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Dining at Your Desk May Cause You to Call in Sick

From the Show: Eat Right Radio
Summary: According to a recent Home Food Safety survey, 83 percent of adults chow down a meal or snack at their desk, many in an attempt to save both money and time. Can this make you sick?
Air Date: 9/8/14
Duration: 10
Host: Melanie Cole, MS
Guest Bio: Joan Salge Blake, MS, RDN, LDN
Spokes-216x270-Blake thumbJoan Salge Blake is a clinical associate professor and director of the dietetic internship at Boston University's Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. In 2012, she was nominated by the university for the U.S. Professor of the Year Award and previously received the University's prestigious Whitney Powers Excellence in Teaching Award.

Blake is the author of Nutrition & You (Pearson 2014); Nutrition & You: Core Concepts to Good Health (Pearson 2010); and Eat Right the E.A.S.Y. Way (Simon & Schuster 1991), as well as co-author of Nutrition: From Science to You (Pearson 2014). Blake was named by Good Housekeeping Magazine "The Most Trusted Person to Follow on Twitter" for healthful eating advice.

Learn more about Joan Salge Blake
Dining at Your Desk May Cause You to Call in Sick
According to a recent Home Food Safety survey, 83 percent of adults chow down a meal and/or snack at their desk, many in an attempt to save both money and time.

While that statistic may not startle budget-conscious folks, this frequency of desktop dining may be increasing your risk of food poisoning.


The survey, comprised of almost 2,200 adults, revealed that only 50 percent of the respondents admitted to always washing their hands before eating their lunch and over 60 percent of them confessed to cleaning their desk area (keyboard, mouse, and desktop) once a month or less. This would be similar to you sitting down to dinner with dirty hands and dining on a table that hasn't been washed since last month.... or longer.)


Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics registered dietitian and nutritionist and Academy Spokesperson, Joan Salge Blake, joins Eat Right Radio to explain how you can make sure that your desktop dining isn't making you sick.

For more information you can go to: Home Food Safety

Melanie Cole (Host): According to a recent home food safety survey, 83% of adults chow down a meal and snack at their desk, many in an attempt to save money and time. But what is this doing? Is this increasing our risk of food poisoning? How is that happening? My guest is Joan Salge Blake. She is an associate professor and director of the Dietetic Internship at Boston University, Sargent College of Health and Rehab Sciences. Welcome to the show, Joan. Eating at our desk, eating on-the-go, grabbing something from a food truck, let’s talk about food safety. Tell us what you think are the most important issues in food safety today.

Joan Salge Blake (Guest): Right. Thank you so much for having me on and talking about this because this is so important. You know, the survey that was done by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, along with ConAgra Foods, showed that of these adults they surveyed, they revealed that only 50% of those surveyed admitted to washing their hands prior to having their lunch at their desks. When you think about that, that just increases the risk of food-borne illness, because your hands have been working on your office all day long, you’ve been opening doors, you’ve been meeting with the people, and you think about the germs that potentially could be on your hands, and then if you’re picking up a sandwich and eating it, it could be increasing risk of getting pathogens onto your food and then into your body.

Melanie: So people bring their lunches to work, we send our kids to school with their lunches and I put mayonnaise on a kid’s sandwich and send it to them in a little cold pack, but I’m never quite sure, and especially in the summer, so what do we have to know about – okay, so washing our hands before we eat, number one, so important especially if you’re eating at your desk or you’re at school, wash your hands. What else? What about the food itself?

Joan: Right. The food itself, we want to make sure that it stays cold from the time that you leave the house until the time that it’s eaten. One of those important things you want to do is first of all, pack in some kind of vinyl-insulated bag where it can be kept cold. What you’d also want to do, and that was great which you said about having an ice pack in there, but really, that’s only half the job. We want to now make sure you have two of them. One is not going to keep it cold longer and you want to sandwich the sandwich in between the two ice packs, enclosing the food safety bag and lunch bag and then bringing it with you to work or at school. If you have a refrigerator available to you, it would be really ideal for the entire vinyl lunch bag to go into the refrigerator until you’re ready to eat it.

Melanie: Is there such a thing as knowing if something is going to make you sick? We hear rainbow meat, you smell things. My kids are forever smelling the milk before we drink it. Where food safety is concerned, Joan, is there a way to tell before you eat something whether it’s gone bad?

