Interest in food safety has been on the rise, particularly in the wake of widely reported foodborne illness outbreaks. “Ask Us” is a monthly feature in which we answer questions and offer perspectives relevant to consumers and diners interested in food safety issues.
Sometimes eating out (or even cooking at home with ingredients from the grocery store) can feel like playing Russian roulette with your health. How can you know if your next meal is going to be part of the next big foodborne illness outbreak or food recall?
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees here, but you can improve your odds with a little due diligence. To that end, let’s take a food safety tour of your average restaurant.
- Before you leave the house: look up the restaurant with your local health inspection authority. Many municipalities make this information publicly available online. Hopefully you can find the most recent score (a letter or number grade) as well as any specific citations.
- Upon arrival: look for any mandated health posters. Many states and localities require restaurants to post information about recent food safety inspections on the premises. This step is particularly valuable if you couldn’t find any information from your local health inspection authority online.
- Once you’re seated:
- Conduct your own mini-inspection. Much of any health inspector’s audit is visual, and you can do your own quick evaluation. Check for the overall cleanliness of the restaurant, paying close attention to server stations and areas near the kitchen. Consider walls and ceilings too: if a restaurant lets problems grow where customers can see but don’t usually look, it bodes ill for areas where customers can’t see at all.
- Look for any temperature-related issues within sight. Server stations, salad bars and other public areas that may house foods that need to be stored at certain temperatures. Is the restaurant keeping those items hot or cold, as needed?
- As you’re ordering: Ask! If you have any concerns, be willing to ask about them. For example, if the posted notice indicated the restaurant got a “B” or “C” on their last inspection, ask why. If they’ve had publicized issues, ask about steps they’ve taken to remediate the problems. If you see food that doesn’t seem to be heated or cooled as appropriate, ask about it. The best way to make restaurants take food safety concerns seriously is to be clear that you take food safety issues seriously when choosing where to dine.