Desktops double as dining tables for those eating lunch at the office

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Cheryle Jones Syracuse
Family and Consumer Science Staff
N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center

I had a boss once who encouraged me not to eat lunch at my desk. Although he was a great boss and a wonderful mentor, I was never able to follow his example of leaving the office for an hour each day to get a “break from it all.”
I guess I’m not unusual. According to a recent survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and ConAgra Foods, desktops double as lunchrooms for many Americans. Desktop dining has been on the decline, but 83 percent of those surveyed say they typically eat meals and snacks at their desks.
Why? Respondents in the survey reported that the main reason they eat at their desks is to save time and money. The most typical pattern is to bring lunch from home and eat it at their desk.
I always thought I had so much to do I needed to work on my lunch hour to get it done. My boss thought if you took a break, you could be more efficient in the afternoon. I think this is a topic for debate at another time, but in this column, I’m considering the food safety habits of the workplace eater.
In addition to the staples, printer cartridges and paper, consider stocking a supply of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for the office. These items can be a good investment and can keep you healthy.
Wash or sanitize your hands before digging into your lunch. The study showed that only about half of us think about washing our hands before eating lunch at work.
Next, think about the cleanliness of the desk surface you’re eating on. In most offices, the cleaning crews do not touch the office desktops or phones. Coughing and sneezing may increase the germ population. On top of that, if you eat at your desk, crumbs may increase the bacteria and attract creepy crawly things.
Back in 2001, Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, looked at cleanliness (or should I say the lack of cleanliness) at the typical office. Gerba found an office desk might contain 400 times more germs than an office toilet seat. The telephone and desktop had the most germs followed by the keyboard and computer mouse.
For most, cleaning the work area is not of high importance. Only 36 percent report doing it weekly and 64 percent do so only once a month or less. If you feel you must eat at your desk, clean the surface frequently with a disinfecting wipe. Dr. Gerba’s study found that the number of illness-causing microorganisms could be reduced by 99.9 percent of office surfaces if they were cleaned daily with a disinfecting wipe.
The two-hour rule for food safety applies at the office, too. Perishable foods should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours. This includes carry-out food, fast foods and carried in for lunch. If your office does not have a refrigerator, use an insulated bag or consider packing only non-perishable items. If you carry your lunch in a reusable tote, don’t forget to wash it frequently.
The two-hour rule also applies to items placed in a break room for everyone to share. If you don’t know how long something has been setting out, probably you should pass on eating it. Why take the risk?
Perishable foods should be properly refrigerated below 40 degrees. While most workplaces these days do have a refrigerator, in many cases cleaning that refrigerator is not a top priority. According to the ADA’s study, only 23 percent of office refrigerators are cleaned weekly and more than 40 percent of the respondents don’t know if it is ever cleaned. Labels or markers could help identify the owners or use by dates of forgotten food in an office refrigerator. Scheduled clean-out dates could also assist in keeping that office refrigerator clean and bacteria free.
If you’d like more information on food safety habits at the office and what you can do to stay safe, go to www.homefoodsafety.org.
References: “Food Reflections” by Alice Henneman, University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension in Lancaster County and the American Dietetic Association.