Would you pay to eat here?
updated 9/2/2010 2:16:25 PM ET 2010-09-02T18:16:25

Could your kitchen at home pass a restaurant inspection?

New research suggests that at least one in seven home kitchens would flunk the kind of health inspection commonly administered to restaurants.

The small study from California's Los Angeles County found that only 61 percent of home kitchens would get an A or B if put through the rigors of a restaurant inspection. At least 14 percent would fail — not even getting a C.

"I would say if they got below a C, I'm not sure I would like them to invite me to dinner," said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

In comparison, nearly all Los Angeles County restaurants — 98 percent — get A or B scores each year.

The study, released Thursday, is believed to be one of the first to offer a sizable assessment of food safety in private homes. But the researchers admit the way it was done is hardly perfect.

The results are based not on actual inspections, but on an Internet quiz taken by about 13,000 adults .

So it's hard to use it to compare the conditions in home kitchens to those in restaurants, which involve trained inspectors giving objective assessments of dirt, pests, and food storage and handling practices.

What's more, experts don't believe the study is representative of all households, because people who are more interested and conscientious about food safety are more likely to take the quiz.

"You'll miss a big population who don't have home computers or just really don't care" about the cleanliness of their kitchens, said Martin Bucknavage, a food safety specialist with Penn State University's Department of Food Science.

A more comprehensive look would probably find that an even smaller percentage of home kitchens would do well in a restaurant inspection, he suggested.

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In 2006, the county health department began a home kitchen self-inspection program, designed to help consumers learn how to store and prepare food safely. The department also began offering an online quiz with 45 yes or no questions that simulates a restaurant inspection checklist.

People are asked, for example, if their refrigerator temperature is 41 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, whether raw meat is stored below other foods on refrigerator shelves, and whether fruits and vegetables are always thoroughly rinsed before they are eaten.

The study is based on quizzes taken through 2008.

Overall, 34 percent got an A, meaning they correctly answered at least 90 percent of the questions. Another 27 percent got a B, 25 percent a C, and 14 percent failed to score at least a 70.

An estimated 87 million cases of food-borne illness occur in the United States each year, including 371,000 hospitalizations and 5,700 deaths, according to an Associated Press calculation that uses a CDC formula and recent population estimates.

Many outbreaks that receive publicity are centered on people who got sick after eating at a restaurant, catered celebration or large social gathering. In this summer's outbreak linked to salmonella in eggs, several illnesses were first identified in clusters among restaurant patrons.

But experts believe the bulk of food poisonings are unreported illnesses from food prepared at home.

The study is being published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Vote: Would your kitchen pass inspection?

Explainer: 9 surprising places germs lurk

  • By Andy Miller, msnbc.com contributor

    Germs that cause illness lurk in some out-of-the way spots, and bacteria and viruses can remain active on surfaces for days or even weeks, especially in wet areas. "Because of the natural moisture of our skin, we easily pick up these organisms, and we transfer them to our face," says Elizabeth Scott, co-director of Boston's Simmons College Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community.

    Good hygiene in the home is especially important for people with compromised immune systems, Scott notes. Here are some surprising (and icky) places where germs hang out -- and what you can do to protect yourself.

  • Remote control

    Image: Remote control
    Sigrid Olsson  /  Getty Images stock

    That's right, folks. Your favorite gadget may bring you hundreds of channels -- and even more germs. University of Virginia Health System researchers, studying the homes of adults with early cold symptoms, found six out of 10 remote controls tested positive for rhinovirus.

    Traveler's alert: Remotes in hotel rooms are rarely cleaned, scientists say. That's enough to make you want to skip TV and grab a book.

    Protect yourself: Wash hands regularly and use hand sanitizers. Clean the remote with a disinfecting wipe before you start surfing channels.

  • Salt and pepper shakers

    Image: salt shaker

    Those sneaky condiment containers. The University of Virginia researchers in the same home study found an unusual location for rhinovirus -- salt and pepper shakers.

    "A person gets mucus on their fingers, then picks up the salt and pepper shakers, and they leave the virus there," says Dr. Owen Hendley of the University of Virginia School of Medicine, Charlottesville. Other germ reservoirs: Refrigerator and dishwasher handles.

    Protect yourself: Wash hands frequently and clean objects with disinfecting wipes.

