A recent tweet from Pensive Girl got me thinking about food safety, of all things. She wanted to eat lunch at a well-regarded Indian restaurant in town, but had heard rumors about food safety misdeeds. This is a complicated issue for anyone interested in good food. There is a lot of misinformation out there, but there are also a lot of dirty little secrets.
Enter the Kansas City Health department and its database of Food Establishment Inspection Results. It ain’t fancy or pretty, but it allows you to search by restaurant name or location and provides a detailed list of violations and inspector notes. ShawnF provided a very useful link to the Overland Park Health Department inspections, a site that is jauntily named “The Food Court.” Johnson County does not, as far as I can tell, allow you to search for individual results but it does list complaints received.
UPDATE! Big thanks to JH who provided a link to the state of Kansas Inspection results. Check it out!
If you have heard rumors about improper food handling, these are the places to check. If you have a legitimate complaint, these are the places to register your complaint officially.
Interestingly, a lot of good food is inherently risky–rare steaks and sushi come to mind–but there is also a sense in which little homespun lunch spots cannot or do not keep up with the dizzying array of food and beverage regulations set forth by the local health department. It bears to keep in mind that some degree of minor failure may be tolerable.
In Los Angeles and some other cities they have a grading system for health inspection results. Establishments are required to place a placard in the front of the restaurant clearly displaying their grades. You can search a database to check out LA health inspection results and the resulting grade given. People I know who have lived in LA, however, tell me that the best restaurants are always B’s, not A’s.
Much lower than a B, however, and I think you would have a little PR problem on your hands.
Why would B’s be better? I don’t really know, other than the fact the large chains probably get A’s routinely because they have systems and procedures in place for food handling, while smaller joints don’t always have the wherewithal to establish such concrete measures. Sanitation is typically monitored by managers and executive chefs, luxuries that corner burger shops cannot always afford. But certainly some restaurants are a mess and deserve public scrutiny for missteps, particularly repeated missteps.
Years ago, I took a food safety and sanitation course in Chicago because of my job as the manager of a catering company. It really is fascinating stuff, and it affected the way I prepare and order food to this day. Here are some things I learned:
- Soup is one of the most commonly mishandled foods because it takes so long to cool down. If you take leftover hot soup, cover it and refrigerate it, the center will not reach an acceptable temperature for many, many hours. Add to that the widespread practice of mixing old with new soup and you have a real problem going on. Lesson? Don’t eat soup from a sketchy restaurant. Proper handling involves cooling it down on the counter in a shallow pan, then refrigerating it.
- Pizza is one of the safest foods to eat at a restaurant because it is generally fully cooked. Sure, a dirty, half-baked, dred-locked hippie puts the toppings on, but that 500 degree oven cooks the crap out of anything transferred from his bacteria-laden fingers.
- There is really no such thing as “stomach flu.” It’s usually some form of foodborne illness.
- You really, really don’t want to get Botulism.
Matching these scary but avoidable realities are the misconceptions. People get very paranoid about food safety, and often declare personal boycotts on restaurants that “got them sick.” My understanding is that the incubation periods for the most common forms of foodborne illness run from 1-2 days. So it’s usually the food that you ate yesterday or the day before that got you sick, not what you had for lunch. Also, misconceptions abound about ethnic restaurants, particularly Asian ones. Please resist the urge to label a practice as dangerous just because it is unfamiliar.
In general always take complaints about restaurants with a grain of salt. And if you have doubts or worries, check the inspection results. If a place has the same scary violation over and over again, something is wrong. Sure, you may eat there anyway, but at least you know what you’re getting into.