When you eat out, you’re putting your trust in other food preparers and hoping that they are being as careful as you would be at home. Given that reality, you can take several steps to ensure that eating out is a pleasure that does not end up with a visit to a hospital.
Health departments in every city inspect restaurants once a year or so, depending on the law and the budget. Some places make those inspection results transparent to the public through posted letter grades in restaurants’ front windows, while others file away the inspection reports in dusty file cabinets. In New York City, Los Angeles County, Toronto, and the entire state of North Carolina, for example, you can tell from a glance at the front window whether the health department gave a restaurant an A, B, or C on its most recent inspection. In many of the other 3,000-plus jurisdictions in the United States, you won’t be able to find an inspection report unless you search a database, call the health department, or file a Freedom of Information Act request.
Bottom line: if you have access to restaurant grades, use them to make dining decisions. Choose only A-grade establishments if you can, and be sure to tell the manager that the A grade is one reason why you are patronizing that restaurant. If a favorite eatery falls from an A to a B, you could drop the manager a note (even through social media), letting him or her know that you won’t return until the restaurant is back to an A. That would help spur the restaurant to prioritize food safety.
If you don’t have access to letter grades, take heart: within the next few years, restaurants in cities that follow the most recent FDA Food Code (which tells restaurants exactly what they have to do in terms of hygiene) will at least have to keep a copy of the inspection report near the front door, along with a sign reminding you of your right to see it. Don’t be shy—asking for the inspection report reminds restaurants that you care about your safety, and will walk away with your dining dollars if they aren’t taking food safety seriously.
Once you choose a place to eat, take a look at the bathroom, tables, and floors. In most restaurants, you can’t see inside the kitchen—and even if you could, some of the most egregious food-safety errors, such as under-cooking or letting foods sit out too long, might not be visible. But you can see the common areas, and if they are filthy, the kitchen might be too. No soap in the bathroom? Then how are employees washing their hands effectively after they use the toilet? Does your waiter have dirty fingernails or other signs of bad hygiene? What if he uses his bare hands to fill your bread basket? Are rodents or insects visible in the front of the restaurant? Do you think they stay out of the kitchen?
When ordering your food, heed the consumer advisory that must be on the bottom of the menu: “Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness.” Ask for your food to be well-done or thoroughly cooked, and send it back if it’s not.
If you have any food allergies or sensitivities, tell your waiter. Don’t just ask whether the dish you’ve selected has any peanut ingredients—explain that you have a serious allergy. That way, an inexperienced server should take the time to double-check with the kitchen or manager. If you just don’t like something, explain that you will send the dish back if it comes with that ingredient. Said with a smile, such requests are generally honored with ease.
Tempted to order raw oysters? Skip them—consumers who get sick from Vibrio vulnificus (the food hazard that kills half of the people it sickens) generally eat the oysters at restaurants. If you can’t resist, ask the restaurant where its oysters came from—oysters from the colder waters of the Pacific Northwest and New England coast are historically safer than those from the warm Gulf of Mexico. If the restaurant can’t identify where the oysters are from, skip them or order them cooked.
Last but not least, use nutrition information if it’s provided, to help you make smart dining decisions. California, New York City, and a dozen other jurisdictions require calorie information on menus and menu boards. Soon, such a requirement will apply nationally. Knowing the calorie count won’t protect you from bacteria, but it sure will help your long-term health.
Other relevant links:
• The most common food allergies and intolerances. See: Keep in Mind Allergies When Thinking About Food Safety
• Keep yourself safe from foodborne illness during pregnancy. See: Food Safety during Pregnancy
• The most common bacteria, toxins, virsuses, and parasites in food. See: What’s Bugging You? Check Out this Table of Potential Food Safety Risks.