  • Purse

    Image: purses

    It may match your outfit, but your bag also may carry a load of bacteria. In a small study, Nelson Labs of Salt Lake City tested handbags for traces of bacteria. Among the lipstick, pens, and odds and ends, they found staph, E. coli, salmonella and pseudomonas, which can cause eye infections.

    "They all had quite a bit of bacteria contamination," says Amy Karren of Nelson Labs, which provides microbiology testing services. "All in all, the bags were quite dirty." Yuck!

    Protect yourself: Hang up your purse, and keep it off the kitchen counter. Wipe the bag with a mild soap or disinfectant.

  • Pets

    Image: Dog and boy
    Bloomimage  /  Getty Images/BloomImage RF

    Pet lovers may want to skip reading this. Or better yet, pay close attention. Some dogs, cats and other animals have become infected with the dangerous methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. There's even evidence that MRSA can jump between humans and pets. In one test, Simmons College researchers swabbed random households of healthy people to find what pathogens were there. MRSA was found in about one-quarter of the homes, and cat owners were more likely than others to have it.

    But before you put your pet up for adoption, note that scientists say pet MRSA infections are rare, as is transmission of MRSA from humans to pets.

    Protect yourself: Wash or sanitize your hands before and after playing with a pet.

  • Grocery cart

    Image: Grocery cart
    Fayez Nureldine  /  AFP/Getty Images file

    Those rolling carts may be bacteria wagons. A recent University of Arizona study found that the handles of almost two-thirds of shopping carts were contaminated with E coli. Drool, saliva and mucus from children also collect there.

    The grocery cart "is one of the most surprising places for germs I've come across," says Chuck Gerba, a microbiologist who conducted the study.

    Protect yourself: Swab the handle with a disinfectant wipe. Bag your fresh produce, and keep it off the seat where diaper-bottomed children have been sitting.

  • Showerhead

    Image: Showerhead

    Besides jets of hot water, a shower may spray you with pathogenic bacteria. Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder studied 50 showerheads from nine cities and found about 30 percent harbored significant loads of Mycobacterium avium, a pathogen linked to pulmonary disease. It most often affects people with compromised immune systems, but occasionally can infect healthy people. The pathogens, clumped together on the inside of showerheads, can be inhaled into the lungs.

    Protect yourself: Stick with baths? Not really. Showering is still safe for most people. Those with compromised immune systems should change showerheads regularly, and use metal ones, not plastic, researchers say.

  • Desk

    Image: Desk
    Getty Images stock

    A get-ready-to-gag fact: Office desks contain hundreds of times more bacteria per square inch than office toilet seats. Researchers at the University of Arizona, Tucson, did a study that found desks are also habitats for viruses, the pesky bugs responsible for the flu and colds.

    "Desks in schools are much germier than office desks," microbiologist Gerba says. "Women's desks are germier than men's," he adds, because women tend keep a lot more food and cosmetics in and around their desks than men.

    Protect yourself: If you can't retire early, try wiping down the work areas with disinfectant wipes and washing hands frequently.

  • Cell phone

    Image: Cell phone
    Mark Lennihan  /  AP file

    Your hands can be home to plenty of germs, and with regular cell use, the result can be a filthy phone. Cell phones also are stowed in nice, warm pockets, making a good breeding laboratory. Your phone can carry lots of bacteria, including staph, which can cause skin infections. The University of Arizona tested 25 cell phones and found staph growing on nearly half of them.

    "The flip phone is germiest because it keeps moisture in more," says Gerba, who is also known as "Dr. Germ."

    Protect yourself: Use a disinfecting wipe regularly and think about where you lay your phone down. Wash your hands frequently. And be careful in borrowing someone else's cell.

  • Carpet

    Image: carpet

    Maybe a top exec on "Mad Men" has it right, making co-workers shed their shoes before entering his carpeted office. Besides tracking in dirt, the soles of shoes can bring indoors traces of coliform, which includes fecal bacteria. Carpets also harbor tons of bacteria, dust and pesticide residue.

    "It's a living world right under your feet," Gerba says. His University of Arizona study found more than 200,000 particles of bacteria in one square inch of carpet.

    Protect yourself: Vacuum regularly with a strong vacuum cleaner. Even vacuum cleaners can have E. coli and salmonella growing inside them, Gerba says. Make sure you wash your hands after you handle a vacuum bag or receptable, he adds. You may want to consider leaving your shoes at the door before entering the home.