Among the colorful canvas bags, forgotten fruit, and half-empty soda bottles, something dangerous could be lurking on the shelves and walls of the refrigerator or food prep areas where you work.
Harmful bacteria are transmitted in a number of ways, but often through unsanitary kitchen practices, especially in shared common areas.
In fact, in a recent year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 1,200 people were hospitalized due to food borne disease outbreaks.
Since many people take their lunch to work, America Now investigated how much of a health threat brown-bagging at work can be, and the results were alarming.
Refrigerators provide a perfect environment for harmful disease-causing bacteria to grow.
If these micro-organisms get into your food or onto your hands while eating, it could cause you to get sick, or worse.
"Especially, if you are dealing with a high-traffic, high-volume and high-use refrigerator, and freezer," said Dr. Leonard Williams, a professor of food safety and microbiology at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis.
Williams says any shared refrigerator can become contaminated with harmful bacteria.
Lunch bags are magnets for germs, but few us wash them as often as we should. Even if you do, your co-worker's bag may have come in contact with their pets or been placed on the bathroom floor.
When all these bags are crammed together in the refrigerator, everyone's germs co-mingle not to mention spills from food that may not be fully cooked or leftovers that have spoiled because they were never taken home!
"A refrigerator is not a sterile environment," Williams said. "It provides a wonderful environment for the proliferation of a lot of pathogens such as staphylococcus."
Williams swabbed 24 areas of a workplace refrigerator including the door, shelves, rubber seal, vegetable/fruit bins, ceiling and back wall.
The samples were placed in an incubator set at the perfect temperature for bacteria to grow.
Less than 24 hours later, Williams examined the samples and found four harmful bacteria: E. coli, staphylococcus, listeria and fecal coliforms.
This surprised Williams since the refrigerator had a sign posted on the door reminding workers about good sanitation practices, and with only a visual inspection, the refrigerator appeared clean. He also found listeria growing on the top shelf of the refrigerator door.
So how does this happen?
As co-workers constantly open and close the door, the temperature change causes the inside of the refrigerator to sweat and that moisture is ideal for listeria to grow.
"If you are not familiar with this organism, it has been implicated several food borne outbreaks, cantaloupe outbreaks, sprouts as well as in a lot of soft cheeses and dairy products, and this organism has about a 33 percent mortality rate," Williams explained. "So, we are talking about a highly pathogenic microorganism."
According to the CDC, about 1,600 people get sick from listeria each year in the US.
One in five with the infection will die and it could be quite serious for pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems.
E. coli is a pathogen found in the feces of dogs and humans, and contracting it from a dirty lunch bag is easier than you might think.
"You go into your lunch bag, you touch your sandwich or whatever product you have, you can then consume it that way," Williams explained.
So what can you do if you must use a shared refrigerator at work?
Clean the appliance every three months, and wipe the shelves and drip pans with a disinfectant.
Place the removable compartments in a dishwasher on a hot rinse cycle, and air dry them to kill any harmful bacteria.
You should also be concerned about countertops in the kitchen where you and your coworkers prepare your food.
"The countertops in your kitchen or food preparation is one your dirtiest places," Williams pointed out.
Spills on countertops that aren't cleaned, provide nutrients to the different bacteria which allows them to proliferate or accelerate their growth.
Before wiping a surface with a dishcloth or sponge, make sure it's clean or else you could be spreading even more bacteria, yeast and mold.
The other appliance in workplace kitchens we forget to clean is the microwave.
While dried splatters and stains are nasty to look at, the radio waves that heat food also kills bacteria left behind by a sloppy coworker. What should concern you, however, is the outside.
"The microwave should be periodically wiped down quite often," Williams said. "If no one washes their hands, this is where there is going to be lots of bacteria."
Before sitting down to eat your lunch, be sure to wipe down the table with a disinfectant.
If you think eating at your desk is cleaner, well, think again.
"If you are eating at your workstation, numerous studies have shown that your desktop is probably contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria as well as a lot of environmental microorganisms," Williams said.
Cleaning your hands before you touch your food is the number one way to prevent germ transmission. So, keeping a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your lunch bag is a convenient way not to forget.
The following tips are from Dr. Leonard Williams who is the Interim Director and Professor of Food Safety and Microbiology at North Carolina A&T State University, and at the Center for Excellence and Post Harvest Technologies at the North Carolina Research Campus located in Kannapolis, NC.
The following information is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent (Source: http://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/).
The following information is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Source:http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/listeria/index.html ).
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