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How Clean is Restaurant Water, Anyway?


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I worked my way through college waiting tables at a reasonably swank restaurant. The tips were good enough to get me from one week to the next, with enough left over to keep me alarmingly caffeinated during finals. I did, however, see things that I’ve never forgotten. There’s a reason I usually refuse water when I eat out.

For one thing, not once did I see the ice machine or its scoop cleaned. It simply sat there, day after day. I didn’t really think about this until recently, when an online article from the Daily Mail caught my eye.

The Daily Mail took samples of ice from six of Britain’s favorite fast food restaurants, including a couple which are equally popular in the US, and tested the ice for bacteria. What they found were bacterial levels higher than samples of water taken from the restaurants’ toilets.

Yeah, that turned my stomach too, but it isn’t really surprising. Washrooms get cleaned more often than ice machines. As for the ice machine itself, people often assume ice is cold enough to kill bacteria, which simply isn’t true. The bacteria itself might occur simply because the ice machine isn’t cleaned enough, or travel there on human hands, especially if hand-washing isn’t enforced.

The Daily Mail article reported while none of the samples represented a health risk, a government-accredited laboratory considered four to be a “hygiene risk.” I’m not sure what the difference is, but I don’t what the words “health,” “hygiene,” and “risk” to be combined in any order when it comes to my favorite eating establishments.

Thinking about the Daily Mail’s story, I found myself considering the ubiquitous water pitchers we used when I was waiting tables. They were only ever washed at the end of a shift, and sometimes not even then. That means every time a pitcher’s lip touched someone’s glass, it had the potential to collect and deliver whatever viral or bacterial bugs were making the rounds at the time. My stomach did another roll.

So that’s why I no longer drink water at restaurants—at least, not water from the restaurant. If the establishment allows it, I bring my own filtered water in my trusty, reusable Pelican water bottle. Most restaurants don’t object once I point out it’s only water—which they’re giving away for free anyway.

 

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