By Food Safety Expert Peter DeLucia, MPA, Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Public Health Protection Westchester County Department of Health
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.
1. Check the Bathroom
First and foremost, visit the establishment’s bathroom before you make your order. When dining out or if even if you’re dining at home, you should always wash your hands before eating. Our hands are one of the ways – if not the number-one way – we spread disease. Bacteria and viruses, ranging from mostly harmless to extremely infectious, live on people's hands all the time.
A restaurant’s bathroom is a window into the entire operation: If it’s not kept clean and fully supplied with liquid soap, paper towels or a hand dryer, you can infer that the kitchen operations and sanitary practices of the employees are similarly deficient. And, more often than not, the kitchen staff utilizes the same bathroom. You wouldn’t want the kitchen staff handling your food with filthy hands.
2. Keep Sanitizer on Hand
In today's fast paced world, we sometimes don’t get the time to sit down and enjoy a meal. It’s convenient to grab a quick bite to eat in the car from the drive-thru window. If you choose to drive and dine, make sure to keep a travel size bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer in your car.
Influenza and other viruses can survive for two or more hours on hard surfaces such as door handles, steering wheels, radio buttons, cell phones, dashboards and the money you use to pay for your meal. How many hands have you shaken? How many things have you touched? If the restaurant does their job right, why contaminate your order with your own hands? Sanitize them before your grab your first French fry.
3. 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 health-department inspections online. More and more health departments have search engines 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 to get the inspections you are looking for. Look at the last three inspections to see 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 foodborne illness.