Thursday, February 16, 2006

Another day, another toilet-water debate

Pounding the keyboard for a common good, you presume a certain familiarity with the other editors of Nation’s Restaurant News. Then comes a 12-year-old’s science experiment, and you discover what colleagues really think of bathroom bacteria.

But before we get to the point of controversy, you have to understand a little about our lives. We probably eat more restaurant meals than any non-relative you know. One colleague dines out literally every night except Valentine’s Day—“amateur night,” he sniffs—and possibly a holiday here or there when the industry shuts down. It’s rare to hit a restaurant opening in any of our seven bureau cities without finding an NRN-er there, making sure the host isn’t embarrassed by a still-filled appetizer tray. I’m proud to say the only workable heating elements in my kitchen are a coffee maker and a microwave (in case the coffee-maker breaks down). We’re the super-heavy users whose traffic you’d all love to have.

That’s why it was unsettling to learn the iced drinks we buy from you at lunch are Petrie dishes worthy of a CDC bulletin. Or so we were informed by seventh-grader Jasmine Roberts of New Tampa, Fla. According to press reports, Jasmine was searching for a worthy science project when she hit on the idea of sampling the toilet water of fast-food restaurants. The 12-year-old decided to analyze the water samples and compare the bacterial content to the microbe population of the ice served in the places’ drinks.

You know where this is heading. Working with scientific types who were likely on the wrong end of many an atomic wedgie at her age, Jasmine reportedly found a restaurant’s toilet water harbored less bacteria than its ice did in 70% of the comparisons.

What might surprise you is the flurry of e-mails that bounced around the staff after a reader brought the matter to our attention. One editor averred with all-caps vehemence that bacteria are our friends. Another conceded the point, but stressed that mold could be part of the pathogen parade that ends in a disposable soft drink cup. That prompted the bacteria apologist to note that mold is what adds deliciousness to many cheeses, and is the life-form that gave us penicillin.

At least one citation of other restaurant-ice analyses also figured into the dialogue. It stoked the prevailing sentiment that bacteria are generally bad, despite the redeeming attributes of a bacillus here, a spirillum there

I, being totally Switzerland-like in my neutrality on bacteria, merely scraped the three-day-old residue from my coffee cup and had another pick-me-up of java and hopefully non-hostile micro-organisms. It gave me time to wonder what the people in the cubicles around me might really think of amoebas, and what the staffs might be debating at other business-to-business publications.

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