What's New -- CSPI Press Releases

November 13, 1996

CONTACT: Caroline Smith DeWaal 202/332-9110, ext. 366


National Study Rates Regulation of Restaurant Food Safety

Most states and localities do not meet the restaurant food safety standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to a nationwide study released today by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Caroline Smith DeWaal, CSPI's director of food safety, said, "Weak, poorly enforced state and local regulations result in millions of cases of food poisoning -- and several thousand deaths -- each year."

CSPI's study, Dine at Your Own Risk: The Failure of Local Agencies to Adopt and Enforce National Food Safety Standards for Restaurants, indicates that thousands of restaurants are not required to follow basic food safety standards, such as cooking and refrigeration temperatures.

Dine at Your Own Risk compares the restaurant food safety requirements of 45 states, cities, and counties against 12 key FDA standards. Of the 45 jurisdictions surveyed, the jurisdictions with the best record -- adopting 11 of the standards -- are Rhode Island and Concord, NH. Bernalillo County, NM (including Albuquerque) and Chicago follow close behind with 10.

The jurisdiction with the worst record is Delaware, which adheres to a mere three of the FDA standards. Seven others follow only four: Dallas; Detroit; Portland (ME); and San Francisco; and the counties of Atlantic, NJ; Jefferson, KY (includes Louisville); and Jackson, MO.

Not a single jurisdiction surveyed has adopted all 12 of the FDA standards, and the average city or state has adopted only half of them. The standards include such requirements as the following: refrigerate food at 41 degrees; cook pork to an internal temperature of 155 degrees; inspect restaurants at least twice a year; and post warnings alerting consumers to the dangers of eating certain foods raw.

States, counties, and cities should adopt the FDA's most up-to-date standards, according to Don Schaffner, Ph.D., of Rutgers University's Department of Food Science. Said Schaffner, who spoke at the CSPI press conference: "The food safety standards in the FDA Food Code represent the best nationwide consensus on how restaurants should handle food to keep it safe. To protect the health of consumers, restaurant inspection agencies should be enforcing the most recent version of the code."

CSPI's report noted that some restaurants have adopted strong procedures of their own to protect their patrons' health. At the press conference, CEO Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea

Foods, Inc, which operates 13 East Coast restaurants, said, "Consumers today -- in greater numbers than ever before -- depend on the restaurant industry to provide them and their families with a safe dining experience. It is our responsibility to fulfill the trust and confidence they are placing in us. A commitment to food safety takes time and effort, and while it's not inexpensive, it certainly is good business.

"Our Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point System (HACCP) begins at the fish pier and our seafood processing plant and extends into all Legal Sea Foods restaurants. It involves intensive monitoring of food throughout all phases of operations."

Despite what some restaurants do, the overall problem remains acute. "The FDA should be doing far more to ensure that local health departments are adopting its Model Food Code for restaurant safety," said DeWaal, who co-authored the study with Staff Attorney Elizabeth Dahl.

Dahl added, "Consumers are twice as likely to report food poisoning caused by restaurant food as by food prepared at home. And with more consumers eating out than ever before, the number of illnesses and deaths is likely to rise, unless restaurants and the government agencies that regulate them do a better job of promoting food safety."

Michael Jacobson, executive director of CSPI, said, "Consumers shouldn't have to play Russian Roulette when they go out to eat. Diners should be outraged that their local health department is not adhering to each and every FDA standard aimed at preventing food poisoning."

CSPI's study applauds two other chains and one small-town restaurant -- Taco Bell, Jack in the Box, and That's Amore (Hale's Corners, WI) -- for taking voluntary actions to prevent food poisoning. Jack in the Box's record is especially noteworthy because in 1993 a deadly outbreak of E. coli bacteria was traced to contaminated hamburgers served in that chain's outlets.

Some of the study's most important findings include:

Dine at Your Own Risk contains a dozen recommendations for appropriate and effective action that government agencies and restaurants can and should take to prevent food poisoning. Those include better federal controls to prevent contamination of food with dangerous bacteria, and federal funding to help states adopt and enforce FDA guidelines.

Copies of Dine at Your Own Risk may be obtained by sending $10 to CSPI - Dine Report, Suite 300, 1875 Connecticut Ave., Washington, DC 20005.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, health-advocacy organization specializing in food safety and nutrition. CSPI campaigned for tougher meat-inspection regulations and is well known for its studies on restaurant nutrition. The Center accepts no government or corporate funding; it is funded largely by the 900,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter.

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