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Are you sharing the table with germs? The dirty secret of dining out

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When you choose where to eat, it's all about the food and what tastes good. We pretty much assume cleanliness comes with everything on the menu. But should we?

"Sanitation plays a part in any restaurant," said Ron Regni, who dines out occasionally.

But you might be getting more on the menu, the salt and pepper, and other items on the table than you're ordering.

"Some of these menus actually had hundreds of thousands of bacteria on them, actually per square inch is more bacteria than you find on a lot of toilet seats," said Dr. Chuck Gerba, with the University of Arizona's Department of Environmental Science.

Gerba tested swabs from restaurant tables here and across the country, and his lab tested our samples that we collected at five restaurants in Tucson, Arizona.

At each place, we swabbed the menu and the salt and pepper shakers. 

"Basically, we're gambling with germs every time and the whole idea is to keep the odds in our favor and not the germs' favor," said Dr. Gerba.

When we collected a sample, we wanted to make sure to only get what's on the surface that we're testing and nothing else.  After we ripped open the bag, we pushed out the handle, swabbed the surface we're testing, put the swab back in the bag with what we've collected, removed the handle and closed the bag. 

"What we've shown is that it's the menu, surprisingly, is the germiest thing.  It's not only the germiest thing but it has bacteria you don't want on there, like coliform bacteria which indicates fecal bacteria and maybe viruses are present.  And then it was the salt shaker, another thing heavily handled," Dr. Gerba said.

Our results showed that Tucson is still cleaner than what Dr. Gerba found in New York.  Out of the five restaurants we visited, one menu and two sets of salt and pepper showed small amounts of bacteria.  Small is less than 100 bacteria.

One menu and one salt and pepper, at different restaurants, had bathroom germ fecal coliform.

Two menus at two other restaurants had small amounts of MRSA.

But the germs we pick up can particularly be a concern for the very young as well as the senior population.

"Young individuals and older individuals are always at a greater risk.  That's where the serious illness and deaths associated with both food borne and respiratory illnesses," Dr. Gerba said.

Dr. Gerba recommends after you put down the menu, condiments and other things, rub your hands with sanitizer or go wash them before you eat.

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