diner would lose his appetite at the smell of bleach. Just kidding. Folks, relax and enjoy your meal.

That's exactly what I was thinking but couldn't find any info... my mother used to clean her hands with lemon juice sometimes because she believed not just it cleans but also good for the skin!

As a restaurant manager I can report first hand that restaurant workers do not intuitively know that they need to wash lemons (or other fruits with rinds like melons) unless they've been trained to do so. We train our staff to soak lemons (and everything else) in a vegetable sanitizing solution for at least one minute before cutting. Unfortunately, it is not easy for a consumer to know which restaurants are vigilant and which are not.

My recommendation is to look at the restaurant and ask yourself, "does this look like a place that makes food safety and sanitation training a priority." Look on the wall for a ServSafe certificate which indicates the manager has been trained in food safety. Ask your waiter a trick question, "I have a sensitive stomach. Do you do anything special to your lemons before you cut them?"

They may not tell you that they wash them even if they do, but they sure won't tell you that they wash them if they don't when you ask like that. If you really want to know how well the staff is trained, ask them "what's the first thing your manager has you do every day after you clock in." If they don't say "wash my hands" think twice before ordering anything that someone might have touched after cooking or anything that isn't cooked at all.

If you really want a lemon in your drink, ask for a whole lemon and a glass of hot water. Soak the lemon in the water and then cut it yourself. (though I admit I would be irritated if you did this in my restaurant).

Oh, and I NEVER put lemons in my glass in any restaurant other than my own.

I always got a lemon in my water and cola until one day my daughters told me that they had read where never to get a slice of lemon/lime in your drink because probably never wash before cutting. Boy that really is something that I have never taken time to think of and I have always really enjoyed lemon in ice tea and cola drinks... now it is totally ruined me for that part of the dining experience.

Sometimes when I am in a "better" type restaurant (not fast food) I take a chance and have lemon. But some restaurants just put lemon in the glass of water, tea etc without asking first. I just have to fish it out with my fork. Ye gads I hope the silverware is clean??

I have learned from reading you never send anything back to the kitchen, I am always watching to see how my order is handled and where it has gone and who has touched it, if at all possible. It's really hard to go out to restaurants these days.

Thanks

I have to comment because I always have at least three lemons in my water and six to eight in my tea, no sugar. While it is disgusting to know that fecal matter is on the lemons, moderation is the key here. If you are served what looks like yesterdays lemons, tell the management. Tell them over and over if needed. Lemon juice is good for you, and if you exercise, eat right, and get your sleep, then your intestinal tract will have no problem in the local environment where you live. You should be much more careful however when on travel.

I used to be a bartender at a well-known chain restaurant. I'm sure the stories most food service workers can tell would make 90% of consumers stop eating out (yet, even after hearing these stories, people STILL trust others with their food).

We NEVER washed lemons or any garnish fruit. Our hands, knives, and cutting boards were clean - I saw to that for myself personally. However, since we considered the fruit a "decoration" if it wasn't used that day, it was refrigerated overnight and brought out for use the next day.

It sat out, exposed on the bar, unrefrigerated during the day. If the fruit began to get slimy or sticky, we would simply squirt it with soda water from the dispenser and rinse it off. Viola! Good as new. I'm sure this still goes on as general practice in many restaurants. Not that you'd know it...

I've worked in a restaurant before. We always washed our lemons really well, in addition to our hands when we handled the lemons (or anything for that matter.) We used a special cutting board that had been sanitized before and after every use, and a knife used specifically for the lemons... again sanitized before and after every use. We'd only cut about 10 lemons up at a time, and would cut more if we needed them. We also kept our lemons in a special container. I don't know if there was any bacteria on them, but if there was it definitely wasn't a lot.

I doubt that everyone is as thorough as Cara, but one can hope. As for "protective gloves" that is a joke. What are these people touching with the gloves on? Everything in sight! I have watched food prep guys rubbing their heads, adjusting their "caps", wiping their sweaty brow, etc etc with their so-called protective gloves. Gross! I cant even eat at the made to order sandwich counter anymore, I was so disgusted.

It doesn't matter how clean the restaurant is or how many times the employees wash their hands, fruits and vegetables come into the restaurant dirty. Anything that grows in the ground such as any kind of melon or any kind of vegetable you have to realize that rodents run all over the fields. Once a box of bananas came in off the trailer we removed the top of the box and there was a rat in the box and he had eaten most of the bananas. The top was replaced and the box went right into the dumpster. Everything that gets shipped is susceptible to either rodents or bugs of some sort.

This is really gross but think about it if the men are working in the fields and they have got to urinate where do you suppose they go? Anything that goes into my fridge gets rinsed ahead of time and I never order water with lemon.

Ok, I'm career food service industry. I've washed dishes, waited tables, cooked on the line, managed, you name it. All the things everyone's saying is perfectly valid. People touch things with their hands. Things get, what you are calling, dirty. I say, so what? Because the truth is, it's still probably cleaner than what you eat at home. I have never in my life been in a private kitchen, in someone's home, and seen a box of gloves laying around, or a bottle of quat, or a bucket of sani water.

When I've seen friends and family cook, they MIGHT wash their hands here and there, but not between everything they touch. If they do use gloves, which isn't often, they don't change them often enough. And how about silverware? Commercial dish washers use soap, sanitizers, and very high heat to clean and sanitize, and all silver is always run twice. Does that happen in your home?

The point is, yes by a lot of criteria, all restaurants are 'dirty' to some extent, but I've never, ever seen a private kitchen live up to the health standards of even the dirtiest restaurant I've worked for. I doubt very much that you have either.

Well! I had wondered for a few years whether or not, Terry and Joe, actually received real responses to their queries. And...my friends, the answer is yes! I am absolutely convinced, that, thanks to your "real people" responses, there is real life out there (not just extraterrestrial) responding to Terry and Joe...Nice to know there are some non-phony columnists out there, still just doing their Jobs. Just saying.. :))!!!
Thank you.

Suphie

Besides the bacteria sometimes the lemon wedges are smelly and have fungus on them.

Won't the acid kill the bacteria? my boyfriend uses lemon to clean chicken and tripe prior to preparation; I use vinegar. It would be more interesting to know the levels of contamination compared to other items throughout the restaurant or compared to lemons at private residences.

Wow! I'd never heard of that before, I've never liked the lemon slice in my water, but now I'm even more wary of it! What a mess! Thanks for the article!

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