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Health Warning: Restaurant Lemon Slices Contaminated with Bacteria

Netlore Archive: New study finds that lemon slices / wedges served as garnishes in restaurants are often contaminated with health-threatening fecal bacteria.

Description: Email rumor / Online video
Circulating since: Feb. 2008
Status: True

Email contributed by Sandra E., Feb. 14, 2008:

FW: Health Warning.... Lemons

Interesting information about adding lemon to any drink.

No more lemons for me.


Analysis: True. The above-referenced video describes the findings of an actual study published in the Journal of Environmental Health in December 2007, the abstract of which reads as follows:

Restaurateurs often place a lemon slice on the rim of a beverage glass, or afloat in the beverage, as a flavor-enhancer or a decorative garnish. The handling of the lemons before their placement in the beverage may not follow sanitary procedures. The study reported here investigated whether beverage lemon slices contain microbial contamination that could be consumed by a restaurant patron.

Swabbed samples of the flesh and rind of lemon slices on the rims of beverage glasses were analyzed for microbial contents. Seventy-six lemons from 21 restaurants were sampled during 43 visits. Fifty-three (69.7 percent) of the lemon slices produced microbial growth. Twenty-three (30.3 percent) of the lemon slices produced no microbial growth. A total of 25 different microbial species were recovered from the samples.

Photo credit: Maximilian Stock Ltd./Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

According to the study, all of the microbes found on the samples — which included fecal bacteria — "have the potential" to cause infectious diseases, though the actual likelihood of restaurant patrons becoming ill as a result was not determined. The study further states that to date there have been no reported illnesses or outbreaks of disease due to contaminated lemon slices.

Other experts downplay health risk

The study concludes not by urging restaurant patrons to avoid lemon slices altogether, but rather to "be aware that lemon slices added to beverages may include potentially pathogenic microbes." Its authors call for further investigations to determine "the actual threat (if any)" posed by the microbes and to develop ways to prevent such contamination.

Some experts quoted in news coverage of the study have expressed the opinion that the health risk may be exaggerated. "I think this is probably overblown," said Allegheny County Health Department spokesman Guillermo Cole in a story by WXPI-TV News in Pittsburgh. In a laboratory test commissioned by the station, lemons from 10 local restaurants were found to contain no significant bacterial contamination.

Dr. Philip Tierno of the New York University Medical Center told CBS News that most people probably have a low risk of becoming ill from the bacteria found on lemon wedges, though "the possibility is there," especially for anyone with a compromised immune system.

Dr. Donal Portez, an infectious disease expert interviewed by ABC 7 News in Arlington, Virginia, was also mildly skeptical of the findings. "I'm not saying there's not a chance to get potential significant contamination that could pose a problem, but this is usually not a major medical issue, he was quoted as saying.

Consumers should watch for proper sanitation

For consumers, the best way to avoid contracting an illness from contaminated food when dining out is to frequent establishments that follow proper sanitation procedures, which should include handling fruit garnishes with latex gloves or tongs, not bare hands.

Sources and further reading:

Study: Microbial Flora on Restaurant Beverage Lemon Slices
Journal of Environmental Health, December 2007

Video: The Lemon in Your Drink
YouTube video, uploaded 28 November 2007

Restaurant Lemons Tested Positive for Fecal Matter and E-Coli
ABC News, 12 June 2008

Stop! Is that Poop on Your Lemon?
MSNBC Health, 26 February 2008

What You Should Know About Dirty Lemon Slices at Restaurants
Cleveland Clinic, 23 January 2015

Last updated: 10/31/15

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