Published on 09/11/03

Avoid foodborne illnesses in restaurants

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

When an outbreak of foodborne illness strikes, such as the recent one involving the Golden Corral restaurant in Kennesaw, Ga., people pay more attention to restaurant hygiene.

Restaurant employees have to practice hand-washing, good personal hygiene and proper sanitation, says Judy Harrison, a food safety expert with the University of Georgia College of Consumer and Food Sciences.

But people eating at restaurants can follow some guidelines to reduce their risk, she said.

Check the scores

"It pays to look at sanitation scores," Harrison said. "If I go to a restaurant and the score is lower than 80, I turn around and hightail it out of there."

Every county in the state conducts routine inspections of all of the food service establishments. A restaurant is given 100 points at the beginning of the inspection, and for each health code violation, points are deducted.

"A lower score means more cause for concern," Harrison said. "It pays to see what they actually are scoring low on. Don't just look at the numbers. You have that right to examine it up close and personal. If you see things that are immediate hazards, you might want to choose a different restaurant."

The bathroom theory

Another rule of thumb Harrison uses is the bathroom-kitchen theory.

"When you go in, look for a clean restaurant and clean bathrooms," Harrison said. "If the bathrooms are clean, that's a pretty good indication that the kitchen is probably clean, too. And if the bathrooms in a restaurant are filthy, then chances are the kitchen is not a lot better. It implies that they don't care enough about good sanitation and cleanliness."

The bottom line, Harrison said, is that good hygiene and clean facilities are up to the restaurant employees, managers and owners.

"It needs to be a situation where the restaurant trains its employees to practice good food safety practices like hand washing, keeping work areas and work surfaces clean and handling food properly, and the manager follows up to make sure it's being done," she said.

"No restaurant is going to be perfectly tidy during a mealtime rush," she said. "But if you look around and the place looks grungy, it probably is grungy."

There are other obvious signs to look out for.

"Certainly if you observe an employee not washing their hands after going to the bathroom, tell the manager," Harrison said. "Consumers have the right to demand cleanliness and expect it."

Cooked food

Finally, the other way to avoid foodborne illness in restaurants is to avoid undercooked food.

"When you have a choice of how meats are cooked, choose medium or well done," Harrison said. "If you're served food that seems obviously undercooked, send it back or ask to speak to the manager."

(Cat Holmes is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.