Choosing Healthy and Safe Food While Dining Out

Choose Safe Food When Dining Out
Editor's Note: This article has been recently updated with latest information and research studies.
 

The Safe Food Problem

Yesterday an estimated eight people died, and 250[1] were so sick they were admitted to a hospital from foodborne illness, in the United States.

According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) annual report about 60% of the time it was traceable to restaurants[1].

In a study that analyzed ten years of data from foodborne illness outbreaks, you are twice as likely to get sick from dining out as eating at home[3].

Choosing Where To Eat

Your first step in choosing safe food, when dining out, is choosing a restaurant with an excellent food safety record.

Consumer websites like Trip Advisor, Yelp, Zagat, Michelin, etc. provide feedback from customers about décor, pricing, service, and cuisine, but that advice lacks the expertise of professionals and commonly lacks any objective measure of food safety excellence.

Fortunately, many states and municipalities are posting professional health department inspections on public websites. This evolution in available information has provided another critical tool for the discriminating diner.

Choosing Where To Eat

Unfortunately, that information can be hard to find and hugely variant from municipality to municipality or State to State.

DiningGrades.com has made health department information easy to find and reduce* the variability out of the scoring and grading systems.

With millions of health department scores uniquely converted to letter grades, DiningGrades has continued the evolution and revolution of data access for the public. Now anyone can choose a restaurant with a history of food safety excellence.

When Choosing Where To Eat Out, Check Out The Restaurant’s Food Safety History Before You Choose.

When you enter the restaurant, don’t be afraid to leave if you see some food safety concern that might put you at risk of getting sick. Some people say they walk into the bathroom and if it is not clean, they walk out.

While there is value in that assertion, dirty bathrooms are not scientifically correlated with foodborne illness outbreaks.

Rather, look for these key best practices and if the restaurant fails, consider leaving:

Sick employees
  • Watch for sick employees. Sick employees are a major cause of foodborne illness outbreaks[4]; over half of food workers have worked a shift while ill[5].
  • Watch for food contamination from potentially dirty hands. FDA Food Code[6] requires no bare hand contact with ready to eat foods.
  • Look for dirty tableware, dirty utensils, dirty glasses, dirty menus, dirty table tops and dirty floors. If management is not paying attention to cleanliness where it can be seen by the public, it is a tip-off that there MAY be a problem in the food prep area.

Choosing What To Eat

While environmental toxins, genetic modification, preservatives, etc. in our food, may catch media attention, the biggest immediate threat to our food safety is from bacteria and viruses.

Make sure the fruits and vegetables you eat have been washed. Norovirus leads the list as the most frequent virus causing foodborne illness risk[7].

Often found in produce and other ready to eat foods, the spread of this disease-causing virus can be reduced* by attention to thorough washing of fruits and vegetables and use of gloves when touching ready to eat foods. If there is any doubt that the fruits or vegetables aren’t clean, don’t eat them.

Cooking temperature is critical to killing bacteria. Inadequately cooked seafood is the most frequent food associated with foodborne illness risk. Seafood is difficult to cook to perfection without a food thermometer.

Arguably, one of the most serious bacterial risks is E. coli, often found in animal meats. The prevailing opinion has been that eating a rare steak is safe and that only ground meats need to be thoroughly cooked.

The use of “meat glue” and the practice of injection of meats with antibiotics and chemicals have changed that.

Injection of Meats

With commercial feed lots and cramped livestock yards, E. coli can be found in many animal meats. Poultry are commonly associated with disease and can be contaminated with Salmonella. To be sure animal meat is adequately cooked; request your food be cooked to the recommended temperature.

While any weak link in production, transportation, refrigeration and/or preparation can be a root cause of disease, cooking animal meats to the right temperature before eating kills most bacteria and viruses.

Fish should be cooked to 145 degrees, red meats to 160 degrees and poultry to 165 degrees. Ask for your food to be cooked to temperature and insist on it.

Holding temperatures for buffets and salad bars is critical. Foods needing refrigeration should be kept at below 41 degrees. A salad bowl sitting on ice cubes is simply not adequate. Hot foods should be kept above 135 degrees.

A lukewarm alcohol heating cup is not adequate. The optimum range for bacteria and some viruses to multiple is between 41 and 135 degrees. If the buffet or salad bar food is not at an apparent right temperature, don’t eat it.

As An ER Doctor & Food Safety Expert, I Avoid These Foods When Dining Out.

Raw/Red/Pink Animal Meats

Eating undercooked ground beef or chicken can cause some of the most devastating foodborne illnesses.

The Environmental Health Specialists Network (EHS-Net)[8] found:

1.In over half of restaurants studied, there was a failure to determine doneness of hamburgers without using a thermometer.

2.Slightly less than half of the managers knew the temperature to which raw chicken needed to be cooked for it to be safe to eat.

Oysters & Raw Fish

Oysters and Raw Fish

While seafood comprises 1% of the typical Americans’ diet, seafood is responsible for roughly 25% of all foodborne disease in the US[9]. When you add all aquatic animals and mollusks, they account for 36% of all foodborne outbreaks and 10% of all illnesses[10].

Runny, Slimy Eggs

There is at least a 25% chance that cracked raw eggs have been at room temperature before they are used and if in pancakes or French toast they may have been on the countertop for beyond 6 hours [11].

Alfalfa Sprouts

Alfalfa sprouts are not cooked. Like any fresh produce that is consumed raw or lightly cooked, raw sprouts carry a risk of foodborne illness.
 
What makes raw sprouts different from other raw produce is that the seeds and beans need warm, humid conditions to sprout and grow, the same conditions that are ideal for bacteria to grow, including dangerous bacteria like Salmonella.

In short, crispy alfalfa sprouts are virtually never clean.

Snacks From a Community Serving Bowl

Avoid Dirty Hands

It is difficult to avoid dirty hands. Sixteen percent of cell phones are contaminated with stool[12]. A National Institute of Health study showed that hands washed for 15 seconds still have over 20% of bacteria and even after washing for 2 minutes 10% of bacteria remain[13] .

Conclusion:

When we choose to dine out, we expect our food to be clean and safe. Making sound choices about where and what to eat is a personal responsibility in that equation.

Avoiding riskier practices and foods can further reduce* your risk of foodborne illness will keep the outing memorable in the right way.

Image Credits
Feature Image: Shutterstock.com
In-Post Image: shutterstock.com

Take Action: Support Consumer Health Digest by linking to this article from your website

Permalink to this article:

Embed article link: (Click to copy HTML code below):

Reprinting this article:
Non-commercial use OK, cite ConsumerHealthDigest.com with clickable link.


 
Author

Expert Author : Harlan Stueven (Consumer Health Digest)

Harlan Stueven M.D. is a Board-Certified Emergency physician with sub-specialization in Environmental Toxicology and in Medical Toxicology. Starting his career in the USAF, he served as a Flight Surgeon and Environmental Health Consultant Physician where one of his duties was monitoring food safety. He has been a Medical Director and/or Chairman of several hospital-based Emergency Medicine Departments, sat on many national, state and local committees. Dr. Harlan Stueven founded DiningGrades.com and strategically aligned, DiningSafetyAlliance.org, a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) dedicated to improving food safety. He is an accomplished leader, medical researcher, a champion of process improvement, author, national and international speaker. [email protected]