The kitchen staff and food handlers of a restaurant, deli, cafeteria, meat market, bar etc. are a common source for bacteria and viral contamination in your food, that can very readily cause you be become ill. What can you do then to protect yourself and determine if the business is practicing good health and safety, and the staff good personal hygiene?

There are a number of subtle and obvious signs, practices etc. that the consumer can and should look for in a restaurant related to the personal hygiene of the food handlers. The following list of practices or requirements (by law) are designed to prevent or minimize contamination of food, either directly from the food handler, or from cross-contamination from other sources. Review each one and make a mental note to remember to look for these the next time you are patronizing your favorite restaurant or market:

– Look for clean clothing and aprons and hair restraints, either a hat or hairnet to hold all the hair in place for anyone handling or processing open, exposed foods. Clothing must be sufficient to cover the entire body including arms if necessary to block body hair from getting into the food. Fingernails of food handlers must be kept clean, cut or trimmed and well manicured. Hair, skin, and fingernails are common sources of bacteria that if given the right conditions for growth in food, very readily and commonly do cause illness.

– Food handlers should be wearing clean aprons and should not wipe their hands on their aprons (paper or single-use disposable towels is the requirement). Aprons must be changed frequently as they become soiled or contaminated.

– If the food handlers are wearing gloves, do not automatically consider this a good sign. Gloves are generally not required and at most establishments you will not see cooks or kitchen staff wearing gloves. Gloves are not a guarantee against food contamination. They can become contaminated just as easily as bare hands and the person wearing the gloves may not even realize their hands have been contaminated, whereas they would normally feel a splash or liquid contact on bare hands. Gloves are also not a substitute for washing hands. Hand washing is still required or recommended both before donning gloves for working with food, and between replacing gloves.

– Gloves are still required when contacting food or food contact services if the food handler has cuts, sores, rashes, artificial nails, nail polish, rings (other than a plain ring such as a wedding band), orthopedic support devices, or fingernails that are not clean, smooth or neatly trimmed.

– Utensils are also either required or recommended when processing or handling food. A utensil, instead of the hands, should be used as much as possible during processing.

– Employees serving or placing ready-to-eat food on tableware or containers, or assembling ready-to-eat food should always use tongs, forks, spoons, paper rappers or gloves rather than bare hands. Bare hands, under the law in many areas, can be used if they have been just previously washed. Although as a customer, seeing bare hand contact with any ready-to-eat food would likely cause me to look for, or order something else.

– Makeup, perfume and jewelry can also contaminate your food and should be kept to a minimum on all food handlers.

– Bad habits to look for while checking out the food handlers (which includes servers, as well) are any use of tobacco, spitting, rubbing or picking the nose, ears, pimples or boils, licking their fingers, or eating while working or just eating or chewing gum in the kitchen area. All of these habits can potentially contaminate your food with hazardous germs (bacteria and/or viruses.)

– Smoking, or any form of tobacco use, by employees is definitely not allowed in any area where food is prepared, served, or stored, or utensils are cleaned or stored, for two important reasons. (1) A person smoking can easily pick up saliva on his or her hands by touching his or her mouth or touching the cigarette that just came from their mouth. This saliva is then passed on to your food as soon as this food handler touches it; (2) The ashes and cigarette butts left behind may be dropped or spilled and thereby mixed into and contaminate your food.

– Obviously ill employees cannot work in any way with exposed food, clean equipment, utensils or linens or unwrapped single-use utensils. Symptoms to look out for are persistent sneezing, coughing, or runny nose, or discharges from the eyes, nose, or mouth.

– Look for cross-contamination. If you can see into the kitchen or processing area, you can observe how the employees handle raw products, especially meat, chicken and seafood products in relation to cooked or ready-to-eat products, such as salads. They should never use the same utensils, cutting boards, plates, platters or their hands for handling raw product and then turn around and use the same utensil or equipment or hand for handling cooked or ready-to-eat products (known as cross-contamination) without both washing and sanitizing in between. I have witnessed this both as a customer and while working as an inspector. The instances as a customer were observed at various barbeque restaurants where the employee used the same set of prongs and fork for putting the raw chicken on the grill as for taking off and processing the cooked chicken. Cross contamination is a very common and serious hazard and is a leading cause of food-borne illness.

– Lastly, in California it is now state law that if the facility prepares, handles or serves non-prepackaged potentially hazardous foods (ready-to-eat foods), there must be an owner or employee who has successfully passed an approved and accredited food safety certification examination. Unfortunately the law in California does not require the certified owner, manager or employee to be present during all hours of operation. Check with your local Environmental Health Food Inspection Program.

This certificate with the individuals name is usually posted (though not required to be) on a wall near the entrance or where the consumers can view it. Look for it and even inquire if this person on the certificate is present. If they state that this person is no longer working for them then it’s time to make inquiries to the manager and even to the Environmental Health program. I have seen both restaurants where everyone working was certified and all their certificates were posted on the wall, and the other extreme, where no one was certified.

When I do see a certificate on the wall, while as a customer, I take note of the name on the certificate and then just ask the waiter, waitress or server if this person is working today. If they are, then I take this as at least a positive sign (no guarantee of course) of improved safety. If they aren’t, I might be a little more cautious or alert that before; or even worse if they say something to the effect that this person no longer works here, I would then bring it to the attention of the manager or owner stating that that they need to replace him or her and take down this certificate. I would also contact the local Environmental Health Food Inspection Program for further investigation.

If you observe any of these hazards or potential violations you have really 3 actions you can take:

1. Immediately notify the manager and request the problem be remedied at once (washing hands, discarding the contaminated food, providing a utensil, etc.) and then determine whether to stay depending of the how well the manager reacts.
2. Say nothing and leave without ordering anything.
3. Say nothing, and proceed as if nothing had happened and hope for the best. I would hope that most of us who have experienced the pain and symptoms of a food poisoning, would not take this approach.

Regardless of how you immediately act, I would recommend you still get on the phone or internet and contact your local Environmental Health Food Inspection Program and make a complaint. Believe it or not, one main function and responsibility of the local food inspection and enforcement agency is to respond to and address complaints received by the public. These local government enforcement agencies depend on you to be a second set of eyes and ears as to what is happening in your neighborhood. Most facilities are inspected perhaps on average, and at best, twice per year, and the inspector is only there for an hour or so at most. Therefore, you, being a regular or even occasional customer, may very likely see and experience things that the inspector will never see.

Leave your name and phone number so they can contact you with their findings after the inspection. (Most departments have a strict policy of maintaining complainants information confidential.) They may not observe what you observed but they will bring the complaint to the attention of the manager or owner and will be alert to it at future inspections.

Michael Doom has worked as a Environmental Health Specialist for Los Angeles County for more than 20 years. He has conducted thousands of inspections and educated more than a thousand, food facility owners, managers and employees on food sanitation and safety [http://www.FoodPoisoningPrevention.com] and preventing food poisoning hazards. To learn more visit [http://www.FoodPoisoningPrevention.com].