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Healthy Living

Here's One Smart Thing Chipotle's Doing To Boost Food Safety

Don't be sour about it.

In the wake of an extremely rough 2015 that saw its restaurants face E. coli outbreaks and problems with salmonella and norovirus, Chipotle has instituted one smart change at drink stations.

In at least some locations, the lemon wedges that were once presented in a bin by soda machines have now been moved behind the kitchen counter. The Street's Brian Sozzi captured the shift at one location on Twitter:

"Don't be sour," a sign reads. "We still have lemons, they're just behind the counter now. Please ask us if you need one."

While Sozzi didn't identify the location at which his photo was taken -- and Chipotle has yet to respond to questions about how far-reaching the change is or will be, including an inquiry from HuffPost -- Quartz did a little digging and verified lemons have been moved at locations in Manhattan, central Los Angeles, and Lakewood and Tyler, Texas. One patron shared that lemons at a Chipotle in Washington, D.C. were still placed by the beverages, but individually contained:

This change is significant if you like to squeeze a little citrus into your soda or atop your guac, and those who've become dependent on the free accoutrement ought to feel relief. Oftentimes, restaurant lemon wedges can serve as home to a host of bacteria.

A study in the Journal of Environmental Health found that 70 percent of wedges it examined contained microbial growth. Another study conducted for ABC News by Philip Tierno, a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU, found that 50 percent of lemon wedges from 10 restaurants in three different states were contaminated with human fecal matter. The same test also found the presence of E. coli, staphylococcus epidermidis and candida, a fungus found in the skin and mucus membranes of the body (like the mouth and the vagina) that causes infections including thrush and yeast infections.

Experts chalk this contamination up to restaurant employees not washing lemons or their own hands properly. Now imagine these restaurant lemon wedges in a communal bin, coming in contact with the hands of many customers: Chipotle's old way of serving lemons was nearly begging for contamination.

While Chipotle hasn't identified the food source responsible for its E. coli outbreaks (and lemons are probably not the culprit), this safety measure can't hurt. It's probably just one of many Chipotle will address in its company-wide food safety meeting Monday:

Chipotle previously announced that it will be blanching onions to kill possible germs and marinating meats only after-hours to the reduce risk of contamination. In addition, many ingredients will be first prepared in centralized kitchens rather than individual restaurants to help ensure health safety.

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story noted candida is commonly found in the vagina. The story has been updated to reflect that it is also commonly found in other skin and mucus membranes including the mouth.

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