A Health Inspector’s Guide To Dining Out

Food safety expert Peter DeLucia explains how to stay healthy when dining out.

Posted on | By Peter DeLucia, MPA
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Dining Out Dangers, Pt 1 (5:53)

We all enjoy going out for a bite to eat, but we don’t want to end up getting sick in the process! Here are a few simple tips that can help you make some smart decisions when dining out.

Clean bathroom = safer, sanitary restaurant

Every Health Inspector knows that more often than not a restaurant’s bathroom is a window into the entire operation. If it’s not clean, brightly lit and fully supplied with liquid soap and paper towels or a hand dryer, you can infer that the kitchen operations and sanitary practices of the employees are similarly deficient. Also, more often than not, the kitchen and waitstaff utilize the same bathroom. Take a second to pause and think about that. If the people who handle your food cannot properly wash their hands after using the toilet, it’s time to choose another restaurant!

They did what to my ice?

Most people do not give much thought to the ice in their drink, but ice is a food and it can transmit disease, so it must be handled properly. Ice is considered a ready to serve food that cannot be touched with bare hands because you do not heat ice to a temperature that will kill pathogens before you serve it. Countless times throughout my career, I have personally witnessed food service staff drag a glass through an ice bin with their bare hands. This is a critical violation because this action inoculates the rest of the ice in the bin with whatever germs happen to be on their hands. Many germs will survive quite well on ice including both bacteria and viruses. So keep a sharp eye out when you are ordering a drink to make sure your server uses an ice scoop to fill your glass. 

How clean is the menu?

If you take a second to think about it, one of the most frequently handled things in a restaurant is the menu! They fall on the floor, get stepped on, sneezed on, well you get the picture! Working in the health department – we know that cold and flu viruses like the noro-virus can survive for not only hours but even days on hard surfaces. Many germs can survive if these menus are not cleaned properly with a sanitizer. Some data has shown that paper menus do not harbor as many germs and are disposed of by restaurants on a frequent basis. Regardless, it’s impossible to see what’s really on your menu with your naked eye. Just follow this simple rule: When eating out, after you have placed your order, it’s the perfect opportunity to excuse yourself and visit the restroom to properly wash your hands before you eat your meal! If a restroom is not available, make sure you use some hand sanitizer! So, no need to start wearing plastic gloves at your favorite restaurant!

Are your hands really clean?

Before you eat, and after you handled your menu, you need to thoroughly wash your hands. First get a couple of paper towels before you start and put them on the counter. Now, make sure you use soap and warm water and aggressively rub your hands for at least 20 seconds or about the time it takes you to sing the happy birthday song to yourself two times. Then use those paper towels to turn off the water, dry your hands and open the door as you leave. Think about the dirty hands that touched the faucets and all the customers that didn’t even bother to wash their hands before proceeding to exit the restroom. Viruses like influenza, noro-virus and other germs can survive for two or more hours on hard surfaces such as faucet handles, counters, door handles and menus. Why contaminate your clean hands! You should also keep a travel-size bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer for those occasions when proper hand washing is just not possible. Do your part to prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria and frequently wash your hands.

Finally, if you have the time, go online!  Restaurant health inspection reports are public records. One of the best ways to see what’s going on “behind the scenes” at your favorite restaurant is to check out a few of their latest heath department inspections. More and more health departments have search engines right on their websites that you can use to get a look at what violations have been cited in a particular food service establishment. If they do not have these records online you should be able to email them a simple request form so you can get the inspections you are looking for. At a minimum, you need to look at the last three inspections, in order to recognize if the operator is a chronic violator or just happened to have one bad inspection. Also, pay close attention to violations noted as “Critical," Red or Imminent.” These types of violations are considered public health hazards and have the potential to result in food-borne illness.       

Article written by Peter DeLucia, MPA
Food safety expertAssistant Commissioner, Bureau of Public Health Protection Westchester County Department of Health