How to Speak Up + Raise Concerns at Restaurants When You’re Apprehensive About Food Safety
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.
- But how do you do that?
- What questions are best to ask?
- How do you broach the topic?
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.
Food Safety Rules in Restaurants: An Overview
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:
- Safe Source: Food and food ingredients must come from a safe source.
- Safe Temperature: Food must be kept at safe cold or hot holding temperatures.
- Proper Cooking: Food, especially meat, poultry, and pork, must be cooked properly to a safe temperature.
- Proper Handling: Rules exist for preventing cross-contamination from the environment (eg: work areas or common utensils).
- Proper Hand Washing: Signs must be posted and food handlers must comply with effective hand washing techniques to prevent contamination.
- Person in Charge of Safety There’s usually one person who is required to have a Food Safety Managers Certification (Servsafe).
- Menu Disclaimer: Though it may not always be required by law, many restaurants will have disclaimers in their menu regarding the relationship between foodborne illness and eating undercooked meats, eggs, or raw shellfish.
Speaking Up About Your Food Safety Concerns
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.
*Most importantly: DO NOT eat any food you suspect may be unsafe to consume.
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.
Key Questions to Ask Restaurants About Food Safety
Does every employee have food safety training? Do you have a record of that?
All food service workers should have participated in a food safety training course. The restaurant should have a record of this formal training. Ask to see it.
What is your handwashing policy?
The spread of germs from the hands of food workers to food is a major cause of foodborne illness in restaurants. Proper, effective handwashing techniques on the part of food service workers is imperative and should be clearly documented in the restaurant’s handwashing policy.
Is the temperature of your refrigerator kept at 40°F or below?
This is a must to maintain the safety of perishable foods and it’s a legal requirement.
Is the temperature of your freezer kept at 0°F?
Again, this a legal requirement and critical for keeping frozen foods safe.
Are all food storage areas clean, dry, and protected from contamination?
For food that’s not stored in the refrigerator or freezer, areas used for storage must be clean, dry, pest-free, and protected from any potential contamination.
Are raw foods and cooked foods stored separately?
Another VERY important basic. This is especially important for raw meats, dairy products, and any pre-cooked or ready-to-eat food.
Are there separate areas for handling raw and cooked food?
At all times, raw and cooked food should be handled separately. Raw ingredients like meat, fish, and seafood should have a designated area away from any cooked food, including separate cutting boards.
Do you have specific procedures in place to ensure food is cooked to safe temperatures?
Specific procedures—including use of a food thermometer—should be documented and followed to make sure food is cooked to the proper, safe temperature before serving it to eat.
Key Questions to Consider When Considering the Places You Eat
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.
When was this restaurant’s most recent inspection?
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.
Is this restaurant (or food truck, food cart, vendor) registered with local authorities?
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.
Is there a food safety system in place?
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.
What is their policy about who supplies them with food?
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:
- An unsafe food source
- Improper hot-holding or cold-holding of food
- Improperly cooked food
- Contamination by sick workers
- And more.
If there are recent violations, these can tip you off to weak areas in their food safety system. For more: Understanding Food Establishment Inspections
How to Report Your Foodborne Illness
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.