Tell me why it's gross/disgusting to eat someone else's leftovers?
June 26, 2016 9:10 AM   Subscribe

Not from a cultural, societal point of view. But medically, scientifically, health/welfare, risks?? Is the germ/fluid exchange different from say, a kiss or handshake? And different if doesn't involve a food with an actual bite-mark (ie the fries not the hamburger?)

And when is it okay? Is there the equivalent of the 3-second (or 5 or 10 second) rule, ie it's fine if it's family, a SO, friends but not strangers?

posted by Xhris to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've always thought this was kind of an phenomenon.

Is the germ/fluid exchange different from say, a kiss or handshake?

I think you're swapping more germs than with a handshake, assuming most handshakes don't involve another person's saliva, and maybe a little less than with an open-mouth kiss.

And different if doesn't involve a good with an actual bite-mark (ie the fries not the hamburger?)

Definitely, at least in my opinion. Leftover fries seems more at the handshake end of the spectrum; hamburger more at the open-mouth kiss end of the spectrum.

And when is it not okay?

Eh, this is pretty personal I think. I'd say it's not okay with strangers or with sick friends/family, but otherwise not a huge concern. How willing I am to do it depends a lot on how much of the other person's spit I think is on the leftovers. Fries? NBD. Half of a chocolate truffle? Probably wouldn't even share that with my ma.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:44 AM on June 26, 2016

For me, the dividing line is whether you eat it by biting it directly or whether you use your hands/knife/fork. Even if I'm fine with sharing food with the person, there's no way I'm going to eat leftovers where someone else's mouth germs have been in direct contact and then allowed time to breed. I'm not even sure I'd eat my own leftovers in that case. Yeah, no.
If the food has only contacted utensils that don't enter anyone's mouth -- no issue.
If the food has been contacted by someone's fork -- maybe? Sauced pasta - probably not. A slice of cake -- probably. A swedish meatball in a dish with a lot of gravy -- maybe no. The same meatball in a low-gravy setting - maybe yes.
I think I'm on the not-picky and pretty-cavalier-about-germs side of the spectrum, though.
posted by janell at 10:00 AM on June 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Problem with strangers is edge cases. If you brush up against lots of human beings (e.g. work retail), you learn that any crazy thing is possible, and human beings can be shocking and disgusting. I'd rather not conjure up (or make you read) some imagined surely can do so yourself.

I'm not talking about strangers setting "traps" by squirting toxins into food in their abandoned plates (though I wouldn't be surprised if a couple dozen people out there actually do so). Just various scenarios of disgustingness even with foods they're still eating. So with food they've finished eating, and intend to discard, I can only shudder.

Just don't. Your odds are 99%, but you really don't want to hit the 1% scenario.
posted by Quisp Lover at 10:03 AM on June 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Data point: I had no idea this was a thing, and assuming I had permission and I knew that the food had been transported and stored safely and didn't think you were some kind of asshole prankster, I would eat your leftovers.

But, I mean, I live in the world and I am constantly touching disgusting doorknobs and dealing with close-and/or-wet-talkers and people who won't cover their mouths when they cough/sneeze. Rushed kitchen staff have touched every bit of restaurant food I eat. I have no idea, every time I open a bag of salad or frozen vegetables, how much e.coli or listeria is on that food from the production source. The world is disgusting.

A little spit from your fork or your sandwich or the plate that sat in front of you for 20 minutes while you talked is probably the least germy thing I could deliberately or accidentally eat in a day. If I was offering you a bite of my cheesecake at a restaurant I'd of course go out of my way to make sure I offered you a piece that seemed least spitty, but that's more an "avoiding gross thoughts" thing than "protecting you from the same germs you constantly are in contact with" thing.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:09 AM on June 26, 2016 [60 favorites]

Of course, hands are more likely to have fecal matter on them than mouths are, so those picked over fries might be pretty foul.

And if you haven't witnessed the lifecycle of the given food, you really don't know where it's been, who or what it's been touching, how long it's been sitting out, etc.

