Half of restaurants and takeaways harbour high levels of bacteria which can cause food poisoning, new research shows.
Scientists tested 133 dishcloths from 120 restaurants and takeaways in the North-east of England and discovered that 56 per cent had an unacceptable level of bacteria, more than 10,000 per cloth. Enterobacteriaceae was found on 86 cloths, E.coli on 21, Staphylococcus aureus on six, and listeria on five. The bacteria can cause unpleasant, and occasionally fatal, food poisoning.
If represented across Britain's 58,000 restaurants, the study by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) suggests that about 32,000 food establishments are putting diners at risk of illness. It is estimated that about 4.5 million people in England and Wales suffer food-borne disease such as salmonella and E.coli every year.
Although restaurants are urged to use disposable cloths, the investigation found that only 32 per cent followed the advice. The majority used reusable cloths, with some using those cloths for more than a day before disinfecting them. Dr John Piggott, of the HPA's microbiology laboratory in Leeds, who led the study, said: "It is of concern that despite recommendations to use disposable cloths, the majority of restaurants were reusing cleaning cloths, and some were unaware how often they changed them.
"Although many disinfected their cloths using bleach or other disinfectants, soaking does not remove the food on which the bacteria grow. The disinfectant qualities of bleach do wear off after a period of time so soaking large amounts of cloths together can result in bacteria contaminating more cloths."
Dr Paul Cosford, the executive director of health protection services at HPA, said: "Exposure to this 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."