Americans love to eat out, preferably several times a week, according to the Nation’s Restaurant News, a publication for the restaurant industry. At the same time, there is growing concern that restaurant food may not be as healthy as it should be. On top of worries over portion sizes and excessive fat, salt and sugar content – all believed to contribute to weight problems – a new study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) warns consumers about the heightened risk of food poisoning from restaurant fare.
Each year, nearly 50 million Americans fall ill from contaminated food, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). Harmful bacteria are the most common cause of foodborne illness. Symptoms can range from mild irritation to severe reactions, including stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and dehydration.
Between 2002 and 2011, more than 1600 outbreaks of food poisoning, affecting over 28,000 people, were connected to restaurant visits, based on the CSPI study. By contrast, only about 13,000 people became victims of such ills originating in their homes.
Unfortunately, the numbers are vague because not all outbreaks are reported, nor are their causes always clearly identified. Reporting has decreased by 42 percent, the researchers say, not necessarily because there are fewer cases but rather because of budget cuts for public health investigations.
Besides restaurants and private homes, food poisoning can take place just about anywhere, including in the workplace, at catered events, in schools, and at picnics. Most vulnerable among the afflicted are children and the elderly.
To prevent foodborne illness, experts recommend a number of precautions. Especially animal food products are susceptible to spoilage if not stored properly. You want to make sure items like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy foods are fully cooked or pasteurized before they are eaten. Raw meat or fish (e.g. steak tartar, sushi) may be fashionable, but the potential health threats are significant. If you love uncooked animal foods, be sure to patronize only reputable establishments.
Raw vegetables can also spoil and wreak havoc on your digestive system. Uncooked plant foods should always be thoroughly washed and stored in the refrigerator until consumption.
Dairy products like cheese and yogurt should always be kept refrigerated. Some types of cheese have bacteria and molds that add to their flavor and character. Hard varieties typically last longer than soft ones, but all require appropriate storage and should not be left exposed to warm temperatures for extended periods of time.
Preventive measures must also include proper cooking techniques and personal hygiene. Washing hands before and after touching food is imperative, especially when it involves uncooked animal foods like meat, poultry, and seafood.
Of course, when you eat out, you are at the mercy of those manning the kitchen. The only advice one can give is that if you have encountered problems in the past, you may not want to go back for seconds. On the other hand, if you are a regular at a particular eatery and you trust the place, you may want to stick with it. Of course, that is still not a foolproof strategy. All you can really do is minimize the risk by using your best judgment.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter (http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD), on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/TimiGustafsonRD), Google+ (https://plus.google.com/108336836895800890850/posts) and on Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/timigustafson/)