June 12, 2008 -- It may be tempting to take a twist of lemon along with a refreshing summer drink. But beware because that splash of citrus could have bacteria that may make you sick.
"Good Morning America" tested lemon wedges from six popular family restaurants and what they found was more frightening than refreshing. At four restaurants, "GMA" found the lemons were contaminated with fecal matter, including one sample that contaminated with E. coli.
To put the lemons to the "GMA" test, we visited three sets of chain restaurants: Applebee's, TGI Fridays, and Chili's. All six of the causal dining restaurants were in New Jersey.
After swabbing each lemon we were served, the samples were sent to a microbiology lab at New York University's Medical Center.
We found yeast and harmless bacteria that are commonly found on fruits and in our environment. But four of the samples were contaminated with dangerous bacteria.
"A small risk, but a risk nevertheless by ingesting byproducts of these lemons," Philip Tierno, director of the clinical microbiology at NYU.
The fecal matter was found at both of the Applebee's and TGI Friday's restaurants. The E. coli was found at the Applebee's in Clifton, N.J. At Chili's, we found no evidence of fecal matter or E. coli at either restaurant.
But that's not all. At half of the restaurants we caught workers grabbing lemons with their bare hands. New Jersey's health code insists that workers wear gloves or use tongs.
"I see that people have no concern of where they put their fingers," said Tierno. "They'll take things with their bare hands rather than gloving up and distributing the food stuff as they should."
Representatives from TGI Fridays and Applebee's tell "GMA" they take health and safety very seriously.
TGI Fridays told "GMA" in a statement: "As we do with all matters of safety and health in our restaurants, we took this very seriously. We immediately stopped utilizing lemons at all of our restaurants until we could investigate this matter further and review our procedures to ensure this was an isolated issue.
"We've taken quick, thorough and appropriate measures to rectify this situation. We have very high health and safety standards, including extensive food safety training for all team members. The health and safety of our guests and team members is our top priority."
And Applebee's said in a statement: "Applebee's takes these findings very seriously as the health and safety of our guests are top priorities. We believe these are isolated incidents and not reflective across the system in our company or franchise restaurants. Nonetheless we have reinforced our processes for produce washing, washing of all our cooking utensils and silverware and employee hygiene in all our restaurants."
Not the First Time
In a study released last year, Anne LaGrange Loving, a New Jersey microbiologist, tested lemons at 21 restaurants. She found disease-causing bacteria on two-thirds of all lemons, including fecal bacteria.
People need to be aware of the kind of bacteria on lemons, Loving said in a HealthInspections.com report.
"It was like they had dipped it in raw meat or something," Loving, a science professor at Passaic County Community College said. "It was gross."
What You Can Do
The best advice is to squeeze the lemon juice into your drink and put the whole lemon aside, instead of putting the lemon in your drink.
Experts told "GMA" that a lemon's acidity will not kill bacteria. Hard alcoholic drinks, like a martini, can kill bacteria, but beer's lower alcohol content will not.
In New York, employees at Peter's restaurant cut lemons with gloves and distribute the wedges with little spears, mindful of all that workers can come in contact with during a shift, including handling filthy money.
Looking for safety protocols like those may be the best practice the next time you order a lemon with your favorite drink.