The Pathogen Swab Queen of Fast-Food Restaurants

There are all manner of greasy, nasty-feeling things in restaurants that we're all used to encountering. Sticky seats. Highchairs gummed with layers of food and spit. A ketchup bottle that sticks to your hand. But Erin Carr-Jordan had never seen anything like the Arizona fast-food play space she wandered into with her two sons.

"It was covered in filth and grime and old food," she says in the YouTube video she made about the incident. She yanked her kids out of there and complained to the management. So far, pretty much what you would do, right? But unlike you, Carr-Jordan has a good friend who's an immunologist.

"She swabbed it and showed me how to do it too," says Carr-Jordan. "The sample grew what's called a lawn in 24 hours. It outgrew the entire petri dish. My friend looked at me and said, 'You're going to want an actual lab to look at this.'"

Carr-Jordan found a diagnostic microbiologic analytical lab—that's the phrase she searched for on Google, anyway—that could identify the pathogens found on the swabs with great precision, "down to genus and species," says Carr-Jordan. While she was waiting for the results, Carr-Jordan started driving around Arizona and swabbing different places that catered to children, and asking how kids' spaces were cleaned. Most places—gyms, pools, and kids' museums—had sanitizing procedures in place and were happy to share them (she lists some of the best on her Facebook page). Fast-food places, not so much.

"McDonald's liked to redirect me. The franchises would direct me to corporate, then corporate would send me back to the franchises."

Meanwhile, she got back the lab results from her original sample: staph and coliforms, bacteria that reside in the intestines of mammals. Her immunologist friend was horrified. "She's been doing this for nine years. And she said she'd never seen anything like that," says Carr-Jordan.

Intent on proving it wasn't just a problem local to Arizona, Carr-Jordan took her swab kit on a family road trip, targeting fast-food restaurant play areas in each city she visited. "I try to pick one restaurant in an affluent area of town, and one in a poorer part," she says of her methodology. "I test one place where kids put their hands, and one place where kids put their feet." She keeps finding pathogens where kids are putting their hands. "It's an artificially salty environment in there, because there are nuggets and fries and pizza and kids are licking their fingers and putting them on the wall," says Carr-Jordan.

So, why are the play areas "allowed" to get so filthy? Turns out that areas like restaurant dining rooms and fast-food play spaces are considered "convenience areas" and don't have to conform to very high standards from the restaurant inspection squads at city health departments.

"Where we concentrate is in the food prep area and the bathrooms. General sanitation, making sure that a hand-washing area is in place with water over 100 degrees, soap, and some type of hand-drying system," says Richard Lee, director of the Food Safety Program for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. "Are there cockroaches in the kitchen, how does the restaurant thaw food? We don't really look at play spaces or at dining rooms if they appear generally clean."

Lee says San Francisco gets thousands of complaints yearly from citizens worried about the cleanliness of restaurants, but he can't remember ever getting a call about play spaces. Maybe he just hasn't encountered Carr-Jordan and her swabs yet.

"All I'm asking is for parents to be made aware," says Carr-Jordan, who advises that parents use extra caution and lots of hand-washing when their kids visit such spaces. "And for restaurants to get systems in place to clean these areas regularly. To get play spaces steam-cleaned is ridiculously cheap: a couple of hundred bucks a month. They call them convenience areas, but it wouldn't be very convenient if your kid got meningitis."