Tips For Selecting A Safe Restaurant

By Judith A. Wakefield

Indian River County Extension Service

When you are eating out in a restaurant - whether itís an upscale restaurant or a fast food diner, it should be both a safe and enjoyable experience. All food service establishments are required to follow food safety guidelines set by the 1999 Florida Statutes set by the Division of Hotels and Restaurants of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

According to DBPR, all food service managers who are responsible for the storage, preparation, display and serving foods to the public must successfully pass a Food Manager Certification Examination. Each establishment having four or more employees must have at least one certified food manager present at any time. Locally, DBPR provides the training and testing at the Vero Beach branch of Indian River Community College. In some counties the Extension Family and Consumer Science Agents provide the training and testing.

Local restaurants are no longer inspected by the local County Environmental Health Office. This office is responsible for inspecting kitchens in schools and hospitals now, not restaurants. Restaurant are required to be checked at least twice a year by inspectors from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations, their office is in the Orlando area.

Customers in a restaurant can request to see the last inspection report or you can request a copy by contacting the District 4 Department of Business and Professional Regulation at 1-800-375-6975 or writing them and requesting a copy of a report at Suite 290, 941 West Morse Blvd. Winter Park, FL 32789-3700.

You can also take action on your own to insure your foodís safety. Keep these Fight BAC! Rules in mind: Clean, Cook, Chill. These apply to restaurants as well as home food preparation.


Selecting a restaurant that is clean and follows food safety guidelines in its daily management is not an easy process. In most cases we canít see into the kitchen to see what it looks like. About all we can go on is to determine the general condition of the restaurant environment. Sure, you donít eat off the floor, but how the manager keeps the place up may be an indication of the amount of pride they take in preparing your food.

Check the cleanliness of the exterior, entrance and dining room. Are the tables clean, is the floor clean? Is the equipment at the waitersí station neat and clean? If not, it may be better to dine somewhere else. A dirty dining room may indicate a dirty kitchen, and a dirty kitchen may lead to unsafe food.

Check the bathrooms, a restaurant that doesnít keep itís bathrooms clean most likely isnít very concerned about cleanliness. All restaurant bathrooms should have warm water, soap and a sanitary means of drying the hands. If there is no soap or no towels, ask the manager to restock.

An establishment that appears neat and clean generally gives the impression that the management cares about doing things right and well. However, cleanliness of the building does not always correlate with safe food handling practices, nor does it guarantee the food is safe.

Take a look at your servers. Are they clean looking? Most important, do their hands and fingernails look clean? Do they keep their hands away from their face and hair. Food borne illness can be passed person-to-person or from the bathroom by unwashed hands.

Plates, glasses, and utensils should be clean and spot free. If they have dried-on food, finger prints or lipstick on glasses or cups, then the dishwasher is likely on the blink. Ask for clean replacements or move on down the road.

Look at how the waitresses/waiters handle your eating utensils. Do they hold glasses or cups by the top edge - where your mouth is supposed to touch it? This is an indication of poor training and follow-up of proper table waiting techniques. Do they handle eating utensils by the handles or the part you will be cutting or eating from? If they do - if itís a cold beverage and they touched the top edge, ask for a straw; if itís eating utensils, ask for a clean one.

Counter staff who serve beverages and wrapped or packaged foods and waiters and waitresses are not required to wear hair restraints, but those working in the kitchen are.

If the chef/cook should come out into the dining room and he/she is wearing an apron, is the apron clean or dirty? They are supposed to change them when they become soiled. A dirty apron shows a lack of attention to detail.

If the restaurantís general appearance raises any doubts about the attention to cleanliness, order very carefully or choose another restaurant. According to Mary Mennes, University of Wisconsin, when in doubt, order foods that are cooked just before serving. For example, a hamburger or a grilled steak is likely to be safer than barbecued beef, Swiss steak, beef stew, or roast beef. Those items may easily have been held at the wrong temperatures or for too long a time, or improperly cooked or reheated. Order a grilled cheese sandwich rather than a ham or tuna salad, broiled or fried fish instead of casseroles. And for desert, choose fruit or fruit pies rather than cream, custard or pumpkin pies.


The Food and Drug Administrationís Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition suggests that no matter where you eat out, always order your food "well done." Remember that foods like meat, poultry, fish, and eggs need to be cooked thoroughly to kill off harmful bacteria. When youíre served a meal, check how well itís cooked before you eat it. Make sure itís served to you piping hot and thoroughly cooked, and if itís not, send it back.

If the food on a buffet isnít hot enough to steam, you may want to pass it up. Hot foods should be at at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit on the buffet or when served to your table. Most foods require cooking to higher temperatures than 140 degrees before they are put on the table, but 140 degrees is the minimum safe temperature for holding hot food.

When food service workers are refilling food containers on the buffet they are not supposed to add new food to food thatís already in the container. Theyíre supposed to replace it with a fresh container of food.

Donít eat undercooked or raw foods, such as raw oysters or raw or undercooked eggs. Undercooked or raw eggs can be a hidden hazard in some foods like Caesar salad, custards and some sauces. If these foods are made with commercially pasteurized eggs, however, they are safe. If you are unsure about the ingredients in a particular dish, ask before ordering it.


Cold foods should be cold. Foods that are required to be cold to prevent growth of microorganisms should be 40 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Foods left at room temperatures can often grow harmful bacteria in as little as 2 hours. If foods arenít the right temperature, donít eat them.

Fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables should look and smell fresh. Wilted salads may be an indication that the product is old or has not been properly handled.

