Here’s a scenario all of us are familiar with:
You’re out for a meal at a restaurant and get a gut feeling that something just isn’t quite right about the way your food is being handled and served. Maybe it’s how your food looks or smells. Maybe it’s dirty silverware. Maybe it’s someone in the kitchen who’s coughing up a storm. Whatever it is, you know something’s amiss when it comes to food safety practices at this place. In this moment, you can—and should—take action to help make sure the food you’re about to enjoy is safe to eat.
First off — it varies from state to state — do you see a Health Department Grade Card Posted? That’s a good starting point for whether the restaurant is currently in compliance.
Dig in to our guide below where Stop Foodborne Illness helps you answer these questions with confidence and get in touch with the right people if you suspect food safety violations at the restaurant.
Every establishment serving food, including restaurants, are bound by law to follow specific food safety rules set by the city, county, or state they’re located in. Each municipality may differ from others in their safety requirements for food vendors, yet they all have similar rules for:
As soon as you notice something that doesn’t seem sanitary ask to speak with the restaurant manager who’s in charge of food safety practices. Introduce yourself, and explain what you’re seeing that has you concerned. Even though restaurant managers can be very busy, food safety is extremely important, so if the opportunity presents itself, ask the manager some of the key questions below.
While there is a plethora of questions you can ask, the ones we’ve highlighted below are some of the best to begin with. Depending on what you’re seeing, we encourage you to start with a few questions that most closely address your present experience. And remember, the point of this conversation is not to insult or humiliate the manager, their staff, or the restaurant. It’s to encourage the establishment to take the safety of their patrons seriously by promoting a food safety culture with education and consistent behavior by following established best practices.
Every community’s food vendor inspection laws are different, but generally speaking, restaurants should be getting their establishment inspected and rated on a regular basis. The laws may differ in terms of how often inspections are conducted, or the type of grading and scoring system used. Restaurant scores are usually shared with the public in various ways including having full inspection reports available in the establishment, or posting it on the internet. Sometimes just a letter or number rating will be posted at the establishment.
All restaurants should have, and use, forms or apps for logging information related to deliveries, temperature checks, cook times, cleaning, and display. Failure in any of these areas may mean the safety of your food has been compromised.
Feel free to speak up and ask the restaurant manager for their inspection report/score. Just knowing there are people in the community who think about such things can help a conscientious manager keep their establishment’s food safety in focus.
This is very basic but a good starting point. All establishments that are serving food must be registered with local authorities as an operating business. Ask to see their food service license.
Most states require restaurants (food service vendors) to have a food safety system in place that is being followed every day. A restaurant’s safety system will include their food handling rules, HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) procedures, process flow diagrams, logs, and other materials. All of this is designed to make sure the restaurant’s staff performs various food safety practices effectively and efficiently.
A written policy about the purchasing of a restaurant’s food should be in place and followed. These policies, which go a long way toward ensuring safe food, will include a list of companies, the nature of food accepted, and any specific delivery restrictions that may apply.
To investigate your state, county, or municipal inspection laws, visit the Awareness section of our website for Food Safety by State. The website of your local health department or food regulatory agency will most likely answer any questions about recent food safety rule violations you may have about a particular restaurant. Inspection information will tell you about:
If there are recent violations, these can tip you off to weak areas in their food safety system.
A foodborne outbreak is when two or more people get the same illness from the same food source. Knowing about illnesses that could be related to food or water, helps public health officials identify and stop outbreaks as quickly as possible.
If you (or a family member/friend) get sick and suspect it could be from food, you should first consult your health care provider for advice on whether medical treatment is necessary. Some illnesses are over in a day or two and don’t require medical treatment. However, remember that children, the elderly, and people with weaker immune systems are more likely to experience severe illness. If you have any concerns, it’s always smart to contact your doctor and stay informed.
Be sure to report the illness to your local health department (also known as a departments county or city health department). Check their website because many health will have a Foodborne Illness Complaint Form that will guide you through the information needed. If you phone them, ask to speak with an environmental health specialist or sanitarian, about a possible food problem. Don’t forget to provide your contact information, so an investigator can follow-up if more information is required.
After you file a report, the health department will determine the next steps to be taken. Any personal information you provide will be kept confidential and will not be disclosed to anyone, including the food establishment with the problem or the person sent to inspect the establishment.
Contact Stop Foodborne Illness to tell your story. We often have opportunities arise for volunteers to share their experience with other impacted individuals and families, and with consumer, government, and industry stakeholders.