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Eating at Work - Could Desktop Dining Be Making You Sick?

4 ways to avoid getting food poisoning from your office lunch

Last night’s dinner may make for tasty leftovers and save you money on lunch, but eating that sweet-and-sour chicken or those spaghetti and meatballs hunched over your desk could also be making you sick. 

It may sound bogus, but chew on this: A study 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. One possible reason may be because you clean your toilet and kitchen more than you clean your workspace (sad, but true).

Saving money and time may be the main motivators for eating on the job, and most workers unknowingly chow down in these bacteria breeding grounds. Eighty-three percent of Americans regularly eat at their desks, according to a survey by the American Dietetic Association and ConAgra Foods’ Home Food Safety program.

“With fears of a double-dip recession, more people are bringing their lunches to work instead of eating out,” says Joan Salge Blake, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “No matter how busy you may be, keep in mind that it’s just as important to practice the same food safety tips while eating at your desk as you would in your kitchen.” To protect yourself from dangerous bacteria lurking in your workspace that could trigger a food-borne illness, follow these simple steps.

1. Keep it clean. Think fast: When was the last time you tidied up your cubicle? If you can’t remember, you’re not alone: Only 36 percent of respondents clean their work areas—desktop, keyboard, mouse—weekly, according to the new survey. “Be sure to keep moistened antibacterial wipes on hand to quickly swipe over your work area,” says Salge Blake. CleanWell has come out with a To-Go line of portable disinfectants and wipes that uses botanicals to kill germs.

2. Practice smart food storage In your rush to get to your desk before your boss arrives, you may have a habit of forgetting to drop off your leftovers in the office refrigerator before lunch. In fact, almost half of people let perishable food sit out for three or more hours, finds the survey. Failing to keep perishable foods cold ups your odds of getting a food-borne illness. “Pathogens grow most rapidly between 40 degrees and 140 degrees—and room temperature is right in the middle of that range,” says Salge Blake. “It’s important to store food in a refrigerator that is 40 degrees or colder, or to pack an insulated bag with ice packs to keep bacteria from multiplying.” If perishable foods have been sitting out for more than two hours, it’s better to toss them than to risk having to pray to the porcelain god at the office.

3. Heat things up Bringing in microwavable eats and heating them up isn’t always a guaranteed bacteria killer, because sometimes those office microwaves can be sketchy. Why? Microwave ovens can cook unevenly and leave cold spots, where harmful bacteria can survive.

“Be sure to follow directions on microwaveable packages and cook leftovers to a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees for safe consumption,” says Salge Blake. It’s a good idea to get a food thermometer and pack it in your lunch bag as part of your routine. “You make enough decisions during the day, and don’t need to decide whether or not your food is safe to eat— let a thermometer decide for you.”

4. Don’t forget to lather Fifty percent of people snack at their desks throughout the day. Before you down that doughnut from your morning meeting in your office, swing by the men’s room to suds up. Clean hands are your best defense against getting a nasty bug.  Hey, it’s not you—it’s your co-workers.

“One of the most common ways people get foodborne illnesses is from fecal-oral transmission,” says Salge Blake. “Even if you wash your hands after going to the bathroom, that doesn’t mean your co-workers do. You might have come into contact with fecal bacteria after touching a memo or something from one of your colleagues.”

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