Handwashing sign

If you’re planning to dine out, this story is about to ruin your day. 

British researchers have found that more than half of the cleaning cloths used in restaurants and takeout kitchens contained alarming levels of bacteria—sure signs of poor hygiene and cross-contamination. 

These cloths must be frequently changed or disinfected to halt bacterial growth that could cause food poisoning, according to the research team at the United Kingdom’s Health Protection Agency. Failure to do so means bacteria can spread from the cloths to foodservice workers’ hands, as well as work surfaces and equipment.

The HPA team sampled 133 cloths from 120 British establishments and found 56% contained unacceptable levels of bacteria, including Enterobacteriaceae, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus and listeria.

While HPA encourages restaurants to use disposable cloths that are changed frequently, only 32% of the restaurants studied adhered to this recommendation. The remaining 68% relied on reusable cloths, and 15% of restaurant staff didn’t know how often they were replaced. Worse, there was no consistent approach to disinfection of reusable cloths; most restaurants disinfected them every 10 to 24 hours, but some let things slide for more than 24 hours.

“The findings indicate problems with poor hygiene practices at some of these establishments,” says Dr. Paul Cosford, HPA’s director of health protection services. “Exposure to these harmful bacteria can cause food poisoning, which is unpleasant for most people. But for some—particularly the very young, very old and pregnant women—it can have serious consequences.”

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