Food Safety Warnings on Restaurant Menus

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Carefully considering menu options before ordering could mean the difference between an enjoyable meal and a hospital visit. (Image: Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Consumer satisfaction is the key to a restaurant’s success. To maintain customer satisfaction, restaurants must be able to serve the foods that customers want to eat, even if it means having to serve raw or undercooked foods to customers as requested. When customers order raw or undercooked food, they are often not aware that those seemingly harmless foods could have a serious impact on their health.

Warning Customers

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 2009 Food Code allows food service establishments to serve raw or undercooked foods at a customer’s request as long as the customer is informed about the risks associated with consuming undercooked food and the customer is not part of a high-risk group. In an effort to educate customers on the risks associated with consuming raw and undercooked foods, the Food Code requires all restaurants that sell raw or undercooked animal products to post a raw food warning for customers. This warning is often seen as a posted sign in fast-food or self-service restaurants or, more commonly, as a written statement at the bottom of a restaurant menu.

Understanding the Warning

The consumer warning clearly states, "Consuming raw or undercooked meats, poultry, seafood, shellfish, or eggs may increase your risk of foodborne illness." Customers need to be aware of the risks involved in consuming raw or undercooked foods. All animal products contain some level of bacteria. Whether that bacteria is the type to cause illness or not could mean the difference between a safe meal and a dangerous one.

Dangers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines a foodborne illness, more commonly known as food poisoning, as a disease caused by consuming contaminated foods or beverages. The most common foodborne illnesses are typically a result of E. coli O157:H7, salmonella or listeria contamination in food products. When food is not handled or cooked properly, the food becomes a supple breeding ground for bacteria to grow, putting unsuspecting customers at risk. According to the Food Code, the only way to kill the illness-causing bacteria in foods is to cook the foods such that they quickly reach and maintain the recommended internal temperature for, in most cases, 15 seconds -- 145 F for eggs, 155 F for fish and mechanically tenderized and injected meat, and 165 F for poultry, stuffed meat, stuffed pasta and stuffing that contains meat products.

Who Is at Risk

While anyone can develop a foodborne illness, those who are very young or very old, pregnant or have compromised immune systems due to illness are at a higher risk of getting sick. Symptoms of a foodborne illness closely mirror those of the flu, causing many people to think they have food poisoning when, in fact, they have the flu. Symptoms of a true foodborne illness can take several hours to several days to appear after consuming a contaminated food product. The most common symptoms associated with a foodborne illness are fever, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, diarrhea -- sometimes bloody, severe stomach cramps and, in extreme cases, death. While most cases of food poisoning clear up on their own, the CDC recommends that if your symptoms last for more than three days or you experience prolonged vomiting preventing you from keeping fluids down, spike a fever over 101.5 F or find blood in your stools, you seek immediate medical treatment.

How to Protect Yourself

As a restaurant customer, carefully consider the risks associated with consuming raw or undercooked foods and who you are entrusting to prepare your meal. Local health inspection reports can be a useful tool in deciding whether it is safe to consume undercooked food at a particular restaurant as the reports identify whether the restaurant prepares and serves food in a safe manner. These reports are public record and can be obtained by contacting your local health department. The food safety warning on the menu is meant to warn you of the potential dangers associated with consuming raw and undercooked food, not to make a decision for you. You are ultimately responsible for your menu selection. For more information about the risk of developing a foodborne illness or consuming raw or undercooked products, contact a physician or the local health department.

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