25 Health Hazards Hidden in a Restaurant Near You

Americans dine out frequently due to their rushed schedules, and while it makes for a nice treat every once in a while doing so also means facing considerable health risks as well. Whether the effects settle in the present or the future, they still have considerable impact on their overall well-being. Sanitation, allergy, infections, and additives both intentional and unintentional can all lurk undetected in restaurant food – waiting for unsuspecting consumers to chomp down so they can spread their ugliness further. Most restaurant trips, of course, will not result in a traumatic experience of explosive diarrhea or potential injury. But patrons still need to be made aware of the possible dangers that exist when dining at restaurants – no matter if they be dive or five star.

1. Allergens

Individuals with physical aversions to lactose, gluten, eggs, nuts, and other common food allergies take a gamble when visiting restaurants. Those with high levels of sensitivity to the ingredient in question stand as especially risky in the event of possible cross-contamination. Some restaurants offer a warning sign upon entering or a small blip on the menu, but no laws require such measures – though a few are up for consideration in Massachusetts. But for the time being, individuals and families with serious food allergies or conditions such as celiac disease must carefully peruse establishment by establishment and report back to one another as to who can be considered “food allergy friendly”.

2. Playgrounds

Kids and parents alike appreciate the playgrounds found at fast food restaurants for vastly different reasons, but around 200,000 children sustain injuries both minor and major from prancing about them. There are certainly guidelines in place, set by The American Society for Testing and Materials, to govern the construction of these playgrounds and ensure the safest possible product. The Consumer Product Safety Commission also demands a certain degree of precautions as well. Unfortunately, the restaurants themselves are left to their own devices when it comes to whether or not they wish to conform to the standards established by both organizations. Understaffing and budget issues prevent them from visiting every restaurant to enforce their rules, however. Some, such as McDonald’s, find themselves subjected to hefty fines once enough complaints begin filtering in – but only then do the organizations have the resources to force an inspection. Because of this autonomy, kids run the risk of hurting themselves at a business whose attention to the playground area remains lax, apathetic, and uninspected.

3. Food Poisoning

Food poisoning may be one of the more obvious health hazards found at restaurants around the world, but few people realize which consumables pose the highest threats. According to The New York Times blog, the Center for Science in the Public Interest ranks leafy greens, eggs, and tuna as the most common sources of food-borne illnesses. Lettuce and other greens caused 24% of illnesses unrelated to contaminated meat in 2008, eggs can carry salmonella – and half of the reported cases are traced back to those used in restaurants – and improperly handled tuna begins to decompose and poses the risk of scombroid poisoning. Aside from meat, other potentially hazardous conduits include oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts, and berries. Each of these are responsible for thousands of instances of food-borne illnesses in Americans each year, either due to inadequate storage, poor quality to begin with, or contamination through unsanitary handling practices.

4. Injuries to Staff Members

Even if the dining area of a restaurant appears immaculately clean and sanitary, members of the wait and kitchen staff may still find themselves at a high risk for injuries due to any number of issues. Falls are sadly common, even occurring in high-end facilities, and result from slippery floors due to grease, oil, or washing, compromised floor mats or drain covers, discarded foodstuffs, blind corners, and other sources. Workers can also injure themselves on superheated surfaces such as stoves, ovens, and microwaves or spill piping hot soups and sauces on themselves or others. Injured staff members – be it from falls, burns, or any number of hidden hazards – cost not only the owners of the establishment, but the customers as well. Paying for workman’s compensation or legal fees drives up the cost of consumer goods, so keeping conditions as safe as possible for employees and customers alike is integral not only to keeping people happy and away from harm, but helps reduce prices as well.

5.  Lemon Peels

 Lemon slices for water and iced tea – frequently plopped into the drink itself with little mind – may harbor bacteria from the kitchen staff’s hands or potentially cross-contaminated knife. While they may not facilitate growth entirely due to their pH, lemons still play host to these transferred microbes. Generally, the presence of these delightful citrus fruits does not pose an immediate threat to patrons. But if a member of the kitchen staff assigned to slice them up walks in with a communicable virus and handles the lemons without gloves or accidentally coughing or sneezing in their work, it poses a serious health hazard for the customer on the receiving end. 

6. Eating Before Closing

Anyone who waits to take their meals shortly before a restaurant closes to new customers. By the time the evening begins winding down, kitchen staff have begun washing dishes and cleaning the prep areas. While food will be cooked up, it may find itself resting near dishwashing stations containing industrial-strength, potentially carcinogenic soaps and solvents. These regular sanitation rituals involve heavy-duty spraying as well, with the potential to fall onto and contaminate the food cooking on the stove or heating underneath a nearby lamp. The longer they sit, the more water and chemicals they may soak up before finding their way to the table.

