When was the last time you heard about a foodborne illness outbreak in the news? So far this year there have been 14 multi-state outbreaks documented by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) including the outbreak associated with romaine lettuce that impacted over 200 people in 36 states, and the regional outbreak associated with cut melon that impacted almost 80 people in 9 states. Just last month, an outbreak took place at a Chipotle restaurant in central Ohio that sickened over 600 people. It seems like a week rarely goes by when we are not being cautioned about one potentially contaminated food or another!
Two weeks ago, I was contacted by a TV interviewer while the investigation of the Chipotle outbreak was still ongoing, and he asked me – given the recent incident and what seems to be an uptick in foodborne illness outbreaks – whether customers should be afraid to eat out. The short answer, in my opinion, is no – eating is something we need to do daily, so people need not be afraid to eat or to eat out. However, consumers should use common sense and take steps to keep food safe both when dining out and when preparing food at home.
The CDC offers four basic steps to follow to keep foods safe: clean, separate, cook and chill. Home cooks should always put these steps into practice when preparing food to eat or serve, and consumers should not be afraid to speak up if they see a violation of one of these steps while eating out. For example, if you are in a restaurant and you see an employee switch between handling food and handling trash or money without washing their hands and/or changing gloves in between tasks, that is a violation that needs to be reported to the restaurant manager. Likewise, if a hot dish that you order does not seem hot enough, or a cold dish does not seem cool enough, don’t be afraid to ask the restaurant staff to check the temperature of the food they are serving.
While foodborne illnesses are serious, they are largely preventable – as long as these four steps are routinely put into practice each time food is prepared and served. Even if foodborne illness does seem to be on the rise, as a recent article from CNN argues, that need not be the case as long as good food safety practices are routinely utilized by all who handle, prepare and serve our food.