Research - No A? Walk Away!

Katrina wrote a persuasive research paper about food safety for school before beginning this project. Below is a copy of the paper she wrote, along with a link to the appendices and works cited. Be sure to read this if you are interested in learning more about food safety. Remember, this was written by Katrina, so please don’t copy this or claim it as your own. However, feel free to use the statistics and information to let others know how important this issue is.

Foodborne Illnesses and Restaurant Food Safety

Approximately one in six United States citizens will a contract foodborne disease each year (“Making” para.1). These millions of illnesses cost the United States’ economy an estimated one hundred and fifty-two billion dollars every year (Doering ii). Over fifty percent of these millions of foodborne diseases were contracted from restaurants and other commercial establishments (“Surveillance” para.9). From these figures, one can gather that foodborne illnesses are a large problem in our country, and a primary source of this issue is restaurants.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared foodborne disease one of its “winnable battles.” This classification means the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention thinks foodborne diseases have as large of an impact on health as obesity and HIV (“Winnable”). Foodborne disease isn’t just a temporary stomachache, but rather a large problem effecting our day to day life and costing our economy billions of dollars. If this battle has been declared winnable, then why is our nation’s restaurant industry still supporting the enemy instead of its own customers?

A majority of the restaurants responsible for spreading foodborne diseases to their customers have poor food safety habits, which are reflected in the poor inspection scores they receive. In fact, restaurants with food safety inspection scores lower than eighty-six are up to ten times more likely to be the source of a foodborne illness outbreak than restaurants with higher scores (Kobayashi, et al. 586). Every restaurant in the United States is required to have a food safety inspection regularly. In the state of Georgia, restaurants are inspected approximately every six months (Blouin; Appendix B). Inspections are conducted by professional inspectors, usually employed by the state health department.

Inspectors check for factors thought to contribute to the spread of the three types of foodborne diseases: infections, intoxications, and toxicoinfections. Foodborne infections, like salmonella, are contracted when the consumer eats a food containing enough pathogenic microorganisms to reproduce in the consumer’s stomach and intestines. The consumer’s gastrointestinal tract then becomes infected and inflamed. Foodborne intoxications, like botulism, are contracted after consuming toxins or poisons that are a result of microorganisms growing in contaminated foods. Other foodborne intoxications can be contracted by ingesting pesticides or other chemicals left in food products. Finally, foodborne toxicoinfections, like E.coli, are a mixture of the previous types. The consumer eats a food containing pathogenic microorganisms, which then reproduce inside the consumer’s gastrointestinal tract. Once the microorganisms have reproduced enough to infect the gastrointestinal tract, the microorganisms then produce dangerous toxins (Satin 16-17).

All three types of foodborne diseases have very negative effects on the human body, so health inspectors and other officials have created a thorough checklist to ensure they have inspected every possible source of contamination. Items on the checklist include touching food with unwashed hands, cooking food for too short of a time or at too low of a temperature, and leaving food unrefrigerated for too long. Because there are so many items to examine, these inspections can take as long as two hours to conduct (Blouin).

Workers in restaurants with poor inspection scores often complain that safety inspections are too rigid. Some have valid complaints, like Chef Lenny Russo, who wants to use wild mushrooms in his dishes. The code states wild mushrooms must be inspected by a mushroom expert, but Russo says there isn’t a mushroom expert near his restaurant (Fleming). Others say inspectors are focusing too much on noncritical violations like having doors open or overflowing dumpsters (Billings). Most restaurants with poor scores, however, won’t spend the money to find good employees and train them well (Blouin). These managers think food safety isn’t worth the cost — at least until foodborne disease starts damaging their profits.

If restaurant owners and managers continue to think food safety isn’t a real issue, consumers are going to continue to contract foodborne diseases. In fact, instances of Salmonella and Vibrio infections are actually increasing, and this trend may continue unless a change is made (“Trends” 2). Customers need to start voicing their concerns and leaving a restaurant if the food safety rating is poor. However, there is a major caveat to this plan. Some customers don’t even know what a food safety rating is and don’t think food safety is an issue. Others know food safety is important, but they find it too embarrassing to walk out of a restaurant if they see a poor inspection score or witness unsafe food handling.

