Sit-down Service Goes Skimpy on Food Safety
Safefood news - Volume 9 Number 1
Colorado State University
From time to time most of us enjoy dining out at our favorite full service restaurant. Whether we're enjoying the local cafe around the corner or the fancy bistro down the street, we have come to expect one thing from our favorite eatery...that our food is safe to eat. A report released in September of this year by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests just the opposite. Restaurants and other food service entities are not taking the proper precautions to prevent food borne illnesses.
Some may remember the dismal outcomes reported in the FDA's restaurant food safety study released back in the year 2000. In a nutshell, food establishments had failed to make the grade when it came to ensuring that safe food practices were being followed. Unfortunately, the results have not changed much according to the latest report. Of over 900 foodservice operations examined, full service restaurants reported the greatest number food safety faults. The area where they scored lowest was in keeping or handling foods at the proper temperatures. In fact, two-thirds of the full service restaurants inspected failed to keep foods at the proper temperatures needed to avoid spoilage and the spread of harmful bacteria. In addition, almost half of the full service restaurant workers failed to wash their hands properly before handling food or after using the restroom. Whether you're at home or in a food service operation, hand washing is the first line of defense against harmful bacteria.
Not only are restaurants skimping on food safety procedures, but so are schools, hospitals, and even nursing homes. In the FDA study, hospital food service operations received low scores for food handling practices. Findings showed that three out of five nursing home workers did not wash their hands properly. Additionally, one out of four elementary school cafeterias failed to clean and sanitize surface and utensils adequately, and more than 16% of cafeteria personnel showed poor hygiene.
Coinciding with the FDA study is a recent consumer report by NBC's Dateline, who embarked on a study of their own to uncover the scary truth about restaurant safe (or better yet...unsafe) food practices. The Dateline staff first selected 1,000 restaurants, 100 each of the largest ten casual dining restaurant chains in the nation. Next, they compiled data from over 3,000 restaurant inspection reports for a given 15 month period (Jan.1, 2003- March 1, 2004) to identify what inspectors term "critical violations."
They discovered that 82% of the 1,000 restaurants they reviewed had at least one critical violation. What is even more disturbing is that many of the violations reviewed by the Dateline crew were repeat offenses. Armed with a food safety inspector and hidden cameras, a Dateline crew then visited some of the family style restaurants having the most critical food safety violations. As one can imagine, the unsafe practices they saw didn't surprise them. Interviews with managers confirmed that although progress is being made, greater attention to food safety standards is needed in all types of food establishments. On a positive note, the facilities that had appointed someone on the staff to ensure compliance with food-handling procedures had the lowest incidence of risk for foodborne illnesses.
Be a Consumer "Food Safety Cop"
What can consumers do to prevent becoming a victim of food borne illness from food establishments? One option is to take a proactive approach and notice safe or unsafe practices the next time you eat out. Here are a few suggestions:
- Check to see if the utensils, dishes, and glasses look clean. This is a good indicator of kitchen cleanliness.
- Check to see if kitchen workers are wearing gloves. When handling ready-to-eat foods, it is important to wear gloves and wash hands.
- Ask how long food has been set out on tray line or how long food is placed under heat lamps.
- Talk to the manager. Ask them about the company's food safety policies and procedures.
Given the publicity that reports such as the FDA or Dateline studies generate, food establishments are beginning to realize the impact that food safety can have on their businesses. Serving food that is both tasty and safe must be of equal importance. As consumers become more food safety savvy, their dollars will likely be spent at those establishments having the highest food safety scores. The full 208 page "FDA Report on the Occurrence of Foodborne Illness Risk Factors in Selected Institutional Foodservice, Restaurant and Retail Food Store Facility Types-2004" is available at
- Soto, Alonso. "Food Handlers Get Low Marks in FDA Report." The Wall Street Journal Online. September 22, 2004; page D-7.
- "FDA Report on the Occurrence of Foodborne Illness Risk Factors in Selected Institutional Foodservice, Restaurant and Retail Food Store Facility Types-2004."
- Thompson, Lea. "How safe are your favorite restaurants?" September 26, 2004. Available at: