ilbusca/Getty Images

There’s no denying that it’s nice to let someone else do the cooking and cleaning on occasion. However, going to restaurants means letting someone else do the cooking and cleaning, which means their standards might not be quite up to yours. There have been many studies showing that there are a shocking number of items in restaurants many that are dirtier than a toilet seat, including one culprit that is sitting on almost every restaurant table in the South. That’s why the next time you go out to eat, you just might want to skip giving the pepper a good shake.

In 2012, ABC News tagged along with a group of researchers from the University of Arizona as they went to 12 restaurants in three states—New York, Ohio, and Arizona—swabbing all the items on the tabletops and sending them back to their lab for analysis. They found that 2012 investigation found that 50 percent of the salt and pepper shakers were coated in germs. On average, pepper shakers in particular had a bacteria count of 11,600, one of the highest levels of bacteria and coliforms of everything they swabbed.

While salt, sugar, and the parmesan cheese shakers at pizza restaurants were all guilty of harboring germs, as well, pepper is their favorite place—and even scientists aren’t exactly sure why. "E. coli loves to grow there," Dr. Charles Gerba, a University of Arizona microbiologist, told Today.com. "It’s a plant-based product. Maybe that has something to do with it." Gerba also thought that pepper may have more bacteria because it’s used more than, say, the sugar container.

WATCH: 7 Ways to Avoid Germs During a Hotel Stay

One other reason that pepper tends to be germ inhabited is that even upscale restaurants tend to focus on cleaning the kitchen, not the salt and pepper shakers. They may get the occasional wipe down from a busser, but the chances of them being spic-and-span are slim. “Most salt and pepper shakers are only wiped down if they appear dirty, and even then, only with a damp cloth that bussers keep in their pockets,” Jonas Sickler, Director of Operations at ConsumerSafety.org, told Reader’s Digest. “While some restaurants collect, refill, and wipe down shakers, they are rarely properly emptied and sanitized.”

Plus, according to Professor Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., a germs specialist and public health professor at the University of Arizona who spoke to the AARP, many people ignore what their mothers taught them and don’t wash their hands before eating, meaning they can transfer whatever germs they had on their hands on to the pepper shaker.

The next time you eat at a restaurant, if the waiter asks if you would like fresh-ground pepper on your salad, take him up on the offer—at least that way you don’t have to touch the pepper shaker.