That said, I'm not going to lie here: If I'm hungry enough and something looks good enough and it's not literally on a sidewalk with a footprint on it, I might eat it anyway.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:17 AM on June 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

As a picky eater who is overly precious about my own leftovers, one main problem would be not knowing how the food was prepared and stored (and for how long). Something standardized like cold pizza in a box would be the easiest to eat. Restaurant leftovers, where I at least know when you went to the restaurant, would be ok but it really depends on the type of food (whether it touched your mouth/fork). A home-cooked meal stored for some indeterminate amount of time? Nooooo.
posted by acidic at 10:24 AM on June 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's not particularly gross. I lived off of other people's leftovers for a year or two when I was a student at Reed College, joining our proud tradition of scrounging. We'd go to the cafeteria and stand in the dirty trays area, scavenging unfinished food. It worked fine.

A bit of decorum helps. I'd avoid food that was likely to be contaminated by saliva; no half eaten soup, cut the chewed ends off the pizza slice before finishing it. Nice students would warn us if they were sick, "you don't want to eat from my tray today". Oftentimes we could score a fully pristine dish, or things that are obviously untouched like the fourth cookie from a package.

I can't speak to any medical data on the danger of the practice, but my scrounging friends and I didn't seem to get sick more than anyone else at college did. I think the hardest thing was eating healthy. It was much easier to scrounge carbs and junks than salad or fruit. Societally, it helped that it was an established practice at a small college. I was scrounging from people I didn't personally know, but we were all in the same small affinity group.
posted by Nelson at 10:38 AM on June 26, 2016 [9 favorites]

But medically, scientifically, health/welfare, risks??

We can now travel literally from anywhere on the planet to anywhere on the planet in 24 hours or less. Thus, people can be exposed to something and not yet symptomatic, cross the globe, exposingbpeople every step of the way, before anyone has any idea.

We also now have 7 billion people on the planet, which gives bacteria more opportunities to evolve. We are increasingly seeing antibiotic resistant infections and scary stuff like necrotizing fascitis (aka flesh eating bacteria).

Just like thatched roofs on farm houses was not insanely stupid but thatched roofs in a dense city environment helped much of London burn to the ground in the The Great Fire of London (and, afterwards, they banned thatched roofs in city limits), seemingly harmless practices from our childhoods are potentially disastrous now, in this fundamentally altered climate.

Many indigenous peoples of the Americas died when Europeans came here. Although the economically predatory behavior of Europeans gets decried a great deal, the single deadliest thing they did was bring their foreign germs with them.

Another person, even in a developed country and seemingly in good health, can be carrying a serious infection and have no idea. For example, Chaga's disease is on the rise in the US. Many Americans have never heard of it and US physicians typically do not expect their first world patients to have third world diseases, so tend to not even consider the possibility. Some Americans only find out they have Chaga's Disease because they try to donate blood and get a letter telling them their blood is not acceptable. Because it tends to kill by causing a heart attack, it is possible to die from it and have it attributed to heart disease, meaning it can kill you and remain undiagnosed.

I have enough problems. I don't need the additional risk. I am not that hungry, thank you.
posted by Michele in California at 1:02 PM on June 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

The risk is very small, not worth worrying about.

It's fine to do with people who are cool with it. So no, not the family who wants their leftovers for themselves, but if your friend offers, sure.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:44 PM on June 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm not a doctor, but common sense tells me that eating food someone else has touched exposes you to the same diseases you'd be exposed to by a handshake, though the odds of transmission might be a little higher, since you put the food directly into your mouth and probably don't put your hand directly into your mouth after a handshake. And common sense tells me that eating food someone else has bitten exposes you to the same diseases you'd be exposed to by a kiss. If you eat food that the other person didn't touch with their hands and you don't eat any parts that might have come into contact with their mouth, I'd guess the chances of disease transmission would be fairly low. (Though it's always possible that the person sneezed or coughed right over the food.)

