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Did your chef wash their hands? Handwashing ‘lie detectors’ could find out

New York-based PathSpot id deploying handwash scanning devices in restaurants that can detect if employees have adequately washed their hands.
courtesy PathSpot via CNN Newsource
New York-based PathSpot id deploying handwash scanning devices in restaurants that can detect if employees have adequately washed their hands.

By Parija Kavilanz, CNN

New York (CNN) — Americans love to eat out.

But each time they dine in a restaurant or wait in line during a lunchtime run to the nearest sandwich shop, fast-food or salad chain, they’re literally placing their wellbeing in the hands of people hired to prepare their meals.

Why? Because poor personal hygiene, especially inadequate handwashing, is a big problem in the food services industry.

Food workers wash their hands as they should only one in three times, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The consequence: Germs spread from food workers’ hands to food, which can trigger an outbreak of dangerous foodborne illness in restaurants.

By improving handwashing practices, food workers can be a critical part to preventing outbreaks of diseases like norovirus, Salmonella, and E. coli, it said.

It’s a fight that Christine Schindler, a biomedical engineer and inventor, has taken up over the past seven years.

A handwashing lie detector

Schindler is cofounder and CEO of PathSpot, a New York tech startup that’s developed a hand hygiene device to better protect employees and customers of food-based businesses — restaurants, food manufacturers and packaging plants — from the threat of foodborne illnesses and outbreaks.

PathSpot’s device is called the Handscanner. Schindler describes it as a handwashing lie detector and it’s already being used in 10,000 food service locations worldwide, including franchised Taco Bell, Arby’s and Chopt restaurants.

The scanner weighs less than five pounds and is about half the size of a mounted hand dryer.

The device is placed next to an employee handwashing station typically where food is prepared.

After a 20-second handwash with soap and drying their hands with a paper towel, a worker places their hands — first palms up, then palms down — under the scanner to activate it.

Within two seconds, the device can identify any residual contaminant on the hands and wrist using light fluorescence spectroscopy, an imaging technology already used in healthcare that utilizes safe non-UV LED lights.

Schindler said the hospital-grade technology can instantly detect, especially in hard to clean areas such as beneath fingernails and in and around jewelry and knuckles, gut biome molecules that can transmit norovirus, E. coli, salmonella, Hepatitis A, Listeria, and other common illnesses.

A screen on top of the device alerts the employee if their handwash scan detected contamination that can lead to foodborne illness. “While detection is immediate, we set a two second time frame for the Handscanner to indicate the result on the screen,” said Dutch Waanders, PathSpot’s cofounder and chief technology officer.

If the device detects contamination, the person is prompted to thoroughly rewash their hands for the recommended 20 seconds, dry their hands and rescan them.

“The Handscanner isn’t a diagnostic tool but it will detect and alert the presence of molecules that have a correlation to pathogens that lead to foodborne illnesses,” Waanders said.

Rebecca Bartles, an expert in infection prevention and control, said the PathSpot Handscanner is promising technology that “would benefit from additional study and validation.”

“New and novel methods for identifying contamination are very exciting, and having some information can be better in some circumstances than having no information,” said Bartles, director of research for the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, in an emailed comment to CNN.

“In all circumstances, thorough, frequent hand hygiene is critical for preventing the spread of disease. Technology can potentially assist with increasing compliance and quality of hand hygiene, and that is very exciting indeed,” she said.

Don’t try cheating

Try ignoring the scan result at your own peril. The system is built to ensure accountability.

By using unique employee ID codes or employee RFID badges (the device has a bluetooth reader that knows your badge has entered the handwash area), the system can track who’s washed their hands and when. Different restaurants can choose their tracking options, which can also include fingerprint or face identification.

“If you don’t come back and wash your hands after you fail a scan, that’s when we notify management of a particular restaurant location through alerts that there’s been a potential contamination situation,” Schindler said.

Also, wearing gloves isn’t an alternative to handwashing. “The consistency of gloves and how much contamination they spread is even more dangerous than bare hands,” said Schindler.

“Gloves can provide a false sense of security. Oftentimes when someone says to me their hands are clean because they have gloves on, I say, alright lick’em. And they say, no, my gloves are disgusting! Yet, they’re preparing food with that after maybe grabbing a dollar bill or running over to the garbage can now you’re preparing our food.”

Separately, the CDC cited findings from an Environmental Health Specialists Network report on food worker handwashing that also found that the use of gloves in food settings might potentially even lead to less handwashing.

The real value of the PathSpot system (which costs restaurant operators $50 a month), is the real-time employee data it generates, which can highlight gaps in hygiene protocols and allow a business to address those concerns, said Schindler.

“We’ve actually seen that when someone fails a handwash, they start washing their hands three to five times more frequently,” she said. “We’ve also seen that nine out of 10 employees, and this is not a requirement, scan their hands when they leave work. Why? Because they said they want to make sure they’re safe when they go home to their families.”

Tech twist to modernize cleanliness

“I was working on how to build technologies that can work when there’s no heat, no air conditioning, no power, sometimes no ceiling in some of these hospital setting,” she said. When she returned to the United States in 2015, she realized there could be a similar need.

As a global and public health expert, Schindler (who has a Bachelor of Science in biomedical/medical engineering and global health from Duke University) was working in the developing world on low-cost medical grade tools and technologies a few years ago.

One issue that grabbed her attention at the time was foodborne illness.

“There were major outbreaks where people were becoming hospitalized, even dying,” she said. “The news was saying it was lettuce or cereal but my thought was that lettuce doesn’t spawn illness. What could we have done in the food supply system to prevent this?”

When she learned that close to 90% of the contaminants in those incidents were traced back directly to poor handwashing, “that really got my brain going.”

“If this is what is causing all these massive outbreaks, why is the best practice solution that we have is a sign that says ‘Employees wash their hands before returning to work’?” she said. “I wanted to solve that problem.”

To date, PathSpot has raised more than $20 million in funding. Investors include the founders of Chopt Creative Salad Co. and Valor Siren Ventures, formed with an anchor investment from Starbucks.

Just a few Starbucks locations have installed the Handscanner while a majority of Chopt’s 90 locations use PathSpot, according to the company.

“Over the past five to 10 years, food safety in restaurants has become a more pressing issue and it has taken on a different level of urgency,” said Chopt’s cofounder Colin McCabe.

PathSpot, he said, is taking an antiquated outlook on food safety and hand hygiene and modernizing it, something which he says is important for the industry that’s been very slow to embrace innovation.

“It’s about creating a culture of food safety within the four walls of a restaurant,” he said.

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Article Topic Follows: Food

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