Eating From the Same Bowl – Is It Safe?Jan 22, 2014
In many places in the world, using your hands to eat from a communal dish is part of the culture. For some Americans, that can seem a little gross - but is it unsanitary? In the case you ever find yourself in an ethnic restaurant that serves their food this way, should you skip the meal and just enjoy the conversation? We asked Dr. Tom Miller what he thought.
Scot: Medical news and research University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.
I was at a Moroccan restaurant the other night, and this is one of these restaurants where they don't give you silverware, you just eat with your hands. And I'm sitting there with a group of about nine other people and I'm watching everybody reach into the food. I don't know. It just seemed like it wasn't a good idea.
Dr. Miller, should I be, from a cleanliness, hygienic point of view, a little freaked out by that or is it not really a big deal?
Dr. Tom Miller: Well, Scot, one way to think about it is how long do you think that restaurant has been there?
Scot: Probably a long time.
Dr. Tom Miller: Well, it's been there for years as I recall.
Dr. Tom Miller: Probably there at least 20 years. If they made people sick, I don't think that there would be much business going in and out.
Scot: How does the health department even allow this? That even surprises me to some extent.
Dr. Tom Miller: I don't know specifically if it's against the rules to have people eating with their hands. I mean we all eat with our hands with our hamburgers or french fries.
Scot: Yeah. Sure.
Dr. Tom Miller: It's just unusual to eat out of a communal bowl.
Dr. Tom Miller: So I would say, as long as people wash their hands before they eat, and that's the key thing, using soap and water, that it's not a problem.
Scot: What about from this perspective. As I was sitting there I was thinking this is probably a traditional way the people used to eat.
Dr. Tom Miller: Absolutely. They didn't have utensils up until the 17th century.
Scot: And a lot of times we talk about how our immune systems, or at least people do, I don't know if this is valid, how we are underexposing ourselves to things, so our immune systems don't get immune. Would that have been a way to build up immunity back then, do you think?
Dr. Tom Miller: Well, probably not.
Dr. Tom Miller: I don't think so. I can't really answer that. I'm not sure that that's the way to look at it. I think the fact that, number one, the biggest thing is the food fresh. And of course it is.
Dr. Tom Miller: And the next question is what communicable diseases could you pass on by having other people eat out of the same bowl. There's a few. I mean I would think that if you had somebody at the table with flu, you might not want to be eating out of the same bowl.
Scot: Sure, sure.
Dr. Tom Miller: That would not be a good idea.
Scot: But if everybody looks relatively healthy at the moment.
Dr. Tom Miller: Yeah. There are some things that could be passed on, but in general that would be pretty rare to have somebody's disease transmitted to the food by touching it. Obviously if somebody had a cold and they were using their hands and touching their face and eating out of the same bowl as other people were eating out of, then that might be a problem. But in general, if people are washing their hands, it's no different than what we all experience at home, right?
Dr. Tom Miller: I mean the food is prepared. It's not like, at our homes, food is prepared with us wearing gloves. We wash our hands and food is prepared. When was the last time that anybody got sick from that?
Dr. Tom Miller: So I think that the fact that the restaurant has been around forever almost speaks to the answer to your question in a way.
Scot: So quit being such a wuss about it?
Dr. Tom Miller: Well, I think it's a little unusual that the customs that we have don't allow us to eat with our hands, but realize that many places in the world that is standard. And it is a communal kind of arrangement where people get together and they share food and they share food with their hands. They don't use utensils or they use bread and they use bread to collect the food with. I think it's just that way in many cultures. We're just a little off put by it because it's not what we do.
Scot: But no real danger?
Dr. Tom Miller: I don't think much.
Scot: All right. I'm still here.
Dr. Tom Miller: You're still here. That's a good thing.
Scot: We're your daily dose of science, conversation, medicine. This is the Scope, The University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.