The diseases you'd most commonly be exposed to by eating leftovers would be ones you're also commonly exposed to in many other ways - colds, flu, stomach viruses, etc. Diseases transmitted through saliva include mononucleosis, cold sores, possibly hepatitis (sounds like this is not common but thought possible), meningococcal disease, and strep. So sharing food is not risk free, but many of these diseases are uncommon or not serious.

My opinion as a layperson is that eating other people's leftovers is a low-risk activity that can be made even more low-risk by not eating things that were handled a lot or might have come into contact with saliva. Personally, I think it would be weird to avoid eating leftovers from family members or an SO. I feel fine about that myself. I would feel weird about eating a stranger's leftovers and would be very unlikely to do it, even though I don't actually think it's very risky.
posted by Redstart at 3:11 PM on June 26, 2016

There's really two sides to this question, which is: is it healthy to eat leftovers if I choose to and it has been handled properly, and that is: yes, it's fine under those circumstances. This food is presumably coming from someone you know, or you have made your own call about eating stranger food for whatever reason, and you get to make that choice for yourself. It's basically the same as choosing to wear secondhand clothes or buy used furniture - there are risks, and you should only do it if you freely choose to do so.

If the question is: should people who have no other means be obligated to eat leftovers, the answer is no. There are reasons that health departments do not allow this, and that includes all the reasons an individual might choose not to do it - food handling safety, malice, unknown provenance.

There is also a dignity component. When my husband goes out to business lunches, which he does frequently, and brings home his leftovers and says, "hey, there's half a huge turkey sandwich in the fridge if you want it or I'll eat it tomorrow if you don't," or "I brought you one of my tamales because they were so good," between us there's no power imbalance and there is plenty other food to eat so there's not emotional or dependency element to whether I eat it or not. Plus, he's my husband, we share all the germs already.

There was a period in time where it was considered okay or even noble to pack up your restaurant leftovers and give it to a homeless person, which I think is absolutely gross on many levels but most of them have nothing to do with germs. But to that point specifically, homeless people are no less deserving of the same food you originally got, which is to say potentially mis-handled and sneezed on by the restaurant staff or producer but not one or more additional untrained randos afterwards.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:18 PM on June 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you would share a plate of fries with someone, I'm not sure why packaging that plate of fries up and thinking of it as "leftovers" changes anything.

And when it comes to family, if your toothbrush is sitting right next to theirs, I don't see that eating their food is much more of a risk.

For stranger's food ... I don't have a good answer. When I was waitressing, I had to scrape all the used food off the plate into a bucket, and after you do that enough times, food just starts looking gross in general. I did steal a few fries off of someone's plate when no one was looking, though.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 3:26 PM on June 26, 2016

When I was growing up, my mother was paranoid about us biting from the same sandwich/drinking from the same glass as other people, because she had polio in 1950s (she's fine now) and said that was one way you could get it. Google backs her up on that, though there are much easier ways to catch polio. After years of exposure therapy I am now able to let friends drink from my cocktails without cringing, going on the (probably wrong) assumption that the alcohol will kill the germs. Sharing spaghetti is still a little squicky for me.
posted by pangolin party at 3:59 PM on June 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Tell me why it's gross/disgusting to eat someone else's leftovers?

I think it's totally okay from a health perspective. Why I think many people find it gross is that it is subconsciously associated with food waste in terms of its appearance. When someone is done, the leftovers made up of disheveled food parts usually goes in the garbage.
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:22 PM on June 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you ride public transit then eat or drink without washing your hands? You're already living more dangerously than if you eat somebody else's leftovers…
posted by Lexica at 9:46 PM on June 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

I eat food off friends' plates, so, I'd eat their leftovers too. Probably not with a stranger (less known medical condition) and probably not anything with bites on it.

The "international diseases!!1!" argument is rather alarmist and basically is the argument for not going outside or interacting with anyone.
posted by Lady Li at 10:27 PM on June 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

Disclaimer: IAA epidemiologist, IANY epidemiologist, I do not specialize in foodborne pathogens. This is by way of informed handwaving and telling you about my own comfort level.

