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One person’s sanitized story of restaurant life

By Jeff Hansel

Bernie used to hover over the breakfast grill with a half-inch-long cigarette butt in the corner of his mouth, a half-inch or so of cigarette ash dangling over the sunny-side-up eggs.

Nobody in the dining room knew the peril their eggs faced from Bernie’s smoking habit.

The same uncertainty exists at any restaurant.

Unless you make the effort to look over the counter, or sneak a peak into the back kitchen, what arrives on your dinner plate gets there through the mystery of culinary art.

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And as in any industry, there are good and bad workers.

I have worked at a variety of restaurants, and I still love the experience of food.

I remember a Christmas Eve when two under-appreciated servers named Bridget and Richard somehow handled, alone, a dining room filled with customers that would normally consume the work of six or eight staff. They flawlessly executed superb service with courtesy and speed, yet found time in between to sanitize tables — and Bridget to sanitize the back counter.

Of course, there was also David at a different restaurant, who would graze from the bus tubs where we stacked dirty dishes, taking for free a chunk of prime rib left on a customer’s plate. I can still remember him sticking his thumb and fingers one-at-a-time into his mouth to suck the juice away.

Today, most restaurant workers keep food safety constantly in mind. They wash their hands repeatedly, throw food away if there’s even a chance of contamination and work to make their dining rooms and kitchens as clean as possible.

But mistakes — and contamination — happen.

After I became ill with a horrific case of diarrhea a couple of years ago, someone from my dining party called Olmsted County Public Health and I became the team guinea pig. In other words, I had to produce a "stool sample."

The concept of transferring the sample into what, to me, seemed a tiny sample bottle and then "stirring" with a Q-Tip-like stick was not my idea of fun, especially being as ill as I was.

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The lengthy and none-too-clear directions told me I should place the sample bottle into the small white protective sleeve. The only problem? There was no small white protective sleeve. I eventually decided to put the bottle in the bubble-wrap postal envelope and mail it "immediately" as directed.

The next day, I got a phone call from a Public Health official. Just checking — do you have the sample yet? Yes, I said proudly. I mailed it right away, just like the directions said to.

You mailed it?

Yes, I said, with a slightly diminishing sense of pride.

OK...He paused. Which mailbox did you put it in?

The one outside the Government Center, I said.

It’s my vague understanding that a team of people from the U.S. Postal Service and Public Health then rushed out into subzero winter weather to retrieve my deposit.

It tested positive for a Clostridium perfringens, a common cause of foodborne illness.

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When people get sick with vomiting and diarrhea, half of the time it’s because of foodborne illness, an official from the Minnesota Department of Health told me.

Once a restaurant has an outbreak, though, you can be certain it’s safe after it re-opens, says Margene Gunderson, director of Mower County Community Health Services. That’s because "they basically turn the whole thing around, shake everything out and reopen the doors."

Some of Bernie’s cigarette ashes, I am certain, ended up in the stomachs of our customers. But did the microscopic amount make them sick? Probably not.

Olmsted County Public Health officials say they want to prevent vomiting and diarrhea, the most-dangerous spreaders of foodborne illness. They’re more worried about hand washing, employee illness and cross contamination than grimy tables.

What can a customer do to make sure the food is safe? Don’t forget that you can make a difference.

Ask your server if he’s washed his hands. Ask the restaurant manager for an invitation to look at her kitchen food-handling methods.

You might be surprised by the impact you can have as a regular customer who considers food safety the top indicator of good service.

Jeff Hansel is a Post-Bulletin reporter.

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