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Preventing illness and death from food poisoning remains a major public health challenge. This is because many people don't think about food safety until food-related illness affects them or a family member. Many times food illness is traced to food consumed outside the home – restaurants, work, and school canteens. Each time you buy from a commercial food vendor you are putting your abdominal health in the hands of total strangers. It's important to focus on how to dine out safely now that more people depend on outside catering for most or all meals.
The responsibility of training employees in food safety, and the consistent use of safe food handling methods rest on all restaurateurs, from the small shed on the roadside to the state of the art restaurant in a five star hotel. A single outbreak of food-borne disease can reduce a restaurant’s patronage or even drive it out of business, if the outbreak is identified and publicised. Unfortunately most people who experience a food-borne illness don’t consult a doctor, unless it becomes really, really unbearable. Another point to note is that since it usually takes two days or longer for symptoms to occur after eating contaminated food, the last meal is usually blamed, whereas it could have been something taken much earlier.
Unlike spoilage bacteria that makes food foul smelling, off colour or slimy, disease causing bacteria (pathogenic) don’t affect appearance, smell or taste of food. Pathogenic bacteria can be transferred to food from different places, including soil from the farm, an animal’s intestinal tract in the slaughterhouse, contaminated trucks, contaminated cutting boards, and unwashed hands. In view of the fact that all foods are potentially contaminated, it’s absolutely important to store, cook and serve according to government-established food safety guidelines.
Let say, for instance, you order grilled chicken and salad at a nearby fast food restaurant, it's impossible to know whether:
· Your server washed his hands with soap and water after using the bathroom.
· The chicken was properly refrigerated and cooked thoroughly.
· The cooking temperature got high enough to kill any germs that might have been present.
· The chef used the same utensil on the raw and cooked chicken.
· The carrots, tomatoes, onions, lettuce and other greens were thoroughly washed before reaching the salad bar.
· The chef who prepared the salad sneezed or coughed on the carrots while chopping.
In spite of the unknown, there are steps you can take to minimise your risk of getting a food-borne illness when dining out. All you need are your powers of observation and some basic food safety knowledge. Find below some points you may need to consider when dining out.
1. Status of your health
Your current status is important when dining out. For instance if you, or a member of your party, are at high risk for a food borne illness, you may wish to avoid ordering risky foods such as under-cooked beef, chicken or turkey, unpasteurised fruit juices, raw salad vegetables, raw or under-cooked eggs, raw shellfish. In addition, other risk factors include:
· Being younger than five years or older than 75.
· Being pregnant.
· If immune system is suppressed from a disease, such as AIDS or taking medication that impairs the immune system.
· If suffering from certain chronic diseases, such as emphysema or heart failure.
· If on antacids, which reduce stomach acidity.
· If on antibiotics, which wipe out all or most of the ‘good bacteria’ that inhabit your intestinal tract.
In some cases, a risky food can be hidden in the midst of other ingredients. For example, if you order a vegetable salad drowned in freshly made mayonnaise, ask your server whether raw or pasteurised eggs are used, if you are allergic to raw eggs for instance.
2. Wash your hands
You can greatly minimise your risk for food borne illness and many other contagious diseases by washing your hands frequently with soap and water, particularly before eating and after visiting the toilet, or touching an animal. After washing your hands, dry them thoroughly with a paper towel or hot air dryer, if available. If not, let it dry naturally. On your way out of a public restroom, avoid touching the bathroom door with your hand. Push it open with your foot or hip, or use a paper towel, a piece of toilet paper to turn the knob or pull the handle.
3. Clean toilets
In many restaurants, employees and customers use the same toilets. There should be plenty of soap, paper towels, and toilet paper. The water should also be running, the toilets should flush and the floors clean of debris. There are some toilets you enter and you feel like sitting on the floor because they are so clean and smell fresh, while others you just want to dash in, and make a quick exit. A clean, pleasant toilet suggests that employees will probably pay attention to detail elsewhere in the restaurant, such as the kitchen. If there are no paper towels or soap in the toilet, if the hot-air dryer is broken, if the sink drain is blocked or if the rubbish bins are overflowing (or not even there), if the toilet is not flushing, it is your responsibility to report the problem to the manager in a calm but firm manner. Most times they will listen as competition is getting fierce in the fast food business. If your complaint is ignored; a potential loyal customer is lost.
4. Clean dining area
Clean floors and sparkling surfaces suggest that management is concerned with cleanliness, orderliness, and has a sense of pride and professionalism. These visible virtues suggest that the food is being handled with care behind closed doors.
5. Tidy servers
Servers’ uniforms and aprons should be reasonably clean, their hair should be swept back or a cap won, and servers should be washing their hands frequently. Open cuts or sores on hands can harbour bacteria that potentially can be transferred to food, plates and eating utensils. So have them covered and wear disposable gloves.
6. Tidy tables
The most sanitary way to clean tables and counter tops is with a disinfecting spray and soft paper towels. Unless cloths and sponges are freshly laundered or dipped in a fresh disinfectant, they can harbour pathogens, which may be transferred to hands, tables, dishes and eating utensils.
7. Visible food preparation areas
In take away eateries, where food are handled visibly, notice whether food handlers are washing their hands frequently, especially after touching their hair, clothing, or face or blowing their nose. A fresh pair of disposable plastic gloves should be used for each order. The same spoon should not be used to scoop rice and meat sauce, while the same spatula should not be used to transfer a raw hamburger patty to the grill and a cooked burger to a plate.
8. Spot-free utensils and dishes
Forks, spoons and knives should be clean and free of water stains. If you see evidence of lipstick on a glass, or even old food on your plate setting, insist on replacements.
9. Temperature control
Salads and cold entries should be crisp and cold to the touch. Wilted or brown-edged lettuce leaves don’t bode well for the freshness and safety of salad bar items. Hot foods should be steaming when delivered to your table, or when you go to pick it up. If food that is supposed to be cold or hot is served at room temperature, send it back to the kitchen or order something else.
10. Really hot buffets
Steam ought to be rising from hot foods on buffet tables, which should maintain food temperature at 140 degrees F or higher. Try to select your portion from the bottom of the steam table where the temperature is highest.
All these may sound a bit of an ‘obsession’. Initially may be, but as you get used to the safety consciousness routine, it comes naturally as eating your lunch.
Photo Credit: Creative Commons.