Saving money and time by brown-bagging it to work instead of eating lunch out makes perfect sense. But not practicing proper food safety at the office could lead to a serious foodborne illness, according to the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and ConAgra Foods’ Home Food Safety program.
A survey conducted by both organizations found that 62 percent of Americans eat lunch at their desks and 50 percent snack at their desks throughout their workday.
“For many people, multitasking through lunch is part of the average workday, says registered dietitian and ADA Spokesperson Toby Smithson. “While shorter lunch hours may result in getting more accomplished, they could also be causing workers to log additional sick days, as desktops hide bacteria that can lead to foodborne illness.”
Only half of all Americans say they always wash their hands before eating lunch. In order to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, Smithson recommends washing your hands before and after handling food with soap and warm water, and keeping your desk stocked with moist wipes or hand sanitizer for those times you can’t get to the sink.
“A clean desktop and hands are your best defense to avoid foodborne illnesses at the office,” she says.
According to the Home Food Safety survey, only 36 percent of respondents clean their work areas—desktop, keyboard, mouse—weekly and 64 percent do so only once a month or less. A study updated in 2007 by the University of Arizona found the average desktop has 100 times more bacteria than a kitchen table and 400 times more than the average toilet seat.
“Treat your desktop like you would your kitchen table and counters at home,” says Smithson. “Clean all surfaces, whether at home or work, before you prepare or eat food on them.”
Even though virtually all work places now have a refrigerator, only 67 percent of those surveyed say it is where they store their lunch. Frighteningly though, approximately one in five people admit they don’t know if it is ever cleaned or say it is rarely or never cleaned. Smithson recommends not only cleaning the office refrigerator, but also using a refrigerator thermometer to ensure food is safely stored below 40 F (4 C).
When it comes to safe refrigeration of lunches, perishable foods need to be refrigerated within two hours (one hour if the temperature is greater than 90 F (32 C) from when it was removed from the refrigerator at home. However, survey results show that 49 percent admit to letting perishable food sit out for three or more hours, meaning foods may have begun to spoil before the first bite.
Nearly all office kitchens have a microwave oven, making leftovers and frozen meals easy, quick and inexpensive lunch options. It is crucial to follow the microwave cooking instructions on the package closely when cooking prepared food in the microwave.
Microwave ovens can cook unevenly and leave cold spots, where harmful bacteria can survive. The recommended way to ensure that food is cooked to the correct temperature, thereby eliminating any harmful bacteria that may be present, is to use a food thermometer. Re-heat all leftovers to the proper temperature of 165 F (74 C).”