7. Vomit

Restaurants with a lively bar area frequently deal with inconsiderate customers becoming intoxicated to the point of puking on walls, furniture, and the floor. For fear of retribution, many of them elect to vacate their stomachs outside the view of bartenders and staff members, leaving a nasty surprise to clean up upon closing time. While they generally respond to these threats immediately upon discovery, a surreptitious patch of vomit can still lay festering and posing a great hazard to unsuspecting patrons. They harbor a multitude of bacteria and other potentially dangerous microbes and also stand as a particularly disgusting slipping threat.

8. Sample Trays

Sometimes customers are just as guilty of sanitation violations as the businesses they patronize. When left uncovered, sample trays – such as the ones used to display bread slices, fruits, cheeses, flavored oils with seasonings, or pieces of dessert selections – can serve as a veritable breeding ground for bacteria and other microbes. One New York-based worker in the health industry allegedly observed an elderly woman double-dipping bread samples into the available oils and taking nibbles off the bread pieces – only to deposit the ones she didn’t like right back on the board! Regardless of the veracity of this story, it underscores some of the hazardous possibilities inherent in uncovered, unsupervised sample trays. Be particularly careful in establishments with a heavy rotation of child patrons especially, as they often don’t yet understand proper sanitation protocol.

9. Unattended Children

While most kids are generally relatively well-behaved and most parents usually attentive, those allowed to run amok pose both safety and health hazards for themselves and other patrons – and not only in restaurants. Restaurant staff members, most especially the owners, dread the lawsuits that could result from a free-range child sustaining an injury whist treating the business like a personal playground while the parents either ignore the situation or inconsiderately encourage it. Not only that, but they threaten both the enjoyment and the safety of other customers as well. The severity of the threat, of course, depends on how out of control they behave. It could be as harmless as a simple fall resulting in temporary soreness or as harmful as a bone breaking. In addition, some of the more active specimens can go so far as to poke their hands about in other diners’ food, creating a situation of compromised sanitation and putting them at the risk of illness.

10. Proximity to a School

The Consumer Reports Health Blog quotes a Reuters report discussing data from Columbia University and University of California, Berkeley that observes a possible link between obesity and proximity of schools to a fast food establishment. Researchers believe that educational institutions within 500 feet of such a restaurant could mean an increased risk of obesity and its related health issues by up to 5%. This follows the earlier studies that discovered the increased stroke incidents in the neighborhoods with more fast food restaurants. Those living close to these beloved purveyors of obscenely greasy, salty convenience faced a 13% increase in the chances of suffering a stroke than those who did not. So it would make sense that such a finding would also have a bearing on instances of childhood obesity. Being located so close to a school attracts hungry customers eager for an easy, cheap snack after class lets out, which would understandably lead to a greater vulnerability to obesity and its associated health problems.

11. Increased Risk of Diabetes

Not only does fast food elevate an individual’s risk of obesity and stroke, but Type 2 diabetes as well. A 10-year study of 30-to-69-year-old women revealed large issues with their consumption of burgers and fries, as those who dined out at these establishments at least twice a week suffered from a 60% increased risk of coming down with this devastating disease over those who ate few to none over the span of a year. Those who ate fast food fried chicken found themselves at a whopping 85% higher risk. Americans who regularly take their meals as these restaurants eat an average of 205 calories a day over those who do not. Another study, this time spanning 15 years and tracing the eating and lifestyle habits of around 3,000 young adults, discovered that the individuals eating at fast food places gained 10 pounds more and suffered from twice the risk of resisting insulin than those who did not.

12. Expired Food

One of the more common violations that health inspectors come across involves food stored and served past its expiration date. Either negligence or poor labeling is usually to blame, but no matter the cause the result places customers in danger. Spoiled consumables served to customers greatly increase their risk of food-borne illnesses – and depending on the type of food, can result in violent cases, even death (though thankfully rare. Owners, managers, and kitchen staff members ought to remain diligent when making note of what ingredients are nearing their expiration dates lest they compromise the health and safety of their patrons. Doing so results in what health departments consider a critical violation due to the elevated risk of contamination and potential ravaging toll taken on the consumer’s health.

