Talking to the Expert: “The Germ Guy” Jason Tetro by Toby Amidor in Food Safety, December 5, 2012
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With cold and flu season upon us, it’s important to get the facts on how to prevent the spread of germs in and out of the kitchen. I had the pleasure to speaking with Jason Tetro – AKA The Germ Guy—where we discussed how to keep your kitchen safe, the calming effects of hand washing and why kids should eat dirt.
Q. How did you come to be known as the “Germ Guy?”
Back in 2008, I was asked by the local television station, CTV Ottawa to do regular question and answer segments on germs and our relationship with them in our daily lives. The host, Leanne Cusack, felt that my title, “University of Ottawa Microbiologist Jason Tetro” was a little too long and shortened it to “The Germ Guy.” The name stuck in the community and soon, I was better known by that moniker. I went on to develop my own blog and then became a contributor for the Huffington Post.
Q. I heard that you always wear a loose piece of clothing in order to help prevent the spread of germs. Can you explain?
One of the best ways to prevent infection is simply to avoid exposure through the nose and mouth. I tend to wear a loose undershirt so that when I am around someone who is obviously sick and not following proper etiquette – such as sneezing or coughing into the elbow – I take the matter into my own hands and cover my nose and mouth with the shirt. It’s come in handy in many places and thankfully, I’ve never been mistaken for a robber!
Q. Should we be afraid of germs or learn to co-exist with them?
No one should be afraid of germs; that’s for sure. Of the millions of species, only about 1,400 or so are harmful to humans – although they make up the majority of the headlines. But germs are part of our ecology and are necessary to make sure the earth functions properly. For example, a type of germ, known as phytoplankton is responsible for the production of nearly half of the world’s oxygen. Also, germs are responsible for alcoholic beverages and some of our favorite fermented foods. But to get a true feeling of this co-existence, we only need to look in the mirror. At the cellular level, our bodies are up to 90% germs and most of them are beneficial to our health. We are continually learning about their place in our daily lives thanks to ongoing studies of our microbial population, known as the microbiome. While the research is still burgeoning, we already know that without germs, our health would be in severe jeopardy.
Q. I heard that the metal handles and poles on buses and subways don’t allow germs to grow. Is this true? Should we be washing our hands after taking public transportation?
Harmful germs, known as pathogens, tend to gather and spread in places where there human traffic is high and there is no better place to share germs than on public transportation. I’ve looked at subways, airports and bus stations and know that these pathogens lurk around on surfaces just waiting to be picked up and transferred to the mouth and nose thanks to our fingers. While they do not grow on metal surfaces, they can survive on them for days or even weeks at a time; one simple grip – or lick – of a pole could definitely lead to discomfort and maybe even illness. To best keep yourself safe, the best thing to do is wash your hands after you change environments. So, if you are heading into work after taking the bus, before you check your emails, wash your hands. The same goes for heading home. After you enter the house, wash your hands first then set about relaxing.
Q. What about a person who is sick with a cold preparing food? How likely is it that they spread the cold by handling food and are there ways to minimize the risk?
Foodborne illness is common and everyone will encounter a form of food poisoning about once a year. In most cases, the food itself is fine – especially if it’s cooked properly. The sources of the infection are the hands during food processing and preparation. We’ve seen in many cases of restaurant-based outbreaks and also those on cruise ships where food was contaminated due to a lack of hygiene on the part of the kitchen staff. Gloves are always helpful and mandatory in certain environments according to the Food Code as are masks and hairnets, but frequent hand-washing is the best way to minimize the risk of contamination. Another requirement is the separation of foods meant for cooking such as raw meats from those which are to be eaten raw such as vegetables and fruits. Also, washing vegetables and fruit to remove whatever might happen to be on the surface is also helpful. Most of all, and we’ve seen this on many restaurant makeover shows, keep the environment clean, tidy and organized. Messes are a pathogen’s best friend. Your kitchen is no different than a lab.
Q. People find hand-washing boring and oftentimes don’t take the time to wash their hands correctly. How can people have fun with hand washing?
There are a slew of different fun ways to make sure you’re washing your hands long enough, including singing Happy Birthday twice, singing the alphabet backwards and of course, singing Gangnam Style. But I like to remind people that the best reason for hand-washing isn’t the fun component but the calming effect of hand-washing. A few years back, a group of researchers found that washing hands tended to help people resolve their concerns over decisions. In essence, handwashing calmed the soul.
Q. What are the top 3 suggestions you can make to help prevent folks from becoming ill?
Before I get into the tips, I want people to realize that illness is a part of the living condition and that eventually, we all will become sick. I get sick about twice a year and simply am resigned to that fact. That being said, I think one has to look at themselves as a celebrity and germs are those paparazzi; most are harmless photogs but some have less than good intentions.
The first tip is simply to stay away from those pathogenic paparazzi out to get a hold of you and take over your life. If you see people who are sick or know that your area is a hotspot, make sure that you act accordingly, by keeping a distance of about 6 feet and also making sure that if you happen to come into contact with them – or the surfaces they touch – don’t let the contact lead to your nose or mouth. Fist bumps are so much better than handshakes if people are sick.
The second tip is to make sure you are keeping the paparazzi at bay. Even though they may be around, if they happen to come into your personal space, you may need to get rid of them using effective action. While one cannot punch out a germ like Sean Penn can a photographer, you can use hand sanitizer to keep your hands clean in the most contaminated environments.
The third tip is to keep in good shape. How many times have we seen a tabloid piece on how celebrities are letting themselves go and how horrible they look in a particular photo? Pathogens tend to infect those who are not altogether healthy, especially those with compromised immune systems. Make sure that you are eating healthy and that you are maintaining some kind of wellness in your life.
Q. When it comes to kids, your motto is “let them eat dirt.” Can you explain what you mean?
Originally, when I developed this motto, my goal was to help calm fears of the so-called hygiene hypothesis where a tendency to be too clean could lead to allergies and other problems in the future. Over the last few years, the science has caught up to this motto and now we actually know why kids should eat dirt. As I mentioned earlier, our bodies are 90% germs, better known as the microbiome. Well, when we are born, we have no such microbiome and for the next eight to twelve years, we are developing this microbiome by creating an individual relationship with our germs – a germ print. In order for us to have a robust germ print, we need to be exposed to a large variety of germs. And nothing is more diverse than soil. So, a child’s exposure to dirt is really helping to develop a healthy microbiome. While I don’t believe that a mud pie should be on the cover of any food magazine, I do feel that we shouldn’t be so concerned when the kids come home looking like something out of a B-movie, with dirt on their hands and clothes.
Jason “The Germ Guy” Tetro is a microbiologist with over 20 years of experience looking at and understanding germs. He is working on his first book, The Germ Code which is due out in Fall 2013.