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There were as many harmful bacteria detected on reusable plastic food trays in some Vancouver-area shopping malls as are found on toilet seats, a CBC investigation has found.

Swabs taken from trays in food courts at three malls were sent to University of British Columbia microbiologist Bob Hancock, who analyzed the samples. The malls involved were Pacific Centre in downtown Vancouver, Park Royal in West Vancouver and Metrotown in Burnaby

"We saw as many bacteria on some food trays as we saw on a toilet," said Hancock.

Swabs were taken from a gas station toilet for comparison and lab technicians did find similar types and amounts of pathogens.

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Hancock said that one of the bacteria found in abundance on some food trays could be particularly dangerous.

"There was a fairly large number of a bacteria called acinetobacter," Hancock said. "Acinetobacter is one of the superbugs in our society that's causing major problems in individuals throughout the world because it's so resistant to antibiotics."

The acinetobacter was found on one tray at Park Royal and one tray at Pacific Centre.

Malls respond

The Pacific Centre mall's general manager, Ultan Kampff, said cleaning staff wipe the trays after every use and disinfect them every night.

"Our service provider has very high standards that are in line with acute care facilities," Kampff said. "Having said that, there's always an opportunity to revisit our procedures and our processes to see if we can do it better."

Park Royal and Metrotown both offered statements in response to the CBC test results, saying they had rigorous cleaning methods.

Despite the presence of some serious pathogens, they are not a major concern for healthy people, Hancock said.

"The number of bacteria that are transferred from a tray, even if it's in the range of hundreds of bacteria, they're not sufficient to cause disease because we have very efficient systems in our body for getting rid of bacteria."

Mall administrators said that while local health authorities do set the same standards for cleanliness in food courts as they do in restaurants, standards are not set for trays themselves because they aren't meant to be in direct contact with food.

With files from the CBC's Lisa Johnson