Tips for lowering your chances of getting a foodborne illness while eating out
When it comes to dining out or grabbing a fast-food bite, most food safety issues are out of your hands. Is the kitchen clean? Is cross-contamination prevented? Short of asking for a tour, you’ll never know. But there are actions you can take to reduce your risk of food poisoning, says Jeff Nelken, a food safety expert with more than a decade’s worth of experience preparing restaurants for health inspections.
Eateries don’t advertise unclean practices, but there are signs. Consider how clean your table, menu, and high chairs are. If they haven’t been wiped down, your server or the restaurant in general may not place importance on cleaning.
Similarly, a restaurant’s bathroom can reveal a lot about its overall cleanliness. And if you happen to spot servers using the restroom, take note of whether they wash their hands. Another clue: Do the servers enter the bathroom with their aprons on? That’s a major no-no, says Nelken, because toilet flushes can catapult pathogens onto aprons, and studies have shown certain germs can live there several weeks or more.
If you’re still unsure of a restaurant’s hygiene, do some research. “The health department may have inspection reports,” Nelken says. Whether those reports are publicly available may vary from one county to the next; talk to your local health department for more information.
Even clean restaurants can serve contaminated food, so lower your risk by ordering wisely. Improperly handled raw meats and fish, such as sushi, are often the cause of food poisoning. “To be a good diabetic, I’d be very wary of eating sushi because you don’t know the bacteria load on that product,” says Nelken, who has type 2 diabetes.
And don’t count on your sniffer to tip you off to less-than-fresh raw fish. “A lot of times fish is washed with lemon juice or rice wine vinegar to give it that fresh smell,” Nelken says. Instead, order fully cooked foods.
The risk for foodborne illness rises when food sits out, such as at buffets and salad bars. Though items may be kept warm or chilled, it’s impossible to know whether they’re cold or hot enough to be out of the “danger zone” (between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit), where pathogens multiply. Plus, buffets and salad bars are likely zones for diners to pass along pathogens from unwashed hands or sneezes.
Finally, ensure that any leftovers remain uncontaminated by boxing your own food to go. According to Nelken, partially eaten meals that return to the kitchen are more likely to pick up a pathogen than those that remain at the table.