Food safety improving at Columbus restaurants

Recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses make some think dining out is risky, but violations in city have fallen

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  • DepositPhotos.com, Dispatch Photo Illustration
    Critical health violations at Columbus restaurants are down 30 percent from last year, according to Columbus Public Health.
  • OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY EXTENSION
    Sanja Ilic is the new state food-safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension.

September 13, 2013

Salad bars often tell a story about a restaurant’s food safety. Does the lettuce look fresh? Is the bar wiped clean of stray drips?

That’s why Sanja Ilic carefully inspects the salad bar before ordering food for herself or her children.

“I make sure that everything looks good there, especially before I serve my kids, because they’re little, and their immune systems are not yet developed,” said Ilic, Ohio State University Extension’s new state food-safety specialist.

Ilic is a self-admitted “food-safety freak.” However, food-safety concerns at restaurants are growing for many Americans.

Forty percent of consumers are “very concerned” about food safety at restaurants, according to a mid-July survey by food and restaurant research firm Technomic. That’s up from 38 percent last year and 32 percent in 2011.

Here’s some good news for the concerned: In Columbus, “critical” health violations at restaurants are down 30 percent from last year, and noncritical violations are down 19 percent, said Jose Rodriguez, public-affairs and communication director at Columbus Public Health.

(Critical violations are those that could lead to illness, such as food that isn’t kept at a safe temperature.)

“I think the public is aware of food safety more today than ever,” he said. “The restaurant industry also is more aware than ever.”

Rodriguez experienced this awareness a handful of years ago while designing a color rating system denoting the results of local restaurant inspections. Green stickers, for example, are given to restaurants that pass inspection. The ratings are posted at the restaurants and online at the Columbus Public Health website, along with violations.

“We were the first health department in the region to put restaurant inspections online in 2006,” Rodriguez said. “We had 90,000 hits on that page in the last year.”

Some consumers get worried when they hear reports about illness stemming from food served in restaurants, Ilic said.

This summer, for example, federal food-safety officials are investigating a multistate outbreak of Cyclospora — a parasite in food or water that infects the small intestine, usually causing watery diarrhea, among other viruslike symptoms.

Outbreaks in Iowa and Nebraska were traced to salad mix supplied by Taylor Farms de Mexico to Red Lobster and Olive Garden restaurants, both owned by Darden Restaurant Group, according to the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although more than 600 people in 22 states — including two in Ohio — have been sickened by the parasites so far, no one has died, the CDC said.

In Columbus, the most-recent food-borne illness outbreak was in 2010, Rodriguez said. The outbreak of E. coli, which was later linked to romaine lettuce from a Yuma, Ariz., supplier, sickened 11 people.

More than half of illness outbreaks from 1998 to 2008 were associated with food prepared in restaurants or delis, according to the CDC’s Surveillance for Foodborne Disease Outbreaks report.

OSU consumer science professor Robert Scharff estimates that food-borne illness costs Americans $77.7 billion a year in medical costs, productivity losses and illness-related deaths, as well as pain, suffering and functional disabilities.

That excludes costs to the food industry, in terms of reduced consumer confidence, recall losses or litigation, or costs to public-health agencies that respond to illnesses and outbreaks, Scharff noted.

It’s no surprise, then, that restaurants take steps to ensure what they serve is safe.

“Our members understand that being a food-service manager comes with a great variety of responsibilities — the most vital being their responsibility to keep the food they serve safe,” Jarrod Clabaugh, communications director for the Ohio Restaurant Association, said in an email.

“In order to support proper food safety, we frequently provide educational information to our members, and this is a major focus of our outreach for September, which just happens to be National Food Safety Month,” Clabaugh said.

The National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe Food Safety Training Program teaches restaurant employees how to prepare, handle and store food safely, as well as monitor and document food safety.

Cameron Mitchell Restaurant Group uses the program to certify managers, including chefs, sous-chefs and dining-room mangers, at all its restaurants, said Heather Thitoff, director of training.

Thitoff does the ServSafe training for the group’s Columbus-based restaurants. Columbus Public Health also uses the ServSafe curriculum, Rodriguez said.

In addition to annual food-safety inspections, Cameron Mitchell Restaurant Group also employs National Everclean Services in Agoura Hills, Calif., to do unannounced inspections of each restaurant four times a year, Thitoff said.

“You’re only as good as your reputation with the general public,” she said. “You might have the best food in the world, but if there’s any element that guests feel is unsafe, or if you’ve broken their trust in terms of food safety, no marketing in the world is going to keep you in business.”

mvanac@dispatch.com

@maryvanac