How safe are my favorite Alaskan restaurants?
August 1, 2017
Going out to eat at your favorite restaurant can be a very pleasant experience – unless you get food poisoning. Eating at home or eating out is an important distinction because Americans are twice as likely to get food poisoning from food served in restaurants compared to food prepared at home, according to a 2014 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Here in Alaska we have easy access to a lot of health information about most restaurants, but first a little background.
Food poisoning is common and often quite serious. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that there are about 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually. This is the equivalent of one of every six Americans suffering food poisoning each year. Annually these foodborne illnesses result in approximately 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths.
Older persons are at considerably higher risk than the general population for contracting a foodborne illness. There are a number of reasons for this. Our aging bodies do not have an immune system that is as strong as it was when we were younger, and the immune system may be further weakened by medications. The stomach and intestinal tract do not move foods through as quickly as they did when we were younger, and our kidneys and liver do not eliminate toxins as efficiently as they once did.
The consequences can be pretty dramatic. Listeria, for example, is a foodborne bacterial illness that can be quite serious for people with impaired immune systems. Listeria infection is most commonly contracted by eating improperly processed deli meats and unpasteurized milk products. Adults who are 65 years and older are four times more likely than other people to get listeria infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As older adults we have to be especially vigilant to avoid food poisoning. One practical thing we can do is to avoid the foods that are known to be more likely to cause food poisoning. The FDA provides just such a list which includes, among other foods:
Raw or undercooked meat, poultry, fish, shellfish or seafood;
Unpasteurized (raw) milk and its products such as some soft cheeses;
Raw or undercooked eggs or foods containing them (happily, most pre-made foods from grocery stores such as Caesar dressing, cookie dough, or packaged eggnog are made with pasteurized eggs);
Raw sprouts of any kind, and unwashed fresh vegetables;
Deli-style meats, poultry products and smoked fish — unless they are reheated until steaming hot;
Unpasteurized fruit or vegetable juices.
Alaska restaurant inspections
Here in Alaska you can easily look up the results of restaurant inspection reports for eateries all over the state. There are two places to go to find this information. The first is the Anchorage program. Using your web browser search for “Anchorage Food Safety and Sanitation Program” and it will lead you to the website. Call 907-343-4200 for information or to file a complaint about any restaurant in Anchorage.
On the home page, look for “Anchorage Food Facility Scoring and Inspection Results.” This will take you to a search page where you can search restaurant inspections from the year 2000 to the present.
You can begin a search with as little as one word of the restaurant name. Click on the specific restaurant of interest, and a list of previous inspections pops up. Click on any inspection for a detailed summary of violations. A “perfect” total score of 100 indicates that no violations were noted. Scores below 80 could result in a near-term re-inspection. Facilities scoring 70 or below could be temporarily closed until they remedy their violations.
According to Program Manager Dr. Shelley Griffith, about 75 percent of the inspections average point totals in the mid 90s or better.
Outside of Anchorage, the State of Alaska inspects restaurants in the rest of the state. To contact this program by phone, call the toll free hotline 1-87-SAFEFOOD or 1-877-233-3663 (outside Anchorage) or (907) 269-7501 (in Anchorage). On your browser search for “Alaska Food Safety and Sanitation Program.” Look for the “Food Establishment Inspections” tab on the home page. That takes you to the search page where you can search for restaurants by community or by full or partial name.
For any given inspection going back to 2007, a copy of the full report pops up. There is no comprehensive scoring system for state inspections, but generally multiple “Observations and Corrective Actions,” or a “Follow-up Required” (lower right hand corner of form) raise red flags.
The bottom line is that you can minimize your risk of food poisoning in Alaska restaurants by following a few dietary guidelines and by doing a bit of research. Bon appetit!
Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program and author of several books and numerous articles.