Could it be that you are putting your health at risk every time you eat out? Some doctors seem to think so. Apparently food borne illnesses have arisen in recent years, including bacterial infections that can fester and reproduce for months before becoming apparent. A doctor of my knowledge pinpointed the escalation of such illnesses to people’s increasing habits of eating out or purchasing pre-made food. But what is really going on in the mysterious kitchens of restaurants, from fast food chains, taco trucks and high-end establishments?
If you happen to live in LA, a big blue letter is affixed on the door of every restaurant, to indicate that the Health Department has inspected that location and deemed it a very safe place to eat (A), as having some problems (B) that can be easily corrected or eat at your own risk (C). In case of vermin infestations, lack of hot water or plumbing problems, the restaurant will be closed until the necessary measures have been taken. But the Health Department only visits restaurants every 6 months at best and it is true that a lot can go wrong with food.
Most reputable restaurants possess a kitchen culture that takes all the necessary precautions to keep food safe. The biggest threat is cross contamination – as in the same cutting board used to cut some raw chicken, quickly wiped and then reused to cut vegetables. Or a cook visiting the restrooms, not washing his or her hands at all or correctly and then going on to handle food. It’s a chefs’ job to continually educate the staff and keep a vigilant eye. But it’s most often the correct cooking, heating or cooling of food that can cause problems: slightly undercooked chicken, a turkey sandwich left in a slightly malfunctioning cold case for hours, a hollandaise sauce kept on the line during brunch at the wrong temperature can all cause havoc with your tummy. Food kept at the wrong temperature long enough can and will grow bacteria.
So, are you putting your health in the hands of strangers every time you eat out? Partially. Most kitchens I have seen are spotless but I have also been in some that left me horrified and they were not necessarily Chinese take outs in obscure mini-malls. Chains like McDonald’s are usually pretty safe because no food is actually prepared on the premises – everything is frozen and dropped in a fryer or on a griddle.
But if most commercial kitchens are well versed in the proper procedures of preparing and handling food, what happens in a home kitchen? Think about it – do you all possess different cutting boards, that you keep separate and use for different products (meat/fish/vegs)? How long has your germ infested dish sponge been sitting in your sink? Any loosely packaged meat on the top shelf of the fridge dripping on something below? Do you take the temperature of the food you cook? Do you wash your hands under 100 degrees water for 20 seconds every time you switch from one food category to the next? I didn’t think so.
Maybe the doctor is right and our habit of eating out at every opportunity (think of the dangers of sushi) is contributing to food borne illnesses but I am fairly sure that poor controlling at the manufacturing level and our own personal habits play a part. Has anybody ever driven home with left overs from a restaurant, forgotten them in the car and still reheated them many hours later and then consumed them? Yes, bad idea.