13. Too Much Salt

Every human animal needs some amount of salts in the daily diet, but one restaurant or processed food meal contains more than ¾ of the amount of the stuff needed in a day – obviously an issue for those who strive to eat the usual three squares. Nutritionists, scientists, and policy makers are split over whether or not legislation to regulate its use for reasons of both liberty and numbers. Salt, popularly used for both its preservative properties and flavor, undoubtedly causes dehydration in the body and disputably leads hypertension and blood pressure issues. In spite of the raging debates within the scientific and medical communities, New York City is attempting to wean its populace off excessive salt intake as it tried to do with trans fats. Regardless of the science and politics, though, individuals should still try to minimize their salt intake to prevent dehydration – a feat that cannot be accomplished with excessive consumption of restaurant food.

14. Chunks of Dried Skin

A 2009 Singaporean study of restaurants (including those serving fast food and catering businesses revealed that a startling 19% of workers suffered from irritant contact dermatitis (also known as ICD. In addition, 6% of the ones sustaining burns dealt with the aftereffects for around 3 months. 10% of the dermatitis cases lasted at least a year, while 8% spanned 3 months or so. Other common skin disorders suffered by food service workers include heat rash, calluses, paronychia, and allergic contact urticaria. While these are non-communicable conditions, kitchen staff members practicing poor hygiene and sanitation (which does happen could slough off more skin particles into the meals than usual. This will always occur to some extent, of course, but disorders that involve flaking and peeling run a higher risk of possible compromise and contamination – especially considering how frequently even those unburdened with dermatitis and allergic reactions harbor a multitude of microbes and potentially harmful bacteria.

15. Vermin

Where there is food, there are inevitable pests. Restaurant owners and their staff members always need to keep on their toes if they hope to keep them from entering the establishment and wreaking biological havoc on their food and customers. However, when apathy settles in, some kitchens go so far as to pay little heed to cockroaches scuttling across the ingredients or prepared meals about to be served. Such allowances are thankfully less frequent than the mere presence of vermin, but any occurrence still inspires considerable concern. As pets are one of the most common and easy-to-spot hazards cited on health inspection forms, potential patrons worried about their food would do well to read reports online through their local governing authority.

16. Untraceable Food Sources

Most health inspectors request that restaurants save records of their food purchases for at least 90 days, but the Food and Drug Administration’s lack of resources prevents them from keeping track of every product that reaches consumers. This poor communication between suppliers, vendors, and restaurants facilitates disease outbreaks and makes it exceedingly difficult to discover the source of the problem at hand. The United States Department of Agriculture must also suffer from a similar predicament, as contaminated meat still finds its way into the food supply in restaurants, school cafeterias, grocery stores, and beyond. Being able to trace where the outbreak originated and how the food became compromised to begin with is essential if humanity ever hopes to prevent such devastation from repeatedly occurring.

17. E. Coli

E. coli bacteria can crop up in produce, milk, water, meat, and other consumables alike, and have been deemed responsible for around 30 outbreaks since its discovery in 1982. Symptoms of this potentially deadly strain include bloody diarrhea, convulsions, and renal failure, among others. Because the more serious E. coli outbreaks can result in one or more deaths, it stands as yet another reason why the government and the food production and service industry need to find ways of streamlining and organizing their inspection system. The inability to discover what facilities remain the most vulnerable to harboring the bacteria only makes the issue worse and leaves humanity open to another potential outbreak.

18. Salmonella

Like E. coli, salmonella can slip undetected into any element of the food supply at almost any point and cause a serious outbreak. Meat, eggs, produce, nuts, and even pepper have all led to consumers coming down with the symptoms of salmonella in the past. Those who contract the pathogen suffer from severe dehydration, diarrhea (which may or may not contain blood, fever, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping. Again, the severity of these outbreaks and the possibility of death via dehydration make a compelling case for improvements to health inspections, stricter compliance to sanitation laws, and more stringent punishments for those caught compromising their products.

19. Norovirus

Norovirus only lasts between 24and 48 hours, forcing its victim to suffer from abdominal cramps, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, headaches, and a low-grade fever. As a highly communicable disease, it can spread quickly from person to person – most especially those handling food. In a North Dakota school cafeteria, a careless worker slicing up lettuce eventually sickened 52 students and 1 faculty member with norovirus within days. While not technically a restaurant, the incident at the educational institution reflects one of the possibilities found when a food service employee overlooks basic hygiene and sanitation rituals like wearing gloves or coughing near meals. Fortunately, norovirus does not kill as often as E. coli or salmonella, though children and adults with weaker immune systems may succumb to dehydration.

