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Eating out

"Have you eaten out lately?" my friend asked. I nodded. "Have you gotten sick again?" he asked. "No, not lately, fortunately," I replied. Three of my family members had endured middle-of-the-night illness after eating an evening meal we picked up...

"Have you eaten out lately?" my friend asked.

I nodded.

"Have you gotten sick again?" he asked.

"No, not lately, fortunately," I replied.

Three of my family members had endured middle-of-the-night illness after eating an evening meal we picked up from a restaurant. There's nothing like tending to a sick child when you're also sick. The memory lingers.

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Thinking back, the meat seemed lukewarm. I would have brought it back, but we were already driving down the street. Against all my intuition, we ate it anyway.

Next time I will trust my gut instinct.

I called the health department as soon as I was able to report the incident. I was hoping other people wouldn't get sick, too.

A foodborne illness outbreak occurs when two or more people get sick after eating the same food and the source is confirmed. We ate all the "evidence," so there was no way to know for sure that the food was contaminated.

I let the health department know that I suspected that the food wasn't held at the appropriate temperature, called "inadequate hot-holding" in inspector terms. The food code of the Food and Drug Administration requires a minimum hot-holding temperature of 135 degrees, after cooking to the appropriate temperature. The inspector promised to stop in and check out the situation.

Like many, my family enjoys eating out on occasion. Americans are eating out more than ever. Annual sales within the restaurant industry are more than $400 billion. Americans spend nearly half of their "food dollar" on food away from home, with many people handling the food along the way.

According to the National Restaurant Association, married couples spend, on average, $1,347 per person on food away from home. Married couples with children spend about $866 per person on food away from home.

People expect safe food, and restaurants have a vested interest in providing safe food. Headlines about foodborne illness outbreaks aren't good for business. More than 76 million people in the U.S. become ill from contaminated food from all sources every year and 5,000 die.

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Restaurant inspection reports are public information. In some places, the reports are posted on Web sites. In others, restaurant grades, such as "A" or "B," are prominently posted in the restaurant.

Here are some food safety tips for eating restaurant-prepared food:

  • Be your own inspector. Check out the overall cleanliness of the restaurant, as well as the workers' food handling habits. Are they handling money then food without washing their hands?
  • If you can't eat all the food and opt for a to-go box, be sure that you will be able to refrigerate the food within two hours of the time it was served to you. You could bring a cooler with ice if you have a long drive. Otherwise, leaving the food at the restaurant is safest.
  • Always reheat foods to 165 Fahrenheit. Don't reheat foods in the Styrofoam to-go container in a microwave oven. Chemicals from the container can migrate into the food during reheating. Transfer the food to a microwave-safe container.
  • If using a microwave oven to reheat, be sure to stir the food and allow the food to stand a couple of minutes. Microwave ovens don't always reheat food evenly.
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