You’ve seen this one, right? You’re at the cash register of a takeout restaurant and the cashier first takes your money and then hands you your food.
Now, he’s wearing gloves, which food-handling regulations require for anyone directly touching ready-to-eat food. But touching money and food, gloves or not, might give you pause.
Isn’t money supposed to be one of the filthiest things we touch?
Not necessarily, says Ben Chapman, the state’s food safety specialist at N.C. State University.
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“This is the usual food-safety answer: It’s complicated and it depends.”
After seeing that gloved hand-and-food transaction at a Charlotte bagel shop one morning, we thought it would be simple to check it: Get some money from local cash registers and get it tested. The internet is loaded with reports that claim dollar bills are crawling with creepy stuff.
Then we tried to do it, and ran into closed doors. We couldn’t find anyone to do the testing. So we called Chapman.
His advice: Skip it.
It’s not all that hard to test money for bacteria. You just soak it in water and culture the water. But testing doesn’t tell you anything.
“Yeah, we can find bacteria on money,” he says. “But we can find it anywhere. On your nose, in your hair, in the corner of your eye. The fact that it’s on money means nothing.”
Mostly, the things found on money are molds, yeasts and bacteria, but not always bacteria that would make you sick. One that could, staphylococcus aureus, needs time and the right conditions to time to grow. So if you’re eating something with it right away, it won’t have time to make you sick.
Food safety regulations require anyone handling raw or prepared food to wear gloves, but gloves aren’t magic. Skin and gloves can both be dirty if you don’t wash your hands or change the gloves after you touch your nose, your eye or a different batch of raw food.
Two things keep you from having to worry too much about hands touching money and your food. First, if the food is wrapped, any bacterial contamination will be on the wrapper, not on your food. The second is transfer rate: If you touch something with bacteria, you’ll only pick up a little, and you’ll move even less to the next spot. It’s like when you lick your finger and try to pick up spilled sugar. You miss a lot.
Now, there is one exception, Chapman says: Norovirus. It’s a tough sucker. It doesn’t need water to live and it can survive on surfaces a long time. When there’s a norovirus outbreak – a stomach bug – Chapman says he’ll unwrap his sandwich or bagel and then wash his hands before eating it, just in case he picked up anything from the wrapper.
The really good news? So far, no tests have found norovirus on money.