Think Food Safety When Eating Outside The Home

Photo by Xenia, courtesy of

“Have you eaten out lately?” my friend asked. We usually compare notes about dining experiences.

I nodded.

“Have you gotten sick again?” he asked.

“No, not lately, fortunately,” I replied.

Three of my family members had endured middle-of-the-night illness after eating an evening meal we picked up from a restaurant. There’s nothing like tending to a sick child when you’re also sick. Even though it happened several years ago, the memory lingers.

Thinking back, the meat seemed lukewarm. If we had stayed at the restaurant, I would have let the server know, but we were already driving down the street and nearly home. Against all my intuition, we ate it anyway.

Next time I will trust my gut instinct.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends that we report incidents such as this to the local health department, so I called the health department as soon as I was able to report the incident. I was hoping other people wouldn’t get sick, too.

By definition, a foodborne illness outbreak occurs when two or more people get sick after eating the same food and the source is confirmed. We ate all the “evidence,” so there was no way to know for sure that the food was contaminated.

I let the health department know that I suspected that the food wasn’t held at the appropriate temperature, called “inadequate hot-holding” in inspector terms. The food code of the Food and Drug Administration requires a minimum hot-holding temperature of 135 degrees, after cooking to the appropriate temperature. The inspector promised to stop in and check out the situation.

Like many families, we enjoy eating out on occasion. Americans are eating out more than ever. Annual sales within the restaurant industry are more than $468 billion. Americans spend nearly half of their “food dollar” on food away from home, with many people handling the food along the way.

People expect safe food, and restaurants have a vested interest in providing safe food. Headlines about foodborne illness outbreaks aren’t good for business. One in six people in the U.S. becomes ill each year. More than 48 million people in the U.S. become ill from contaminated food from all sources every year and 3,000 die.

Restaurant inspection reports are public information. In some places, the reports are posted on Web sites. In others, restaurant grades, such as “A” or “B,” are prominently posted in the restaurant.

Here are some food safety tips for eating restaurant-prepared food:

  • Be your own inspector. Check out the overall cleanliness of the restaurant, as well as the workers’ food handling habits. Are they handling money then food without washing their hands?
  • If you can’t eat all the food and opt for a to-go box, be sure that you will be able to refrigerate the food within two hours of the time it was served to you. You could bring a cooler with ice if you have a long drive. Otherwise, leaving the food at the restaurant is safest.
  • Always reheat foods to 165 F. Don’t reheat foods in the Styrofoam to-go container in a microwave oven. Chemicals from the container can migrate into the food during reheating. Transfer the food to a microwave-safe container.
  • If using a microwave oven to reheat, be sure to stir the food and allow the food to stand a couple of minutes. Microwave ovens don’t always reheat food evenly.

Here’s a quick and easy dip recipe from the Pennsylvania Nutrition Network. You don’t have to leave your home to enjoy it.

South of the Border Dip

1 c. nonfat sour cream
1 c. nonfat plain yogurt
1 c. salsa

Mix the sour cream, yogurt and salsa. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve with baked tortilla chips, crackers or your favorite raw vegetables.

Makes 16 servings of 2 tablespoons each. A serving has 25 calories, no fat and 5 grams of carbohydrate.