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Don’t Let Foodborne Bacteria Bug Your Dinner

And so why do you care that September is the 17th Annual Food Safety Education Month, with an aggressive information and training campaign targeted directly to food-service workers?

The numbers say it all.

According to a January 2010 article in Journal of Food Protection about food-safety practices of food-service workers, meals prepared outside of the home have been implicated in up to 70 percent of traced outbreaks in the developed world.

In other words, it can be twice as risky, if not more, to dine out than to eat food prepared at home.

Yet in today’s fast-paced world, more and more people are turning to restaurants and other food-service establishments to grab a quick bite to eat. In the United States alone, the National Restaurant Association estimates that the industry serves 130 million people on a typical day.

Holidays are often even busier times for restaurants. According to new research conducted by the association, 35 percent of American consumers will dine out and/or use restaurant takeout or delivery food this Labor Day weekend.

Numbers like that show how important it is for food-service workers to know the ABCs of food safety.

“In food service, you’re making food for hundreds of people,” said Benjamin Chapman, Food Safety Extension specialist at North Carolina State University, contrasting that scenario with making food at home for family members and guests.

For consumers, it comes down to trust.

“There are very few foods we eat that we don’t put our trust in someone else, whether it be at a farmers market or a large grocery store,” said Chapman. “And when we go to restaurants, we’re putting our trust in even more people.”

Just as consumers are often pressed for time, so, too, are food-service workers, a segment of the workforce known for its high turnover rate.

No wonder then that back in 1984, the National Restaurant Association launched a food-safety education campaign designed to provide workers with information and training about food safety. Each year, a new theme and free training activities and posters are created for the restaurant and food-service industry to help reinforce proper food-safety practices and procedures.

“Food-safety is an everyday activity in restaurants and is therefore of the highest priority to restaurant operators,” said Annika Stensson, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association.

This year’s campaign, “Lessons Learned from the Health Inspection,” is broken into 5 weekly sessions, with each one focusing on different food-safety basics and how they apply to the health-inspection process.

In other words, what should a food-service worker be doing — or not be doing — when the health inspector arrives? And that translates, of course, into what the food worker should be doing during the workday all through the year.

According to Food Service Warehouse’s website, health inspections usually occur two to four times a year. And though it may be tempting for a restaurant owner or manager to put off certain repairs or overlook a few minor health violations in hopes that the inspector will not visit that day, the better practice is to treat every day as the day an inspector will show up.

“Even one case of food poisoning is enough to destroy a restaurant’s reputation,” warns the company’s website.

In addition to explaining what to do when the health inspector arrives, the NRA sessions also provide information on how to handle food, clean and sanitize, store food, and handle equipment and utensils.

The website about the campaign says that the training and education materials “communicate concepts clearly and quickly to employees, and the interactive activities can be completed in restaurants in 10 minutes or less.”

Taking the wide diversity of backgrounds that food-service workers come from into account, NRA’s Stensson said the program is developed to be easy to follow and understand, with interactive exercises to involve the trainee no matter what background and age.

As part of this year’s month-long campaign, free weekly training activities, food-safety tips and posters are available here. All of these materials are based on the association’s ServSafe food-safety training and certification program, which has awarded more than 4.6 million food-safety certifications.

The association is also giving restaurants that participate in the campaign a toolkit they can use to let their customers know about their efforts to keep food from being contaminated with harmful pathogens. The kit includes the initiative’s logo, a news release for restaurants, sample Tweets and email templates that promote involvement in the program.

Although the campaign is celebrated in September, the National Restaurant Association says that food safety is a priority year-round and points to ongoing food-safety programs  designed for managers and food-service workers.

“There is nothing more important than the health and safety of our guests at restaurants around the country, and National Food Safety Education Month highlights our industry’s commitment to serving healthful, delicious and safe meals every day,” said Dawn Sweeney, president and CEO of the association, in a press release.

Other Strategies

Watch for the “red flags.”

Even if you’re not a food-safety expert, there are some red flags to look for when dining out.  With that in mind, Washington State’s Department of Health provides helpful food-safety tips for consumers.

As a starter, check with your local health department to find out how restaurants did in the most recent inspection. (That information is often available online but can usually also be obtained in written form at the department.) But just because a restaurant passed with flying colors, it doesn’t mean a mistake can’t happen. For that reason, consumers should follow these tips provided by the department:

— Order wisely. If you’re ordering a hamburger, for example, tell the waiter/waitress that you want it well done. If it’s not well-done, send it back. Avoid certain foods such as sprouts, undercooked meats or eggs, and raw oysters if you or someone you’re with are at high risk for foodborne illness –infants and children under 5, older people over 65, pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems, and people traveling outside the country.

— Read the menu and signs. Restaurants are required to let diners know if they’re serving foods such as raw oysters, unpasteurized juice, raw milk, raw milk cheeses, undercooked eggs, meat, and fish. (In many cases, this sort of information is in very small print at the bottom of the menu.) Just because the restaurant is serving these foods and beverages does not mean they are safe to eat or drink.

— Ask questions. Don’t be shy. Someone in the establishment should be able to tell you how your foods were prepared.

— Let your voice be heard. Again, don’t be shy. Tell the manager when you notice food-safety concerns — or give a compliment to the manager when you notice safe food handling.

— Know the food-safety requirements.  Each state has different requirements, but  in most cases, food-service
workers are trained to avoid handling ready-to-eat foods such as toast, sandwiches, and salad with their bare hands. Instead, they must use gloves, tongs, or other barriers.

— Check out the temperature. Foods such as meats, sliced melons, cooked vegetables,  cooked rice, and cooked noodles must be kept either hot or cold. If your food is not as hot or cold as it should be, send it back.