I conducted a survey of forty people, asking them about their habits regarding restaurant food safety scores (Appendix A). Participants were allowed to answer as many or as few questions as they wished. The ages of the participants varied from fifteen to seventy years old. Thirty-two percent surveyed were male and sixty-eight percent were female. Among those surveyed, ten percent didn’t know what an inspection score is and twenty-five percent don’t check for an inspection score when they enter a restaurant for the first time. Eleven percent of the people surveyed who said they do check for inspection scores are accepting scores below the safe range of eighty-five to one hundred. Instead of ignoring or misunderstanding food safety ratings like so many of these respondents, consumers need to be completely aware of how well these scores predict the contraction of foodborne disease.

Educational materials about food safety in the home are seen regularly in women’s magazines, on news programs, and in pamphlets given out at the grocery store. Almost every home cook knows to wash his or her hands after handling raw meat. However, these same families will go out to eat at restaurant with a low food safety score due to cross contamination of raw meat. Consumers need to be educated about restaurant food safety, and one of the best ways to do that is by starting the education with children.

For the past decade or so, the movement to cough into your elbow has been spreading. Until posters from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started being posted in elementary schools across America, public places were filled with men and women coughing into their hands. Once teachers posted the graphics telling their young students to cough into their elbows, this new idea started slowly spreading throughout the country. First, the children told their parents, and maybe even nagged them if they were caught coughing or sneezing into their hands. Other adults eventually noticed the new behavior and upon learning why it was important, adopted the practice themselves (“Cover”).

Food safety needs a radical movement similar to the “Cover Your Cough” campaign. Children should be taught to recognize the difference between safe and unsafe restaurants from a young age. If children remind their parents to look for a score of an A when they walk into a restaurant, families would stop supporting restaurants with poor safety habits. Eventually, other adults would ask why people have stopped going to certain restaurants and they might also start looking for food safety scores. One easily remembered phrase, spread across the country, could change the whole restaurant industry’s outlook on food safety.

Even though nothing radical has occurred yet, small changes are making a large difference in the battle against foodborne disease. When Los Angeles County started requiring restaurants grades to be displayed publicly, both on the door to the establishment and in a public database, there was a 13.1% decrease in foodborne illness related hospitalizations (Simon, et al. 32). Once grades were displayed publicly, consumers were less likely to purchase food from restaurants with poor scores. This change created an economic incentive for restaurants to improve their food safety. Even though all restaurants didn’t improve their safety scores, the instances of foodborne disease still decreased because some consumers were choosing to no longer visit unsafe establishments.

People across the United States are also finding unique ways to increase consumer awareness of food safety. In Richfield, Minnesota, the city has an annual Food Safety Awards presentation. These awards are given out each year to the restaurants with not only the best food safety scores, but also the best customer service regarding food safety complaints (Theisen). This awards program provides another incentive for restaurants to handle food safely in addition to informing Richfield citizens about food safety.

In other parts of the country, however, authorities are beginning to introduce plans placing a priority on saving costs rather than the well-being of consumers. In Chicago, the mayor has introduced a plan to allow some “low-risk” restaurants to inspect themselves. The majority of the city council is in favor of this plan because it would not require them to hire more than the thirty-two health inspectors they currently employ. According to the proposal, restaurants are “low-risk” if they passed health inspections the year before and they haven’t been closed or inspected due to food safety issues or a possible outbreak in the past thirty-six months (Browder). Although this plan may seem reasonable and cost-effective, it creates more opportunities for corruption and contraction of foodborne disease.

Despite some recent losses, the progress made on this battle against foodborne disease has, overall, been large and impactful. However, for this progress to continue, we need to better educate consumers about the dangers of foodborne illness. The harrowing statistics should be well-known and doctors, teachers, and journalists should be educating citizens about how to eat safely in restaurants. Only once the majority of consumers are aware of how restaurants should be operated, and the restaurants begin to make food safety a priority, will the battle against foodborne disease be won.

Appendices and Works Cited