Dr. Jay Neal, assistant professor of food safety in the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston (UH), received a $59,000 award from the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Foundation to research hotel room hygiene. Norovirus, a contagious illness that affects the gastrointestinal tract, affects approximately 19 to 21 million people per year. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates norovirus is the most common disease caused by a foodborne pathogen. It can be contracted from infected individuals, contaminated food or water, or by utilizing communal objects and surfaces like those commonly found in hotels. As hotels and lodging represent a $137 billion industry in America, implementation of effective sanitation methods is of utmost importance. Neal, an expert in the areas of food microbiology and food safety, is working in collaboration with Dr. Sujata Sirsat, lecturer and research assistant professor of food safety at UH, to develop professional training procedures that could lead to increased cleanliness and sanitation within the hospitality industry.
What is the difference between cleaning and sanitizing?
Cleaning and sanitizing are two different things: cleaning means removing visible soil while sanitizing means reducing potentially harmful microorganisms to safe levels. Most hotel rooms are cleaned but may not be sanitized, which can increase the spread of disease such as norovirus. This could also contribute to the increased risk of H1N1, a subtype of the Influenza A virus, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which have significantly impacted the hospitality industry on a global scale.
What discoveries do you hope to make, and what is their significance?
Our goal is to develop a science-based approach to cleaning and sanitizing best practice methods for hotel housekeeping departments. We want to identify the “high-touch” areas in the hotel and, by focusing our cleaning and sanitizing efforts in those areas, reduce guests’ risk of illness.
Global travel plays a significant role in the spread of pandemics. We would like to reduce this risk through strategic sanitizing of guests rooms. One of our research objectives is to analyze current housekeeping textbooks and training materials from the top 10 hotel chains. We plan on developing new curriculum materials for the American Hotel and Lodging Association that can be used in hospitality education and training nationwide.
How common is it for consumers to contract diseases or viruses from staying in a hotel?
It is not that common, but it does happen occasionally. Athlete’s foot, the common cold, hepatitis, herpes, influenza, intestinal flu, Legionnaires disease, mononucleosis, salmonellosis, staphylococcus infections, streptococcus infections, trench mouth, and tuberculosis are some of the diseases that patrons can come in contact with while in a hotel.
What objects should consumers be cautious of in a hotel room?
There is not much that the consumer should be cautious of but they do need to wash their hands just like they would at home, especially after using the restroom. High-touch areas such as the remote control and light switches tend to have the highest bacterial counts, but I do not believe that these are higher than in your home. It’s just not your own bacteria, which sometimes makes people uncomfortable.
How has your previous experience in the catering and restaurant industries shaped your research on food safety and the hospitality industry?
I hope there is a thread of similarity in all of my research and that is to help protect or reduce the public’s risk of foodborne illness or other environment-related illnesses. That is the foundation for my research and the reason why I’m dedicated to this field of study. I saw a genuine need and a lack of training in the industry. There are many wonderful people working in the hospitality industry who want to do the right thing. They need to be not only trained, but also have managers that demonstrate proper food safety behaviors.
Neal began the current research study in 2010 as part of a University of Houston Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) award with former undergraduate student Katie Kirsh. Currently, Neal is working in collaboration with Dr. Barbara Almanza, director of graduate programs and professor in the College of Health and Human Services at Purdue University, and Dr. Sheryl Kline, chairperson and professor in the Department of Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management at the University of Delaware.
For more information, visit the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management.