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Photograph: Lynnepet / Flickr

How to know if a restaurant is clean enough to eat in

Written by
Freya Herring

This is the first piece in our series on the ins and outs of food and regulation. For more, check out our first ever Time Out Talk.

If you’ve ever noticed a crack in your crockery at a restaurant and just kept on eating, we’ve got some bad news for you. It may look clean, but actually that crack could harbour thousands of germs, and they are absolutely banned by Sydney’s health inspectors.

To talk about these sorts of issues, we chatted to one of them. But not just any health inspector, the health inspector: Peter Harding, City of Sydney’s health and business manager; aka the man who is in charge of the 40 health inspectors covering the central suburbs of Sydney (as far west as Glebe, as far east as Moore Park, as far north as The Rocks and as far south as Rosebery). After starting as an inspector himself 27 years ago, he is now responsible for the hygiene of over 3000 food businesses, “which is probably the largest in Australia,” he tells us. What this man doesn’t know about health inspection isn’t worth knowing.

So, what are the things that crop up the most for health inspectors in Sydney? “Generally one of the biggest issues of safety is cross contamination,” says Harding, “like blood dripping from raw food into cooked foods.”

Well, that’s an image.

“Or it could be the handler themselves – they’re suffering from an illness and exposed to food, and they’re coughing and sneezing on the food. So the other thing we are looking for is protection of the food. Often you see counters where they have exposed cakes on the counter where people can cough and sneeze over them. Self-service foods need to have a barrier so you can’t cough and sneeze on them as well.”

There are loads of things you can catch from a sneeze over food, as it turns out, including E. coli, staph, and many types of food poisoning.

E. coli is one of the most common things that health inspectors find on restaurant and café surfaces, and communal salt and sugar bowls are two of the worst culprits. “It’s a matter of cross contamination again,” says Harding, “They aren’t allowed... They’ve got to be single use serves. It’s about people coughing or sneezing onto it, or touching it with their fingers. People will pick up a pinch of salt for example and then they’re putting it on their food, and if someone had been to the toilet and got a pinch of salt afterwards, would you like to be the customer straight after them? Probably not.” Venues are not allowed to have communal salt bowls unless the contents are cleared and thrown away after each customer, which is a rarity except in higher end restaurants. We did an independent survey of 25 cafés, and despite this rule, six of them had communal sugar/salt bowls.

Another issue is crockery and cutlery. “As soon as you get a cracked plate, that crack is an area that you can get bacteria in,” explains Harding, “Same with chopping boards – they are not allowed to be cracked either because they’re very hard to clean.” There goes Sydney’s vintage plate trend…

Even cutlery and straws aren’t safe: “People tend to put knives and forks upside-down [in communal containers], so the fork part that goes in your mouth is sticking up in the air,” says Harding, “but that's not allowed because when you think about it, people go to grab one, and they’re touching every one.” Exposed straws are also a no-no, “You can’t have straws exposed. They’ve got to be in a little dispenser that you push down on and they come out.”

Health inspectors want to help rather than hinder businesses, Harding tells us, and they’re certainly in no hurry to shut someone down for something small like a communal salt bowl. For something like that, they’d tell the business to change it, take a note and check it again on their next inspection, six months down the line. “We look at education rather than litigation,” he says. It’s things like cross-contamination and pest control that are more likely to incur serious repercussions. “Any food poisoning disease like salmonella or the like has to be reported by doctors to the New South Wales Food Authority,” he tells us, “Once there are two or more people involved in a food poisoning outbreak, it’s then classified as an ‘outbreak’ and the NSW Food Authority take over with the investigation.”

So how can you tell if you should just walk out of a restaurant straight after walking in? “The tell-tale signs for a customer are looking for things like the presentation of the restaurant staff,” says Harding. “Generally if you’ve got a well-run business, they take pride in their appearance. It’s looking for things like pests – if they see a cockroach running across the floor, chances are they’re going to be in the areas that are harder to get to, like behind dishwashers and stoves.” Food temperature is also key – Harding says that if your food is lukewarm out of a bain-marie, it might not be safe. Make sure your food is piping hot for the safest eats.

Want to understand the realities and controversies of safe eating? Book tickets to come to the first Time Out Talk at Belvoir St Theatre on Monday August 15. It’s called ‘Is the nanny state taking the taste from our restaurants?’. Sort out your tickets here.

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