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Food Safety: The Disconnect Between What’s Yucky And What’s Dangerous

When it comes to food safety, the things we think are gross are less important than the things we don't think about at all. That's a problem.

Note: This is a guest piece written by Dr. Ben Chapman, an assistant professor and food safety expert at NC State. Among other things, Chapman is a regular contributor to the food safety blog Barfblog, where a version of this post originally ran.

While it might be nice to know whether there has been an insect problem at a restaurant (for yuck reasons), I’d prefer to know about how well the staff manages the recognized foodborne illness risk factors: improper cooking temps; improper storage/holding temperatures; handwashing and hygiene; cross-contamination and safe sources.

Or whether the place sends employees home when they are ill.

Mike Baker of the Raleigh AP desk wrote a couple of articles recently (here and here) detailing an analysis of the health inspection reports across North Carolina – and related weird findings.

I like my friend Angie Fraser’s quote in one of Mike’s articles saying that it’s hard to figure out exactly what health inspection scores mean. Angie was quoted as saying the scores are meaningless to her because the system doesn’t focus enough on violations that are a risk to public health.  “A critical violation is a risk factor,” said Dr. Angela Fraser, a food-safety education specialist at Clemson University who previously served on an advisory committee related to North Carolina’s sanitation ratings. “If a risk factor is present, it’s not a Grade A restaurant in my mind.”

I’d even take it one step further and say that I’d love to see information about the critical violation posted right on the scorecard. Or add a smart barcode to it, so that I can scan it and see the full report myself. I’m all about more information instead of less. When I’m really interested in the inspection history of the place before I go, I currently check the Wake County website. But a resource like this isn’t available for all counties.

When Mike and I chatted a bit about his investigation, one of the things we focused on was a disparity in the perception of risks between the yuck factor (which patrons really seem to want to know about) and evidence-based factors that lead to foodborne illness. Roaches seem to mean more than cross-contamination to the general public (even though cross-contamination puts us at greater risk than the presence of roaches).

That’s a pretty good indicator that we – as food safety professionals – are not doing a good job of communicating about food safety. It’s not that patrons don’t get it and it’s okay to laugh off how dumb they are when it comes them getting it wrong. It’s more about food safety professionals not being compelling enough with messages about more serious risks.

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