20. Pesticides

Unless a particular menu item has received a certified organic seal, most diners will have to deal with some degree of pesticide, fungicide, or herbicide residue on their food. In Canada and the United States, the citizenry receives mixed messages regarding the real safety and health properties of these chemicals. The former has begun proposing legislation that heavily regulates which of these deterrents can be used on crops, only approving those with undeniable evidence of absolutely no harm when consumed by humans. Concern over the use of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides comes from receiving mixed messages as to how they affect both the environment and people, generating an overall mistrust and malaise towards their use in the food supply and driving more and more consumers towards buying organic. Much of the issue comes with the fact that some of these mixtures may involve trace amounts of toxic chemicals, which can build up in a body over time and potentially cause serious health problems later in one’s life.

21. Antibiotics

Animals raised for food get sick. Sometimes these animals need veterinary treatment. And sometimes these animals need antibiotics to get well again. Most consumers agree that sporadic use of antibiotics in pigs, cows, chickens, and other sources of meat is permissible to prevent the spread of bacterial infections in the food supply. However, many farmers still cram their wares full of the stuff even when they do not show any signs of illness. Believing that such measures will only fortify their livestock, the unnecessary use of antibiotics in animals raised for meat can potentially lead to bacteria that grow immune to cures far quicker than if they were exposed under normal medical circumstances. This only raises humanity’s risk of infection, as science may not always be able to catch up with evolution.

22. Antidepressants

Much debate ensues over the practice of fish farming, and while wild caught specimens generally tend to be healthier than their captive counterparts, they are not without their problems as well. Because waste treatment plants fail to filter out pharmaceuticals, both freshwater and saltwater fish alike absorb the chemicals found in antidepressants after being excreted from humans. And with over 200 million of these prescriptions filed in the United States alone every year, that means quite a bit of Prozac in the Pacific. Studies have shown that the chemicals from antidepressants cause many species to act in extremely bizarre and apathetic manners, though the issues are only currently present in smaller fish. However, even the larger specimens of salmon, tuna, shark, swordfish, and other popular meals still contain trace amounts of these mind-altering substances – which are then transmitted to consumers once cooked and eaten. Trace amounts will likely have minimal effect, but those who eat fish on a regular basis may experience a buildup over time. Likewise, with current prescription trends it is entirely possible that even the larger species will begin displaying lackadaisical or erratic behavior as well.

23. Hormones

Like the overuse of antibiotics in meat, farmers who pump cows with bovine growth hormone (BGH come under extreme scrutiny from worried consumers. Pork and chicken, by law, cannot contain artificial or unnaturally administered hormones, so the concern comes saddled exclusively with beef and dairy products. Cattles raised for food oftentimes receive a synthetic hormone boost in order to strengthen them and facilitate weight gain for a higher profit and yield. However, many scientists believe that such a measure is responsible for children beginning to reach puberty at a much earlier age than they should – with young women sometimes starting their menstrual cycles as young as 8 years old. This throws off the delicate balance of the endocrine system and may cause serious hormonal issues later on down the line as well.

24. Poor Handwashing

Norovirus is only one such example of a communicable disease that uses inadequate handwashing as a conduit. Kitchen workers neglecting this most basic element of hygiene protocol has been responsible for cholera and hepatitis A outbreaks as well – among many, many other conditions. The only way to prevent such oversights is for managers and owners alike to more stringently enforce handwashing in their employees. Most understandably place staff members on the honor system, but doing so presents a number of possible risks for patrons. Hazards do begin to alleviate and fade when the kitchen staff uses gloves or refrain from coughing or sneezing near food, however, though even when hands will be covered they still need a good washing to kill as many germs as possible.

25. Deceiving Health Inspectors

Restaurants do not even have to receive a less-than-adequate rating from the health department to pose a threat to their customers! When an impending inspection is announced, many establishments will buckle down and give the place a thorough rubdown – with special attention paid to any offenses that could lead to a critical citation. Most health inspectors show up (or at least they should at least twice a year, leaving restaurants and other food services to fall completely into sanitation anarchy in the interim. So even if a restaurant receives stellar marks from the health department, there is no guarantee that they will carry this over into the time following the inspection.

Most diners are fortunate enough to never encounter many of the health hazards associated with eating in restaurants. Food poisoning cases, if they occur, will likely remain comparatively mild, and hormones, antidepressants, and antibiotics probably will not cause serious issues in full-grown adults unless they consume massive quantities of meat or fish. However, savvy consumers still need to know what goes on (or may go on behind kitchen doors and at the facilities of their suppliers if they want to remain aware of their food and surroundings.

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