In tepid water: Many fast-food restaurants don't comply with Maine health requirement
PORTLAND — The biggest burger chains on the planet fail to consistently provide local customers and employees with the water temperatures needed to facilitate sanitary hand washing – despite state and federal requirements that they do so.
People who go to the bathroom, and then use cool water afterwards to wash their hands, are more likely to promote the transmission of germs than those who use hot water, experts say.
"There's a fecal-oral transmission," Dr. Stephen Sears, Maine's state epidemiologist and a big fan of proper hand washing, said. "That means that somehow, organisms got from your feces to your mouth. It's not pleasant to think about, but it happens a lot."
The Forecaster went into the restrooms of 14 area restaurants operated by McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's to check restroom water temperature compliance.
Of the 14 restaurants, nine were not in compliance with the law, which requires a minimum temperature of 110 degrees. Four of the restaurants had top temperatures below 100 degrees, and one Wendy's, in Brunswick, was a chilly 63 degrees.
"That's not very warm," Sears said.
The owner of the Wendy's franchise in Brunswick said that the cool temperature was the result of a plumbing problem, which he repaired after he was made aware of it.
It can be difficult for small, family-operated restaurants to pay for the sometimes-expensive fixes to health problems such as low temperatures at bathroom sinks.
But large fast-food chains seem to make enough money to address such issues. According to franchise information published by the company, the average annual sales volume of an established McDonald's is $2.4 million.
Sears said that, in the home, hand washing is a personal health decision. For a restaurant employee, however, that personal choice becomes a matter of public safety.
"If you're an individual, you're putting yourself at risk," he said. "An employee who is handling food for hundreds of people is putting them all at risk."
Restroom water temperature problems cropped up in at least two restaurants during their most recent state health inspections.
The Wendy's in Brunswick was cited in August 2009, when state health inspector David Libby noted that the hand sink water only reached a temperature of 90 degrees. This was one of 13 violations cited, many of which had to do with employee hand-washing procedures.
In February 2012, state health inspector Joel Demers didn't cite temperatures as a specific violation at the McDonald's at 227 Route 1 in Falmouth, but he did document six other violations, including mold in the ice machine; in addition, he found that ice being used to cool milk containers was also being used for drinks.
Wash this way
One thing that minimizes the chance of fecal matter finding its way into your mouth is proper hand washing.
Sears said that, overall, technique and consistency are the most important components of washing. But he said having water at the proper temperature also plays a role.
"It's easier for people to wash their hands at the proper temperatures," Sears said. "It's generally going to help get some of the soap off. Soap binds to bacteria and stuff like that."
Hot water also softens both hands and dirt, which can play a big role, depending on what you're cleaning off your hands.
"You do get a little more emollient activity on the hands with the soap," Sears said. "Try an experiment and wash your hands with cold water, and you'll see."
Lisa Roy, the program manager for the state's Health Inspection Program, said water temperature can also play a role in whether people use proper hand-washing techniques.
"If the water's cold, people aren't as likely to wash their hands as long as they're supposed to," she said.
This is important in the kitchen, but it's especially important in the bathroom.
"When you've used the restroom, you have potentially contaminated your hands with bacteria," Sears said. "Our colon and our genital areas have a larger percentage of bacteria on them, and you can potentially get them on your hands."
There are no statistics that demonstrate how many illnesses are caused by improper hand washing.
Sears said it's almost impossible to track bacteria-caused illnesses back to their source, given the large numbers of potential disease sources a person contacts.
"There are too many different variables," he said.
For two of the last three years on record, Maine's incidence rates for infectious diseases were higher than the national average.
Keeping the water warm enough for effective hand washing isn't just a way to prevent disease transmission. It's the law.
Rebecca Walsh, senior program health manager, confirmed that state inspectors check the water temperatures when they visit restaurants.
She said that state law specifies the temperature for kitchen hand-washing stations.
Under the Maine food code, "a hand-washing lavatory shall be equipped to provide water at a temperature of at least 43 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit) through a mixing valve or combination faucet."
"By extension, we require the same temperatures in the restrooms," Walsh said.
Between April 19 and May 10, a reporter visited 14 Burger King, Wendy's and McDonalds restaurants during times that ranged from early afternoon to early evening.
At each location, the water was turned to its maximum heat for a period of two minutes, after which the temperature was recorded with a kitchen thermometer that was calibrated with the help of staff at a local culinary arts teaching program.
Water temperatures were also measured at other fast-food restaurant chains that were not included in this report; they were found to be in compliance.
Reactions from the burger chains varied.
