Are bathrooms a good indicator for food safety practices?

I don’t believe they are.  I think there are lots of food businesses that have spotless toilets and bad food safety practices.  Ron Pelger of the Produce News suggests they are a good indicator:

The next time you go into a restaurant, I highly recommend that you visit the restroom first to check out the sanitation conditions of the establishment before ordering and eating your meal. Give it the old once-, twice- and three-times-over inspection. If it passes your examination, the restaurant must have high cleanliness standards.

Really? Pelger sounds pretty trusting. There is some great literature that suggests that inspection scores are not a good indicator of whether a restaurant is going to make someone ill. Should consumers also ask to see the conditions of the bathrooms and port-a-potties on farms and make decisions based on that? I don’t think so. I think we should be basing our decisions on what a produce distributor (grower/packer/shipper) can prove about the food safety practices on the farm, not what is possible to clean-up in preparation for a planned audit.

Pelger also writes:

There are many scenarios in the produce industry that can lead to product contamination. Through a sophisticated trace-back process, product can be traced to its original source. In the recent past, foodborne illness outbreaks were linked to spinach, lettuce and tomatoes. These cases have been traced back to their sources and the problems corrected. But what about areas other than farms? Could contamination be happening in other links of the food chain as well?

Pelger is right that food safety is a farm-to-fork, food system issue — but he unfortunately comes across as whining about how it’s not always farms (true) without suggesting how the entire supply chain should get together and address it. If an industry truly believes in the everyone-has-a-role-to-play mantra, they should help their partners (upstream and downstream) in producing safe food. And tell everyone about it.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.