Studying Bacteria Exposure in Food Trucks

NJ Spotlight News | February 17, 2016 | Health Care

By Briana Vannozzi

$25 bills collected through purchases at 25 different mobile food vendors, and the results all yielded the same information.

“About 75 percent of the money was harboring some type of bacteria,” said Corey Basch.

That may not seem out of the ordinary, but this money came from the hands that also made the food. A team of researchers lead by professors Basch and Miryam Wahrman at William Paterson University studied the glove changing habits of 500 transactions at mobile food vendors in Manhattan. What they found turned their stomachs.

“99 percent of food vendors aren’t changing their gloves, and it should also be mentioned that nearly one third of the food vendors had no gloves on at all,” Basch said.

That means bacteria is being transferred back and forth between hands, food and patrons.

“It might be because they’re busy,” said Basch. “They can’t afford to keep buying the gloves. They’re not aware of it.”

Health codes require gloves to be changed after a single use and between tasks that don’t involve food prep. Researchers say although they focused on Manhattan food trucks, the principal applies everywhere.

“Not all of the bacteria that you encounter on money or other surfaces are going to be disease causing, but the concern is that people, and the people handling food, may be touching things and have contamination on their hands,” said Wahrman.

“We do believe this is a widespread problem, in part possibly because they’re just not aware of the risk that they are possibly transmitting foodborne illness,” Basch said.

The CDC estimates 48 million people each year fall victim to foodborne illnesses, costing the public billions. So researchers here have a few suggestions that may significantly decrease that.

If they’re not going to change gloves, then at least squirt them with a little hand sanitizer, or even with hydrogen peroxide, which might be cheaper,” said Wahrman.

That would reduce the risk of transmitting microbes. Most of the bacteria found here was harmless, though the team hasn’t yet checked for viruses. Wahrman is publishing a book about hand health. She says it’s a prevalent public health problem, and one that could be easily avoided.

“They need to be more vigilant, because you can transfer disease causing germs to the food and you can increase the risk for people who are eating at food carts,” she said.

They want this research to be the first step in better mobile food vendor regulations, one hand at a time.

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