Edie Lydick and her husband, George, own two of the McDonald's franchises that were identified as having water temperatures of approximately 104 degrees. When contacted early last week, Lydick initially said that she went to her restaurants to test the water temperatures and make sure that they were in compliance. She offered to meet with a reporter to demonstrate the level of compliance and how water temperatures are set and monitored.
Later in the week, Kristel Wagner, a public relations manager representing McDonald's, said in an email that Lydick had instead decided that a prepared statement from the company would be a more appropriate response, as "it will include the most accurate information and will represent all of the restaurants involved," including the locations owned by Lydick.
The prepared statement, by Sharon Hingley, operations manager at McDonald's USA, said that the sinks are equipped to provide the proper temperatures, and questioned the methodology used by The Forecaster.
“None of the restaurants targeted by The Forecaster have been cited by the health department for any issues concerning water temperature over the last year," Hingley said. "Restroom sinks in the restaurants are equipped to provide water of at least 110 degrees and results of The Forecaster's samples could have been affected by sampling and handling procedures."
Hingley said that the company would continue to do what it takes to protect public health.
"We will continue to work with our franchisees, their restaurant managers and the health department to ensure the continued operation of safe, clean restaurants,” she said.
The idea that McDonald's restaurants haven't been cited for hand-washing-related health concerns within the last 12 months is technically accurate, but misleading. Some of the restaurants have not been inspected at all within the last year.
Three of the six restaurants cited in the survey were last inspected in 2009 or 2010.
The most recent inspection for the Falmouth restaurant was in April 2009, when Libby, the Maine health inspector, reported that the hand sink water temperature was in violation, at just 89 degrees.
Wendy's and Burger King representatives pledged to investigate claims that their restaurants were not in compliance with the state's health codes.
Jason Gall owns 14 Wendy's franchises in the area, including the four locations that were surveyed.
When contacted, he said he had not heard about the issue in the past, but that he planned to promptly address the low water temperature at the Brunswick restaurant.
He speculated that it could be a poorly functioning electric water heating system, or a needed repair that has gone undetected.
"Either way, there's probably a way to fix it, and we're going to find out," he promised. "We're not doing it to save money. Food safety is probably the number one thing in ... our stores."
Two days later, Gall reported that the problem with the Brunswick location had been confirmed and addressed.
"In our efforts to assess the problem, we discovered a faulty mixing valve in the water line servicing the bathroom sinks," he wrote in an email. "The valve has been replaced and our latest reading in the bathroom sinks registered 113 degrees."
Denny Lynch, senior vice president of communications at Wendy's, noted that the water temperatures are unlikely to be constant.
"What you've seen is just a snapshot. It might be the case that you could have gone in there an hour earlier, and the temperature would have been fine," Lynch said.
Kristen Hauser, a spokeswoman for a marketing firm that represents Burger King, said that the company was beginning an investigation.
"Please be assured that the health and safety of our guests is a priority for Burger King Corp., and the company is currently looking into the matter," she said on Monday, May 15.
On Friday, May 19, Hauser said that local locations had been contacted to ensure that they were in compliance with state requirements.
Roy said that, in response to The Forecaster's survey, the state's Health Inspection Program would facilitate added education for the restaurants that aren't in compliance.
"We want to be proactive and do some education," she said. "If this is what you're finding, we definitely want to do some education."
Typically, Roy said, inspectors will not fail a restaurant for cold water. But they do document the violation; in some cases, the restaurant might be fined for a package of violations that includes low restroom faucet temperatures.
A team of 11 state health inspectors are responsible for every restaurant in the state, in addition to various other types of businesses, such as tattoo parlors.
Each inspector is responsible for hundreds of businesses, and the program struggles to stay on top of inspections.
Faced with the challenge of enforcing health requirements in restaurants, the state in some cases is instead relaxing the laws.
Maine state lawmakers recently changed a requirement that restaurants be inspected every year; instead, the goal is now to visit each establishment once every two years.
In addition, the temperature requirement of 110 degrees may also be relaxed to 100 degrees, which would match the federal requirements of the Food and Drug Administration laid out in the 2009 Federal Food Code.
"In the new proposed rules it's going to be dropped to 100 (degrees)," Roy said. "They're being proposed as we speak, and we're going to be having a public hearing on them."
In Hauser's statement on behalf of Burger King Corp., she said that it is in compliance with those federal standards, if not those of the state.
"The health and safety of our restaurant guests is a top priority for BKC. Our food and safety standards are in-line with the latest FDA food code, requiring water used in hand-washing sinks to be at 100F," she said. "The restaurants in question have been recently inspected and have met FDA requirements. As Maine standards are above those required by the FDA, BKC is currently working to meet local guidelines."
However, four of 14 restaurants in The Forecaster survey were found not to be meeting even that relaxed standard of 100 degrees.