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Readers Sound Off About Dirty Restaurant Lemons

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.

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?

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.

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


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.

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.

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!

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.

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.”

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.

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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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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