Food Safety Red Flags...
and What Should You Do?

So what if you see something bad? Is it worth reporting?

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You’re in your favorite restaurant and see something that concerns you… perhaps something we’ve listed on this web site, or something you wonder if we should list.

Should you respond? Should you tell someone? Should you let the manager know? When is something bad enough that you should call the health department?

Food SafetyThe answers depend in some measure upon you and your personality. Every person in the world complains somehow and somewhere – if only to friends and neighbors – but not everyone is comfortable complaining to a restaurant manager. However, if a restaurant has a serious problem, the manager is the person who needs to know! Don’t worry about offending him or her or getting an angry reaction; good managers appreciate hearing questions and concerns!

If you see a higher-scored Red Flag warning - #8 to #10 – definitely talk to him or her, on the spot or by telephone. Make sure you explain the situation clearly and calmly so that the manager understands the problem. Depending on the company policy, he/she may be able to take care of the situation in a number of ways; you as the customer can decide if the chosen solution is sufficient for you. If you see a #5 to #8 Red Flag, talking to the manager is up to you – but recommended; again, if a person-to-person conversation is uncomfortable, perhaps a telephone call or a comment card would be easier.

Always remember that you can be very helpful. Managers – like parents – don’t always know everything that’s going on, even though they try. You could be bringing a new problem to light. Restaurants need your feedback. (They need to know what they’re doing right as well.) You know you’ll be talking to your friends about your experience; let the location know first.

When I was a manager of a well-known restaurant in the Denver Metro area, I received a telephone call from a customer who had seen someone – she said it was a kitchen staff member – not wash her hands in the restroom. That feedback gave me the opportunity to refocus my kitchen staff on food safety. To thank her, I gave the woman and her family free meals the next time they came in. It was well worth the expense for me as a restaurant operator.

Food SafetyOf course, you’re not the type of person who blows things out of proportion, who is “out to get” some employee you don’t like, or who complains about anything and everything (throwing in a few fibs) just to get a free meal. Folks like that are only nuisances to everyone. But if you are giving honest, genuine feedback, or expressing legitimate concerns for your safety and the safety of others, managers want to hear from you!

When should you call the health department? It seems like such a drastic, accusatory step. If you see a major red flag, talk to the manager first – in person or by telephone. If, at the end of the conversation or transaction, you feel the problem will be remedied, you can relax. But if you return to the restaurant and notice the problem again, then you might call the health department and ask them to follow up. If, on the other hand, you feel that your talk with the manager did not do any good – if you feel the restaurant can’t or won’t fix the problem – then you are justified in calling the health department. (You can also decide to communicate with your dollars, and not go back to that location again.)

Food SafetyWhat if you feel sick after having eaten? If you’re pretty well convinced that your illness came from eating at that restaurant, you might call the health department and tell them about it. Before you call, make a note of the location of the restaurant, the date and time you were there, what kinds of food you were served (and how they were prepared – grilled, baked, fresh, etc.), what kind of service you received, how soon after eating your illness set in, your specific symptoms, what else (and where) you ate that day, and more. These are specifics the health department may need to know, so be prepared to give them.

If you’re ill enough to see the doctor, and you both believe it might have been something you ate, call the health department and file a complaint. These complaints help the health department recognize and respond to real threats to public safety.

What if you’re at a restaurant and see a number of uncontrollable flies… or a roach… or a rat? Let the manager know, return your food or ask that your order be canceled, and leave! This is a time to call the health department as well; it’s a sign of a big problem.

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