— Worker cleanliness. In many cases, food workers must wash their hands twice after using the restroom–once in the restroom and then immediately upon returning to the kitchen.

As the person dining out, here are some good food-safety tips to follow:

— Wash your hands before you eat. Hot water and soap should always be available in restrooms. If it isn’t, let the manager know.

— Stop eating if food tastes, looks, or smells bad.

— Refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible — within 2 hours.

— Contact the Health Department if you have complaints or concerns about food safety at a restaurant or other eating establishment.

Posting Grades

Some cities require restaurants to post the “grades” they receive for cleanliness during a health inspection in a place where diners or potential diners can see them. In New York City, for example, restaurants are required to post letter grades based on inspection scores. Signs bearing A, B or C ratings are issued to the city’s more than 24,000 restaurants to publicly announce their cleanliness.

A blue A is the highest grade, a green B signifies less sanitary conditions but is still a passing grade. A yellow C is a failing grade.

According to a fact sheet on the city’s Health Department website the department is issuing letter grades to help consumers make informed choices about where to eat out.

“Consumer awareness creates a powerful new incentive for restaurants to maintain the highest food safety standards,” says the fact sheet.

Diners can also go to a restaurant inspection site to see the health-inspection results for each of the city’s 24,000 restaurants.

Six months after New York City started giving letter grades to restaurants, a higher-than-expected 57 percent of restaurants received an A. Using that as an example, the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said that “the system has achieved its intended effect of spurring restaurants to improve their cleanliness and food safety.”

Other cities, including Los Angeles, have similar grading systems.

For the most part, health inspection results are public record and available in various forms, such as online and window-postings, although that can vary by city, county and state.

Their Stories

Several years ago, Benjamin Chapman, Food Safety Extension specialist at North Carolina State University, and a team of researchers designed a project for food-service workers that used daily food-safety infosheets. Each one had a media story about a food-poisoning outbreak, as well as attention-grabbing graphics. The section, “What Can You Do,” connected the media story about an outbreak with what the workers could do to prevent it.

Chapman said that an important part of the project was that the infosheets focused on consequences and food handler behaviors — not on abstract ideas.

“That’s one of the challenges,” Chapman told Food Safety News, talking about the importance of having food-service workers understand the consequences. “You want them to understand that if they don’t do something to prevent food poisoning, people could get very sick or die.”  He also believes that what’s missing in many national food-safety training programs is the fact that food-service workers generally work as part of a team. That in itself calls for training that keys in on indirect cross-contamination from equipment or utensils, for example.

In watching videotapes of workers who were provided with the project’s infosheets (they agreed to be videotaped), Chapman said he was surprised to see how much indirect cross-contamination can occur when multiple food handlers used common food contact surfaces, utensils, or equipment. For that reason, he believes that food-safety training should also factor in the teamwork that’s involved in preparing food.

New Food Safety Law

In Nov. 2010, when the Senate passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, the National Restaurant Association applauded that action. In a press release after the Senate vote, the association said the legislation “will improve the safety of the food purchased by restaurant operators.


Although most restaurant owners say that food safety is one of their major goals, some don’t go far enough in making sure their workers are properly trained.

News stories abound. And lawsuits are filed.

A recent example is the class action lawsuit filed in mid-August against the Olive Garden restaurant in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where a food server who was infected with hepatitis A potentially exposed thousands of diners to the virus.

The virus is often spread through food contaminated with fecal matter of an infected person.

North Carolina health officials have reported that 3,000 people received immunizations to protect them from being infected.

In a press release about the lawsuit, Marler Clark attorney David Babcock said if “Olive Garden had required its employees to be immunized — or better yet, paid for employees to receive the hepatitis A vaccine — thousands of people would not have unnecessarily spent time and money protecting themselves from infection.

Bill Marler of Marler Clark is the publisher of Food Safety News. On Sept. 20, he will be speaking at the National Restaurant News, Food Safety Symposium about how restaurant owners can keep food safety liability and litigation to a minimum in their businesses.

© Food Safety News
  • Jan

    Until states raise minimum wages and restaurants give kitchen workers paid sick leave, restaurant workers will continue to come to work even when they are ill. All the food-handling training in the world won’t prevent foodborne illness that’s the result of ill people coming to work because they need their very modest wages.

  • As a Registered Environmental Health Specialist who inspects retail food establishments let me tell you what you should do when I arrive for an inspection. You shouldn’t have to do anything different!!!! First thing I see is the scramble, I get worried, because that’s an indication that they either are doing things wrong or have something to hide.
    Most of the establishments I inspect welcome me, invite me back into the kitchen right away, because they aren’t looking at me as the enemy but as an asset to help their business. It’s a lot easier doing this and as much education as needed than doing foodborne illness investigations or fielding complaint calls from the public.

  • Minkpuppy

    As a federal meat inspector, I agree with Jim–if I see scrambling when I walk into a meat plant, the red flags go up immediately. If you’re doing things right, then you shouldn’t have to do anything different when the inspector arrives.
    Once the establishments get to know me, they relax a lot and realize that I really am there to help, not just “bust them” for making mistakes. Mistakes will happen, what is important is how they correct and prevent them in the future.
    After suffering a very recent bout of GI illness myself, I was instructed not to do any cooking at home so I didn’t spread it to my hubby by accident. I also STAYED HOME until it was over because I’m around meat and meat products all day. It’s very important for restaurants and food processors to understand that an employee that is vomiting and/or has diarrhea should not be handling food under any circumstances. Food workers should not be penalized for sick days when food safety is at stake.

  • John Ford

    Minkpuppy, Its hard enough to get staff to work at the best of times – let alone if they were vomiting over customers whilst having diarrhoea. Hope you have a more realistic understanding of hygiene issues.