N.C. State researcher finds lax food safety in restaurants

Posted June 11, 2010 4:15 p.m. EDT
Updated June 12, 2010 3:40 p.m. EDT

— Here's an unappetizing thought: A review of restaurant food safety practices found that a typical kitchen worker cross-contaminates food with potentially dangerous pathogens about once per hour.

"We found a lot more risky practices in some areas than we expected," Ben Chapman, an assistant professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, said in news release.

He reviewed the food safety habits of workers at eight restaurants whose owners volunteered to have video cameras hidden in their kitchens. As many as eight cameras were in each kitchen.

The cameras caught workers using aprons and other garments to dry their hands and using the same utensils and surfaces to prepare both raw and cooked foods. Chapman said both practices are health violations and can result in cross-contamination – a major source of food-borne illnesses.

Joan McGlockton, a food policy representative for the National Restaurant Association, said that while Chapman's study is disconcerting, the association doesn't feel it is representative of the entire restaurant industry.

"We apply strong emphasis on employee training in areas of food safety to ensure that proper practices in hygiene, food handling and sanitation are in place in every food service outlet," she said in an e-mail.

The U.S. sees about 76 million cases of and about 5,000 deaths caused by food-borne illnesses annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 1998 to 2004, the latest figures available, more than 50 percent of food-borne disease outbreaks reported to the CDC were associated with restaurants or delicatessens.

Cross-contamination happens when pathogens, such as salmonella and E. coli, are transferred from raw food or contaminated source to already prepared food.

Chapman said the risky behaviors happened most frequently during busy periods. For example, some employees didn't wash their hands during lunch and breakfast rushes. Multiple workers using the same tools caused many the instances of cross-contamination.

There was also some good news: Chapman found that risky behaviors were significantly reduced by posting information in kitchens and break rooms that gives employees examples of the consequences of poor food.

His study, published in the June issue of the Journal of Food Protection, also recommended steps to improve food safety, including training restaurant crews as a team, rather than individually.

"Each food handler is already operating as a part of a system," Chapman said. "The food-safety culture of the overall organization – and the kitchen and the management – needs to be addressed in order to effect change."

Additionally, he suggested making hand sanitizer more accessible places in kitchens and changing work schedules so that cooks face less pressure during peak hours.