March 16

Worse than rats in the restaurant

9  comments

An editorial in today’s New York Times points out that there a lot worse for our health than rats scurrying across the floors of fast food restaurants.  What could be worse?  How about home cooked meals.

Rats in restaurants, while distasteful, are more a distraction than a disaster for public health. As reported in this newspaper, flies — each one a potential airborne disease carrier — are a more dire threat. So are cows, sheep and pigs, whose excrement can contaminate food at its source with E. coli, as was recently believed to be the case with California spinach and with vegetables served at Taco Bell. And to echo the punch line of many a nature documentary, the greatest threat to restaurant sanitation is man: salmonella, for example, is typically initiated or spread through improper hand-washing, food handling or cooking.
Restaurants, moreover, are not the primary source of the food we eat. Most meals, even in the dining-obsessed culture of New York City, are taken in the home. We tend to think of our own kitchens as clean, but research published in 2004 by Janet Anderson of Utah State University paints a different picture.
Professor Anderson filmed 100 people preparing a meat entree and a salad at home. The subjects were told they were being observed for chicken and meatloaf recipes, but the study was actually about food safety. Of the 100 cooks, fewer than 50 washed their hands before preparing food; 30 failed to clean their cutting boards; 82 undercooked the chicken; 46 undercooked the meatloaf; and 24 didn’t store raw meat on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator (to keep any leaking juices from dripping onto other food).
An earlier study, by Audits International of Highland Park, Ill., evaluated 106 home kitchens in 81 cities in the United States and Canada. It found that 99 percent violated at least one critical food safety standard. Yet home kitchens are not subject to health inspections.


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  1. “It found that 99 percent violated at least one critical food safety standard. Yet home kitchens are not subject to health inspections.”
    It’s amazing we’re all still alive… Eat at a hospital three times a day, 24/7 and I’ll wager that the chances of surviving are a lot slimmer.

  2. It sounds like they are saying “Home kitchens are not subject to health inspections YET.”
    We become more and more paranoid as our immune systems deteriorate. Just how many cases of food poisoning and other health problems do we actually have per year from home kitchens? Far less than the illness caused by commercial kitchens. Far as I know, we are more or less immune to most of our local pathogens. I resent the implication that I am too stupid to keep from poisoning my own family.
    I hope you don’t think I was implying it.  I was just putting up what I read that I thought would be of interest.
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  3. Oh.My.God. Home inspections!! LOL. My sister would say I would pass. She thinks I’m germophobic. (they come to my house to get water and I don’t want them to put the jugs, which have been on the floor, in my drainboard with my clean dishes) I don’t put thawing meat on the bottom shelf either. Then it can just drain into the drawer of vegetables! I do put it on a plate though. So, it isn’t dripping on anything.
    My mom thinks I have OCD because I do wash my hands a lot. I wash them before I take the clean clothes out of the washer and put them in the dryer. I wash them before I take and fold clothes from the dryer. However, I have fish, cats, dogs and a horse. And a kid.. I can’t always remember what I petted last! LOL And I don’t want any more cat hair on my clothes than I have to have.

  4. Applying restaurant food safety procedures to home kitchens is misleading. At home, everyone tends to already have the same bacteria/viruses as the others eating the food. Nothing new will be spread. The same cannot be said of a restaurant where the customers do not have the same germs that the food staffers have.
    I do undercook my various meats as I like them to be rarer than the safety regulations require. My cooked fowls tend to be slightly red at the bone and my ground beef tends to be slightly bloody. They taste better to me that way and I have never noticed being made ill from it. I have become ill after eating some restaurant foods.

  5. Interesting. Personally, I think we’re far too afraid of our own germs.
    As for hospital foods? That’s one part of clinical nursing I really don’t miss! Especially the night shifts!
    I agree about the hospital food; it’s got to be some of the most wretched on the planet.
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  6. Let’s take a poll among your readers. I would guess most lowcarbers eat and cook at home a lot more then the non-lowcarber. How many of us have gotten sick from our own home cooking? I never have.
    The restaurant industry needs to be inspected because a small infection can effect dozens of people, who can sue hundreds of people. At home, it’s your own fault and who are you gonna sue? Home inspections will never happen. We still have a government who thinks the spinach industry is at fault for E.coli infections.
    Also, Teresa (Comment 3)do you use antibacterial soap? I think over washing your hands with it causes more problems then protection. Its like over using antibiotics.

  7. I think the Times editorial is missing the point. In most cases, the bacteria are already present in the meat, think salmonella in chicken or E.Coli in beef. The more important item is to prevent
    the bacteria from reproducing. The longer the food is between room temperature and 120 F, the greater the bacterial activity. I’ve always been more paranoid about food that has been sitting around, as in leftovers from a party or going to a buffet half an hour before closing. This isn’t to
    minimize the importance of washing your hands prior to and after handling food.
    On a related note, I have noticed fewer digestive upsets since going onto a lower carb diet. Thank you for your time and space.
    Hi Mark–
    I think most people have less GI distress on low-carb diets.
    And I think the point of the Times article was that rats aren’t as bad as everyone makes them out to be.  They are kind of gross looking, to be sure, and no one wants to see them scurrying across the floor of a restaurant at which one contemplates dining.  But, they aren’t much different than squirrels, and a squirrel darting around in a restaurant would probably be thought of as cute.
    I once read in an anthropological paper elk and bison referred to as “charismatic megafauna.”  I suppose that means that rats could be characterized as uncharismatic minifauna. 
    Cheers–
    MRE 

  8. I think it’s all in what you are used to. Unlike a lot of folks, I’ve never suffered from tourista during my visits to Mexico mainly because I grew up on the border and ate across the line all the time. When I went with my sister to China to pick up her daughter, we were cautioned to use bottled or boiled water to brush our teeth, etc. and not to let water get into our mouths when we showered. I even had a bottle chock full of Cipro in my bag. (Mind you, this was two months after 9-11 when we went and people were stock-piling that stuff like crazy in the face of the anthrax scare. I never used any of it and still have the bottle with contents intact. I sometimes wonder what I could have gotten for it.) The baby, on the other hand, could drink formula made with water straight from the tap. I suspect her immune system is stronger than mine will ever be. And, yes, we were cautioned about the food, too, but I pretty much ate whatever I wanted and never had a problem.
    Hi Esther–
    I’ve never been to China, but one thing I consistently hear from people who have been there is that the food is great.
    Cheers–
    MRE 

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