Take-Out Foods

If youíre planning on purchasing take-out food such as fried chicken or barbecued beef, eat them within 2 hours of pickup. If youíre getting them for an outing such as a picnic buy cooked foods ahead of time to chill them in the refrigerator before packing them into the cooler.

The Doggie Bag

It seams like meal portions are getting bigger and bigger these days. A lot of people are packing up these leftovers in take-home containers to eat later at home. Care must be taken when handling these leftovers. If you will not be arriving home within 2 hours of being served, it is safer to leave the leftovers at the restaurant.

If the temperature is 85 degrees or higher, food should be refrigerated within one hour. Remember that the inside of a car can get very warm here in Florida. Bacteria may grow rapidly, so it is always safer to go directly home after eating and put your leftovers in the refrigerator.

Listen To Other Peopleís Opinions

Listen for comments from people who are leaving a restaurant and advice from friends who have eaten in the restaurant. But keep in mind, due to differences in individual preferences, take friendsí opinions with a "grain of salt", the writer knows people who refuse to eat at a certain restaurant where they got one "bad meal" when the writer has eaten there many times and never had a bad meal.

If you are concerned about some aspect of food preparation and serving in a restaurant ask to speak to the manager. Approach him/her in a non-threatening manner, for instance say you are concerned about .... rather than being negative.

Common Myths and Misunderstandings

Following are myths we associate with restaurants and the corrections from the King County Washington Public Health Department.

1. "Handling money and then handling food without washing hands first can cause food borne illness."

The kinds of germs that grow in and on food cannot live on money. Money does not provide the environment necessary for germs to live and/or grow: food to eat, moisture (something to drink), warm temperatures and time. The Indian River County Environmental Health Department also backed this up. Although money is dirty when we touch it, the number of bacteria is not as large as we would expect because it cannot multiply on the money itself. Once a food service worker handles the money the bacteria can grow on his/her hands and they should be washed frequently. Food service workers who wear gloves should change the gloves whenever they change from one job to another. Gloves can become just as dirty as hands can.


2. "Itís disgusting to find hair in my food. Food workers should have their hair in nets so that never happens."

It may be disgusting to find hair in your food, but it will not make you sick. Food workers must have their hair restrained from hanging in their face, and many wear caps or head bands, hair nets are not the only option. If there is a hair in your food just ask to have it replaced.

3. "This place is not spotless, therefore, the food must not be safe to eat."

In addition to cleanliness, food safety practices should be evaluated to determine whether food is safe. Hot foods must be hot, cold foods must be cold, food workers washing hands and utensils cleaned well between raw and ready-to-eat food preparation are more important indicators that food is being handled safely.

4. "You can tell if food will make you sick because it will smell bad, taste bad, have mold on it, or be slimy."

No. Bad smell and slime are signs that the food has lost its quality, but not that it has the germs to cause food borne illness. The germs and toxins that cause food borne illness do not change the smell or taste of the food. You cannot see if the food is contaminated. Only proper preparation, cooking and storage lowers the risk of food borne illness.

5. "Only animal-origin foods are potentially hazardous."

Potentially hazardous foods are responsible for most food borne illness. These include not only dairy products, shell eggs, meats, poultry, fish, and seafood, but baked or boiled potatoes, cooked beans, rice & potatoes, tofu and other soy protein foods, raw seed sprouts, or some synthetic ingredients and support the growth of food borne disease bacteria.. Unpasteurized juice has been implicated recently.

Foods Seniors are Advised Not to Eat

Young children, pregnant women and senior citizens need to be careful with what they eat. Why are seniors more susceptible to food borne illness? Everyoneís health is different, including his or her ability to fight off disease. But. According to the US Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, immune systems weaken as we age.

The immune system is one of the most important mechanisms for fighting disease and preserving health, so a decrease in the level of disease-fighting cells is a significant factor in the number of infections that may occur. In addition, stomach acid also decreases as we get older - and stomach acid plays an important role in reducing the number of bacteria in our intestinal tracts - and the risk of illness. Plus underlying illnesses such as diabetes, some cancer treatments, and kidney disease may increase a personís risk of food borne illness.

To reduce risks of illness from bacteria in food, seniors (and others who face special risks of illness) are advised not to eat:

Raw fin fish and shellfish, including oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops

Raw or unpasteurized milk or cheese

Soft cheeses such as Feta, Brie, Camembert, blue-veined, and Mexican-style cheese. (Hard cheeses, processed cheeses, cream cheese, cottage cheese, or yogurt need not be avoided.)

Raw or lightly cooked egg or egg products including salad dressings, cookie or cake batter, sauces, and beverages such as egg nog. (Foods made from commercially pasteurized eggs are safe to eat.)

Raw meat or poultry

Raw sprouts (alfalfa, clover, and radish)

Unpasteurized or untreated fruit or vegetable juice (These juices will carry a warning label.)

The purpose of this lesson sheet is not to make individuals paranoid about eating out, but to provide general guidelines for safe food preparation and presentation practices. For more information on food selection, for instance, when traveling outside the United States contact the County Extension Service.

Resources Used:

(1) "How to Size Up A Restaurant" from the Consumer Health Internet Home Page/Food Protection and Consumer Health, Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

(2) "Food Safety When Youíre Traveling" by Mary Mennes, 1994, University of Minnesota Extension Service Http:// Site.

(3) "Frequently Asked Questions," Food Protection Program, Public Health Web Site - Seattle & King County Washington "To Your Health! Food Safety for Seniors", FDA/Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, USDA/Food Safety and Inspection Service, October 2000.

(5) Florida Statutes for Public Lodging and Food Service Establishments, Chapter 509, Part 1. Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Division of Hotels and Restaurants, 1999.