Food is a very nice environment for human pathogens, generally speaking. Leaving aside the obvious food safety issues (keep it cold or keep it hot), I would say eating someone else's food, if they've touched it and moved utensils back and forth from their mouths to it and sneezed over it, is probably roughly comparable to kissing their hands or mouths. I would eat the leftovers of someone I was willing to kiss on the mouth. I wouldn't eat a stranger's leftovers. I wouldn't eat the leftovers of any toddler who wasn't a close family member (and then only because I'm resigned to getting everything they have anyway - toddlers are gross tiny bags of filth.)

That said, Lexica's right - if you don't wash your hands after you've been in public and before you eat or drink or smoke, you are transferring whatever is out there on greasy, highly-handled surfaces straight into your face. Bleargh. (And that is a real thing - we are certain, at this point, that norovirus is transmitted by "fomites", non-living surfaces and objects where microorganisms persist.) And Lyn is right, too, you can't be sure about the cleanliness and safety of food prepared by people you don't know and trust, either. We have regulations about food handling for good reason, and these measures are just to drop the risk slightly. To some extent, you have to rely on your immune system to save you.

At my undergraduate institution, there were students and hangers-on ("scroungers") who waited by the cafeteria return line and ate the leftovers of near-strangers, and none of them died of anything communicable or even seemed to get sick any more often than the rest of us. But we were college students, a population that has a high background level of communicable diseases (stress, crowded housing, poor hygiene, a general willingness to put random things and people in one's orifices), and to the best of my knowledge nobody ever did a formal study, either.

I don't think the international-travel argument has as much bearing on eating someone else's leftovers as the complex international logistics of food supply does on general food safety.
posted by gingerest at 10:40 PM on June 26, 2016 [8 favorites]

This is one of those things where if it were a public health problem, we would all be sick all the time, and colleges and graduate schools would have mass absences due to food poisoning on a regular basis.

The #1 risk when it comes to food is food storage and preparation. The risks are not embedded in the act of someone else having eaten a portion of the food. The risks are in how it was prepared and stored before you got to it. Basically, do you trust that the person kept his food in the refrigerator, it was not there for too long, and it was heated up promptly after being removed from the refrigerator and before being served to you?

I suppose if you are generally extra careful about human contact during cold and flu season, this may be an extra layer of caution you could add.
posted by deanc at 7:01 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I had a wonderful friend in grad school who thought nothing of taking leftovers from Grad Club tables (a few fries here, a couple of nachos there). I thought this was strange, but essentially fine.

He also, however, didn't mind drinking the leftover beer(s). And that... well I just can't with that. To much backwash.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 8:12 AM on June 27, 2016

I don't have much to add to the answers here, but I just want to ensure that you are only considering real medical risks of sharing food. There are certainly some diseases that can be transmitted by sharing food, but Chagas disease and the necrotizing fasciitis infections cited above are not. Chagas is transmitted by reduviid bugs, and the necrotizing fasciitis cases are from exposing open wounds to raw seafood or contaminated water.

I'm a doctor and I have no problem with eating other people's leftovers, as an anecdote.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 1:52 PM on June 27, 2016

Also, food preparation risks are the sort of things that are most dangerous "at scale"-- a restaurant may serve more meals in a day than you may eat in a year. In that case, even a 1% risk of food poisoning presents a major public health and liability issue for a restaurant. The kind of precautions advised for large scale operations are more stringent than we take on an individual level. Individuals, by and large, are not especially militant about food preparation and restricting food sharing. Combined this with living in close quarters and international travel, we do not have major international outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. This indicates that the risks on an individual level are tiny.

When I was young and irresponsible, I did not store my raw chicken properly, and it got spoiled. I didn't realize this until I cooked it and ate some. I figured it was undercooked, so I cooked it some more. It still tasted bad. Then I realized it was spoiled, and I threw it out. Not only did I live to tell the tale, but I didn't have any bad after effects.
posted by deanc at 2:18 PM on June 27, 2016

[Several comments deleted; this isn't a debate space, and metacommentary doesn't belong on the green.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 6:17 PM on June 27, 2016

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