Sunday, August 11, 2013
IS IT SAFER TO EAT AT EXPENSIVE RESTAURANTS?
The Safe Food Handbook: How to Make Smart Choices about Risky Food (now in 2nd edition and on Kindle), warns that eating out at restaurants, and, take-out, are generally more risky than eating at home. But is eating at expensive restaurants safer?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) about half of food-based illnesses originate in restaurants, which is more that the proportion of meals or food eaten there. This is why oncologists sometimes advise cancer patients to give up eating out until their immune systems recover. Others with weakened immune systems, including anyone over 65, may also want to keep this in mind.
There are a number of reasons for the increased riskiness of restaurant food. These range from worker illness to safety risks in the way mass-produced food is usually prepared (these are explained in more detail in a box on pp.22-23 in the book). True, in many countries, including in the U.S., restaurants are government inspected. Unfortunately that does not cure the problems, although hopefully, it reduces them.
I came across an analysis of 40,000 restaurant inspection reports by the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Among other things, they found that 34 percent of the restaurants had conditions that encouraged vermin, 29 percent had actual signs of rodents on the premises, 22 percent did not keep food cold at the proper temperature for safety, 17 percent did not protect the food from contamination and 19 percent had plumbing problems. And these were just some of the risk factors. And you can hardly argue that New York is some outpost of civilization! Just for comparison, I checked inspection statistics for San Francisco and Los Angeles. They were very similar.
In addition, we have an issue that I often refer to - food service worker health. Research has shown that a large percentage are carriers of bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes (pregnant women, beware!) even though they may show no symptoms. Also, such low paid employees often have no health insurance, and work while ill (see some of my previous posts on this issue).
Over the past couple of years, many of our friends have become ill from restaurant or take-out (usually deli) food. Their food poisoning did not originate on an overseas trip. No, it was caused by food right here in the U.S. And many of the places involved were high-end eateries. In one case, that particularly sticks in my mind, six people ate at what is probably the best restaurant in the area. The bill came to almost $4,500 dollars. Yes, you read that correctly. A lot of poor families could be fed for that amount. And, of the six people, four came down with food poisoning.
And this is not just a U.S. situation. If you are a New York Times reader, you may have seen an article this week (by Simon Romero) on the restaurant Antiquarius in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - one of Brazil's most exclusive restaurants. Inspectors raided it during the past week and found more than 50 pounds of expired food like ham, tripe, endive - and truly antique snails (that expired about a month ago!).
No, food poisoning is not limited to the cheaper restaurants. Particularly as economic downturns reduce diners, some are trying to reduce their costs by taking safety short cuts.
To your good health,