Foodborne Illness Can Be Risky Business - How Safe Are Your Favorite Restaurants?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 76 million cases of foodborne illness are reported in the United States annually, resulting in an average of 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. Note that the key word here is reported. For every known case of foodborne illness, it is estimated that there are 10 to 300 other cases that go unreported because flu-like symptoms often lead to misdiagnosis.

Foodborne illnesses are caused by consuming contaminated food or drink. According to Medicine.Net.com, there are more than 250 known foodborne diseases, although four of the most common foodborne diseases are Campylobacter, Salmonellosis, E.Coli 0157:H7, and Calcivirus.

Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, although internationally recognized for great hotels, resorts, golf courses, and fine dining, are not exempt from the dangers of foodborne illness. An insider’s view of the valley’s restaurant industry reveals numerous food safety dangers lurking within those advertised pages of endless dining opportunities.

1. A Vastly Under-Skilled Workforce

The Coachella Valley is home to a very transient and vastly under-skilled workforce. In a 2005 Labor Market Survey (pdf) sponsored by the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership, business operators revealed that 80% of their job openings at that time were being filled from outside the Valley. Participants also reported that three of the most common deficiencies among recently hired workers were a lack of (a) work ethic, (b) technical job skills, and (c) communications skills.

The California Retail Food Code or Cal Code (pdf) Law requires all food workers to have “adequate knowledge” of food safety and at least one manager at every food service establishment to obtain a food safety certification from an organization accredited by the American National Standards Institute. As a result, every food service worker is required to pass a basic written test in food safety and at least one employee (preferably an owner or manager) is required to pass a more detailed food safety certification examination. In spite of these legal mandates, managers frequently fail to provide employees with ongoing training in food safety. This lack of managerial oversight, often combined with employee apathy, can (and often does) result in foodborne illness outbreaks – in spite of the fact that local health departments work diligently to inspect restaurants regularly to prevent situations that can lead to foodborne illness.

2. Failure of Many Workers to Wash Hands Frequently and Thoroughly

Poor personal hygiene is one of the leading causes of foodborne illness. Although it is common knowledge in the industry that frequent and thorough hand washing (especially after using the restroom) helps to prevent many foodborne illnesses, it’s amazing how many food service owners/operators fail to establish, model, and regularly monitor proper hand washing practices in their own establishments. For example, something as simple as a food service employee touching his/her hair or face, while in the process of handling food can cause enough contamination to make some individuals very ill.

Another safety concern is that employees are often permitted to eat, chew gum, and even smoke while on the job. Human saliva poses a serious threat to food safety and any activity that can cause its transfer from an employee to food poses a serious risk.

Still another threat is the failure of managers to regulate the amount of jewelry and facial body piercing of employees. Although the CalCode Law limits employee jewelry to a plain wedding band, many food service managers are very permissive when it comes to employee jewelry — often permitting multiple studded earrings and other facial piercing. Without recognizing it, employees can touch their ear, nose, chin, or tongue piercing(s) and then touch food that is to be served — causing thousands of disease-causing microorganisms to contaminate the food and ultimately make consumers ill.

3. Short Seasons, Long Hot Summers, and Difficult Economic Times

It’s not uncommon for temperatures in the Coachella Valley to reach triple digits, often as early as April or May and continuing through September and October. As the thermometer rises, tourism declines, and the economic downturn takes its toll, some restaurants turn to drastic and dangerous cost-cutting measures as they face the grim reality that the “season” in the Coachella Valley is only about 4 to 5 months. Here are just a few common cost-cutting measures used by valley restaurants to survive:

• Reduction of Employee Work Hours – Fewer work hours often mean less time to insure adequate and safe preparation of food and adequate cleaning/maintenance of food service equipment and facilities.

• The Hiring of Undocumented Workers – Aside from being illegal, the practice of hiring undocumented workers can be dangerous for consumers because the restaurant owners/operators usually do not provide adequate food safety training for these workers, thus jeopardizing the overall safety of the food that is sold.

• Dangerously Extending the Shelf-Life of Foods — If foods have been handled properly, and not time-temperature abused, they may be refrigerated for up to 7 days if stored at 41 ° F. or less. Seven days is actually quite a long time. In fact, the operators of most food-safety-conscious establishments will usually not try and keep foods stored that long, opting to throw any leftovers out within 3 to 4 days. Restaurants financially desperate to stay afloat, however, may keep foods stored longer and even adjust the “serve by” dates to accommodate their deceitful practices.

• Purchasing Food from Unregulated and Illegal Food Vendors — Businesses that operate according to the food laws are inspected regularly by the Riverside County Department of Environmental Health and usually have an internal sanitary program to further improve their operations.

Food purchased, however, from unregulated/illegal sources, such as roadside/parking lot vendors or vendors operating secretly from residential and commercial locations can cause serious foodborne illness outbreaks and even death to consumers. There is absolutely no way to guarantee that food purchased from these illegal food operations are safe. Restaurants that opt to purchase foods from these sources are definitely placing the health of their customers in jeopardy.

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