Question: With the recent reports of people developing foodborne illness after eating at certain restaurants, it’s made me a little worried about eating out. How can I be safe when dining out?
Answer: Foodborne illnesses have been in the news a lot lately, most recently with the cases of some 650 people who reported becoming ill with gastrointestinal problems after eating at a Chipotle restaurant in Powell, Ohio, last month.
It turns out that what made them sick was a toxin produced by bacteria called Clostridium perfringens, according to the Delaware General Health District. While food samples taken from the restaurant tested negative for the bacteria, stool samples collected from sickened customers contained the toxin, the agency said.
Clostridium perfringens is a foodborne pathogen that grows and produces a toxin when cooked foods, such as rice, meats and others, are held at unsafe temperatures, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even when the foods are reheated and the bacteria killed, the toxin is still active and can cause the disease.
Although a specific food source has not been identified in this case, ongoing food and stool tests are being conducted by the CDC to identify the culprit, the Delaware General Health District said.
Foodborne diseases are preventable, and no one should get ill from eating foods at home or in a restaurant, said Sanja Ilic, the state food safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) at The Ohio State University
“Consumers should have food safety in mind when they are choosing eating options,” Ilic said. “Things like food safety practices and cleanliness should play a role in consumers’ choice of restaurants.”
So how can you safely decide which restaurant to dine in to lessen your risk for developing a foodborne illness?
Check restaurant inspection reports
First things first. You can check a restaurant’s inspection scores at your city, county or state health department, advises the CDC. Most health departments should list restaurant inspection reports on their websites. You may also be able to call your local health department and request a copy of the inspection report of restaurants that are located in your area.
You can also check for certificates that show that kitchen managers have completed mandated food safety training, the CDC says. Following proper food safety training by food service workers can lessen the chance of spreading foodborne illnesses. You can also ask if workers are using gloves or utensils to handle foods such as deli meats and produce.
The CDC offers these other food safety tips when dining out:
Order food that’s properly cooked. Certain foods, including meat, poultry and fish, need to be cooked to a temperature high enough to kill harmful germs that may be present. If you’re served undercooked meat, poultry, seafood or eggs, send them back to be cooked until they are safe to eat.
Watch out for food served lukewarm. Cold food should be served cold, and hot food should be served hot. If you’re selecting food from a buffet or salad bar, make sure that the hot food is steaming, and the cold food is chilled. Germs that cause food poisoning grow quickly when food is in the danger zone, between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ask your server if raw or lightly cooked eggs are used in foods such as Caesar salad dressing, custards or hollandaise sauce. Raw or undercooked eggs can make you sick unless they’re pasteurized to kill germs.
It’s also important to remember that if you bring home leftovers, they need to be refrigerated within two hours after serving. And if it’s a hot day, you’ll need to get them refrigerated within one hour instead. This is to ensure that the leftovers don’t reach temperatures in the danger zone.
And lastly, while it may be tempting to eat that leftover pasta from a week ago that you forgot was in the fridge, don’t do it! Leftovers should be eaten within three to four days. Otherwise, they should be thrown out after that time to prevent developing a foodborne illness.
Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or firstname.lastname@example.org.