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Is Your Favorite Restaurant Safe?

From eDiets - The online diet, fitness, and healthy living resource

Is your favorite restaurant a mood-setting, memory-making gem of a place or a breeding ground for bacteria and other illness-causing bugs?

Safe Food Don't be so quick to answer. An estimated 76 million cases of foodborne disease and 5,000 deaths occur each year in the U.S. Serious repercussions can strike in a single meal -- one minute you're perfectly healthy, the next you are suffering from diarrhea, stomach cramping, fever, vomiting and other symptoms associated with tainted food.

It's a nasty predicament that's all too common. The most vulnerable: the very old, the very young and individuals who already have weakened immune systems. The dreaded disease can just as easily strike at the corner McDonald’s as it can the fancy five-star French bistro with a two-hour wait.

There's no need to panic or make a vow to never again dine outside your home. Health safety expert Debra Holtzman has compiled a menu of things you can look for to see if your restaurant is up to par. While there are no absolutes, her helpful germ-hunting hints will at the very least give you piece of mind that the establishment you are dining has taken the proper precautions to maintain health standards.

According to Holtzman, the author of The Panic-Proof Parent: Creating A Safe Lifestyle for Your Family (McGraw Hill), the first step in preventing foodborne illness is knowing what health hazards to watch for.

People need to be really careful, she tells eDiets from her South Florida office. At home you have control over the situation. At restaurants, you don't. A restaurant may be good, but if you get new employees or new management, they may do things differently. You have to be careful.

“I absolutely won’t go back to a restaurant if I have gotten sick from there.”

Leftovers pose one of the biggest dangers. Saving part of your oversized meal is a diet-smart technique. However, Holtzman says too many diners leave their food sitting at room temperature for far too long.

“People like to bring the extra food home," she says. "Generally you only have about two hours from the time the food is served to get it into the fridge and most people spend two and a half hours in the restaurant alone.”

Despite the risks, Holtzman still dines out about once a week. In addition to getting the scoop on a restaurant by word of mouth or by reading newspaper reviews, she relies on these her own top 10 guidelines for guaranteeing a good experience.

1. Check out the restaurant's most recent inspection report.
Some of the restaurant's problems might not be easily detectable. For example, does the refrigerator keep the food cold enough? In many jurisdictions, the latest inspection report must be posted in the restaurant or kept readily available on the premises. You can also obtain this information by calling your local Health Department. This information may also be available online.

2. Judge the general facilities.
When you walk in, what is the general condition of the restaurant environment? If it doesn't meet your cleanliness standards, you might want to eat somewhere else. How the manager keeps the place up may be an indication of the amount of pride they take in preparing the food. And use your nose. If the place smells funny, don't order food there.

3. Is the restroom clean?
Some indications are: wastebaskets that are not overflowing and the availability of toilet paper. The toilets should flush and the floors should be relatively clear of cigarette butts and other debris. Check to see that there is hot running water, adequate soap and paper towels or a hand dryer. A clean bathroom suggests that employees are probably paying attention to details. Such care can carry over to the kitchen.

Also, if patrons and employees share the same restroom, is there a sign posted reminding employees to wash their hands? Observe any employee that may be in the restroom when you are there. Did that person adequately wash his or her hands?

4. Are there insects present in the restaurant?
A fly or other insect or bug on a tablecloth, floor or drape is an indication that personnel aren't adequately addressing sanitation and pest control. Certainly, if you have to share your table with bugs, it's time to leave. Also, is there evidence of rodents? If you see droppings or a mousetrap or bait station, find another restaurant. If you come face to face with a mouse or rat run don't walk to the nearest exit.

5. Judge the table.
Is the tableware spotless? Ask for replacements if any dishes or silver have any kind of spots. If the replacements also have spots, don't eat there.

6. Judge the servers.
Make sure they are wearing clean clothes and have clean hands and fingernails, with no open sores, burns or cuts, which may be infected and be a source of harmful bacteria. If they seem lacking in any respect in personal hygiene, do not eat there. Their hair should be up or netted, and they should be washing their hands frequently.

7. Judge table preparation techniques.
What do the servers and bus boys use to clean the tables? They should be using a disinfecting spray and clean paper towels. Cloth towels rags and sponges are breeding grounds for germs and bacteria.

8. Judge the serving procedures.

  • Servers should not touch rims of glasses or parts of silverware that touch your lips. And servers should not touch the part of a plate that holds your food.

  • How do servers provide refills? If the restaurant gives refills on beverages, the refill should either be brought in a clean glass or poured from a pitcher in the original glass at the table. If the latter, the rim of the pitcher should not touch the glass.

    If glasses are taken to the food preparation area for refill, the question of spreading pathogens arises. Used glasses that are set down among food and clean utensils bring the potential for cross contamination. Even if you don't want a refill, the practice of taking used glasses back to the food area is reason for alarm.

    9. Inspect the food delivered to you and your family or guests.

  • Send back any meat, poultry or fish that does not appear thoroughly cooked.

    All cooked foods should be served piping hot and all cold food, cold. When this is not done, it is likely that the food has not been held at the proper temperature. Send the food back and make sure it's returned on a clean plate.

  • Examine your fresh foods. Fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables should look and smell fresh. Wilted or brown edged lettuce may be an indication that the product is old or has not been properly handled. Salad and cold entries should be cold and crisp. Inspect the buffet and salad bar.

  • The buffet should be really hot. Steam ought to be rising from hot foods on buffet tables, which should maintain food temperature at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Select your portion from the bottom of the steam table, where the temperature is highest.

  • Any foods that have run low should be replaced, not refilled. (Keep in mind that the foods in these spreads are handled by a lot of different customers. Some of who may not have all taken the proper hygiene precautions).

  • Cold foods should be set deep in ice. Every bowl should have its own long-handled tongs or ladle.

    10. Judge the attitude of management.
    If you have a problem, promptly notify management. If they don't seem to care about correcting the problem, then don't patronize the restaurant.

    BONUS TIP: If you’re eating at a fast food restaurant, Holtzman suggests you change the norm. In other words, order no pickles, no onions or no mayo, just as long as it is something that requires they prepare your food specially. This will ensure you’re getting a fresher sandwich.

To get your copy of The Panic-Proof Parent, click here. To get more great advice from Holtzman, click here.

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