Joan: I wish there was, but there isn’t. We have two things going on here: When something smells a little off, that’s more of food spoilage. It doesn't necessarily mean it’s going to cause you to get sick, but it’s just not going to taste good. The problem with the pathogens that cause food poisoning or food-borne illness is they don't have any odor. Nothing is going to taste off about it and that’s the real problem. There’s no tipoff and that’s why it’s so important to make sure that the food while travelling stays cold, because we know when the food is colder—and when I say that, it’s 40 degrees or below, which is a refrigerator temperature—the pathogens do not multiply as fast. When food is left out at room temperature, they love that warmer temperature and they have a heyday multiplying to the point where it can actually make you sick.

Melanie: Now what about bringing things like hot food or something that you have to heat up at work? Does that automatically make you confident that this is not going to be something that’s going to carry a food-borne illness if you chuck it in the microwave before you eat it?

Joan: That’s a fabulous question. It is very important that we want to make sure that it stays cold that it doesn't multiply and then you want to make sure if you reheat it, you reheat all of it to at least an internal temperature of 165. The problem with the microwave because, you know, you throw it in the microwave and heat it up, if it’s something like a soup or a stew, you want to make sure that it gets heated thoroughly, all of it, not just the outside, and make sure there’s no cold pockets within that soup or chili or any kind of an entrée dish that you’re having. It’s really important that it gets reheated thoroughly, all of it, to that temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Melanie: Here’s something you see at the office all the time. People leave candy on their desks, in a bowl open, maybe M&Ms or Skittles or something like that and they’re sitting there and they don't have a top on them and they’re just sitting out. What can we assume or not assume about these candies as people go by and grab a few? Are there some pathogens that could be sitting in there or are they just getting dusty?

Joan: Well, they get a little bit of both. If you don't know what hand has been in that bowl and where that hand, whether if there’s any germs or pathogens on that hand, it could actually be infecting the entire bowl. Then if you come along and you eat something – Yes, if the pathogen was on there, brought on by somebody else, it could contaminate the whole bowl. So rule of thumb is I wouldn’t be so quick to be just digging into a bowl where the candies are not individually wrapped so that this way, you know that once you peel it, what’s inside of it hasn’t been contaminated by somebody else.

Melanie: What about keeping our area clean where we eat, whether it’s in the little office lunchroom or the desk where we eat, how often do you think you need to clean your mouse, your keyboard, these things that your hands are touching every day? Maybe you had a cold last month and then this month, is there still some virus hanging around on there?

Joan: Another good question. If you’re going to eat at your desk and do this desktop dining here, you really should be cleaning your entire desk surface before—and you can use one of those nice wipes to clean it—you should clean it before and you should clean it afterwards and making sure your hands are washed, so this way, the surface area that you’re eating at is clean. It’s really funny because if this was home in your kitchen, you would never put a dinner out on your table that has dust or dirt or anything. You would always wipe down the table, put out a placemat and have a nice dinner and then you’d wipe up afterwards. But for some reason, people think when they dine at their desk, they forget about cleaning the table before and cleaning the table after. So you really need to remember that if you choose to eat at your desk.

Melanie: Are there certain foods you just really prefer, safer than others, like peanut butter for example? If you use a refrigerated peanut butter—but sometimes peanut butter doesn't have to be refrigerated—do we worry about those kinds of things?

Joan: If it is shelf-stable, the regular commercial peanut butter, it doesn't have to be refrigerated. That’s absolutely fine. What we just want to make sure is that if there’s anything else you’re packing in the lunch that is perishable that it stays cold. And, you know, something people forget is cut-up fruits and vegetables. Once that’s cut, you need to make sure that that produce stays at that cold temperature. Make sure, while the peanut butter sandwich doesn’t have to be kept cold, the cut-up fruits and vegetables do.

Melanie: That’s great advice because I always look at a salad and say, if the lettuce is a little green or a little wilted on the edges or a little bit black around the edges, is that going to make us a little bit sick or is it carrying something? In just the last minute, Joan, please wrap it up for us. Give us your best advice for food safety at our desk, on-the-go, dining at our desk.

Joan: Okay. We want to make sure you are washing your hands. Every time before you go to eat something, always make sure your hands are clean. Wash your desktop and clean it before and after you’re dining, just like what you do with your kitchen table, and carry your food in a lunch bag that is going to keep your foods cold and make sure you pack your lunch with not one but two cold packs.

Melanie: Thank you so much. You’re listening to Eat Right Radio with our friends from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For more information, you can go to That is This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening.
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