Consumer Law

You Don't Want a Full Plate at Some Restaurants

Sometimes it's nice to take a break from cooking and washing dishes and go out for Sunday breakfast, or maybe a nice steak dinner in the middle of the week to ease some of the stress from work. Maybe a few days a week you eat lunch at or get take-out from restaurants near work.

Have you ever wondered if the food you're served is safe to eat? You may be surprised to find out that your trust in your favorite restaurant may be misplaced.

New York Eateries Cheat with Health Scores

In June 2011, health inspectors busted hundreds of New York City restaurants for ignoring the City's law (PDF) requiring them to post the results of their latest health inspections. The inspection results include a letter grade - A, B or C. Just like when you were in school, you want an A grade.

The grading system takes into account all aspects of food safety, from proper handling and storage of food to proper cleaning of plates and utensils.

How They Skirted the Law

City restaurants and eateries are supposed to post their letter grades near the front entrance (within five feet of it) and between 4 to 6 feet above the ground. The idea, of course, is to make sure patrons can see the grade.

Most restaurants violated the law by not posting their grades anywhere - and most of them had C grades. About 100 establishments posted their grades in the wrong place, maybe by accident, or maybe to make it hard for patrons to see.

Most Restaurants in US are Inspected

Practically every restaurant in the US undergoes some sort of health and safety inspection. That's because of the high risk of passing on food-borne illnesses. There's no federal agency in charge of these inspections. Although the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) gives some guidance, restaurant health and safety matters are left up to state and local government agencies.

The Laws are Different

While inspections are common, and almost always focus on the same items as New York City's laws - food storage and handling, cleanliness of utensils, handwashing, presence of bugs or pests, etc. - how the inspection results are used varies a lot depending on where you live. For example:

  • In Ohio, city and county health officials run inspections. Letter grades aren't used, rather color-coded licenses are commonly used (Green, Yellow or Red) indicating the safety rating. Most inspections reports are available online
  • Allegheny County in Pennsylvania is considering new rules mirroring New York City's rules
  • San Francisco's Board of Health requires restaurants to post health inspection reports where patrons can see them and must let patrons read them if asked. Inspections are scored, but the scores don't need to be posted

The consequences of violating the health and safety laws are practically the same no matter where you are. In New York City, violators face fines of up to $1,000 per violation. Fines may continue until violations are fixed. Of course, the health agencies have the option of closing down restaurants with repeated or serious health and safety violations.

Eat Safely

You're careful about food safety at home, and you should be concerned while dining out, too. Here's what you can do:

  • Check online with your state, county or local health department for inspection grades and reports for restaurants you visit
  • Look for up-to-date health inspection certificates, permits or licenses posted on a wall or door. Ask a manager if you don't see one
  • Look for letter or number grades in cities or counties where they're required
  • Compare letter or number grades you see in the eatery and online
  • Talk to the restaurant's owner or manager about any safety or health problems you notice, and follow it up with a call, letter or email to your state, county or local health department
  • Unless you have another reason to trust the establishment, avoid any restaurant with an unsatisfactory inspection report, score or grade
  • Write an unfavorable review of the restaurants on any of the many review sites such as yelp.com

What if I Still Get Sick?

Restaurateurs and chefs are only human and something might fall through the cracks to get you sick or have a bad reaction to some food or drink. Is there a need to sue? Use your judgment. Did they intend for you to get ill? Are others in your party ill from the same or different food? If you're still concerned, contact a lawyer to see what your options might be.

Eating out should be fun and relaxing. The last thing you probably want to think about is whether your food was prepared properly or if the kitchen is infested. As distasteful as it is, however, those are things you should think about before sitting down and enjoying your meal.

Next article: You Found a What In Your Food?

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I get into any legal trouble for reporting unsanitary conditions at a restaurant?
  • Can I refuse to pay for a meal that I have reason to believe poses a health risk to me because of the way it was prepared?
  • How can I get restaurant inspection reports and grades if my city or county doesn't make them available online or if I don't have a computer?

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