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Your desk is making you sick

Your desktop dining could be putting you at risk for food poisoning. Here are results from a recent food safety survey and how to protect yourself from the bacteria lurking at work.

No, we're not talking about the headache you have from the daily office grind, we're talking about the bacteria lurking on your desk from food debris that continues to pile up after your daily latte, lunch, and snacks. Your desktop dining could be putting you at risk for food poisoning.
No, we're not talking about the headache you have from the daily office grind, we're talking about the bacteria lurking on your desk from food debris that continues to pile up after your daily latte, lunch, and snacks. Your desktop dining could be putting you at risk for food poisoning.

Everyday desktop dining

In an effort to save time and money, many working Americans eat in their office or cubicle during the work week. According to a new survey by the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and ConAgra Foods’ Home Food Safety program, a majority of Americans continue to eat lunch (62 percent) and snacks throughout the day (50 percent) at their desks, while 27 percent typically find breakfast the first thing on their desktop to-do list. Late nights at the office even leave a small percentage (4 percent) dining at their desktop for dinner.

Food safety isn't a priority

When it comes to protecting themselves against foodborne illnesses, many professionals don't even think about their desk as being a bacterial playground. “For many people, multitasking through lunch is part of the average workday,” says registered dietitian and ADA Spokesperson Toby Smithson. “While shorter lunch hours may result in getting more accomplished, they could also be causing workers to log additional sick days, as desktops hide bacteria that can lead to foodborne illness.”
 
Do you know what's on your hands?

Only half of all Americans say they always wash their hands before eating lunch. In order to reduce the risk of foodborne illness, Smithson recommends washing your hands before and after handling food with soap and warm water, and keeping your desk stocked with moist towelettes or hand sanitizer for those times you can’t get to the sink. “A clean desktop and hands are your best defense to avoid foodborne illnesses at the office,” she says.

Your desk is dirtier than your kitchen table
 
According to the Home Food Safety survey, only 36 percent of respondents clean their work areas—desktop, keyboard, mouse—weekly and 64 percent do so only once a month or less. A study updated in 2007 by the University of Arizona found the average desktop has 100 times more bacteria than a kitchen table and 400 times more than the average toilet seat. “Treat your desktop like you would your kitchen table and counters at home,” says Smithson. “Clean all surfaces, whether at home or work, before you prepare or eat food on them.” 
 
Refrigerate your lunch
 
According to the ADA survey, even though virtually all work places now have a refrigerator, only 67 percent of those surveyed say it is where they store their lunch. Frighteningly though, approximately one in five people admit they don’t know if it is ever cleaned or say it is rarely or never cleaned. Smithson recommends not only cleaning the office refrigerator, but also using a refrigerator thermometer to ensure food is safely stored below 40 degrees F.
 
When it comes to safe refrigeration of lunches, perishable foods need to be refrigerated within two hours (one hour if the temperature is greater than 90 degrees Fahrenheit) from when it was removed from the refrigerator at home. However, survey results show that 49 percent admit to letting perishable food sit out for three or more hours, meaning foods may have begun to spoil before the first bite. 
 
Microwave safety

Besides a refrigerator, nearly all office kitchens also have a microwave oven (97 percent), making leftovers and frozen meals easy, quick and inexpensive lunch options. It is crucial to follow the microwave cooking instructions on the package closely when cooking prepared food in the microwave. Microwave ovens can cook unevenly and leave cold spots, where harmful bacteria can survive. The recommended way to ensure that food is cooked to the correct temperature, thereby eliminating any harmful bacteria that may be present, is to use a food thermometer. Reheat all leftovers to the proper temperature of 165 degrees F.

Think food safety at work
 
“Food safety is very important, whether at home or at work. Simple things like washing your hands before preparing food and following microwave cooking instructions can really go a long way,” said Joan Menke-Schaenzer, chief global quality officer, ConAgra Foods.

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