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Consumers Wary of Restaurant Food Sabotage

There is no sense in crying over spilt milk.  Why bewail what is done and cannot be recalled?

- Sophocles

by Lance Gay

As Americans flock to restaurants in record numbers, do they really know how carefully that food was prepared in the kitchens?

There have been some unsettling cases recently of kitchen hi-jinks, ranging from employees using frozen hamburger patties as kitchen skates, to spitting in food, and even charges of food freezers used as urinals.

The restaurant industry maintains these "isolated and very rare" cases of food sabotage don't represent a pattern or properly reflect the hard work done by the 11.2 million restaurant employees in the United States.

Yet in some states it isn't even considered a crime to spit or urinate in someone's food unless it results in "bodily harm" - a tough standard.

Some restaurants are installing surveillance cameras in the kitchen to monitor what chefs are up to in the backroom. They're also increasing their training programs.

Debra Ginsberg, the San Diego, California, author of Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress, says she's rarely seen incidents of food sabotage in her 20 years in the restaurant industry, but she acknowledges it does happen.  "One or two times in the 20 years I've worked in restaurants, I've seen fingers stuck in food, spitting once, and food that falls on the floor" served to customers, she says.  "My experience is that it seldom happens, but I'm absolutely certain that it does."

Ginsberg says it takes a great deal of aggravation for waitresses or waiters to retaliate by sabotaging food that's served to diners.  Besides, she points out, it's not in the economic interests of the food servers, who make their living from tips: "Active tampering doesn't benefit you, unless you are a sociopath."  She also believes diners have more to worry about from restaurants' failures to maintain proper equipment, such as hot water heaters capable of sanitising dirty dishes and utensils.

Steven Grover, vice president for health, safety and regulatory affairs at the National Restaurant Association, says he knows of no restaurant that would tolerate food sabotage.  And new open-restaurant designs - where patrons can watch what's going on in the kitchen - make hi-jinks very rare.  "This is less likely to happen today than in any other point in time," says Grover, who previously worked for Virginia's health department inspecting restaurants.  "We hold a special public trust, and we do all we can with training, supervising and monitoring to see something like this doesn't happen."  But "with 11.2 million employees, out of that there will be some bad apples," he says.

Scott Brooks, director of security programs for Taco Bell, said the chain has adopted new management and training programs to alert managers to prevent such incidents from occurring.

Still, some recent incidents show that not all is well in some kitchens:

bulletA Rochester, NY, court was told in June of a case in which employees at a Burger King used frozen meat patties to skate around the kitchen before putting them on the broiler for sale.  They also urinated on hamburger patties in the freezer and laced a hamburger served to a policeman with oven cleaner and spit.  One of the employees pleaded guilty to food tampering and testified against another employee, who was convicted of food tampering but acquitted of assault charges in connection with the hamburger served to the policeman, who became "violently ill" after eating his meal.
bulletIn Reynoldsville, Ohio, a policeman found a slimy substance in the soda he bought at a McDonald's.  After lab tests showed the substance was saliva and police began taking swabs from the restaurant's employees, a 15-year-old admitted he "accidentally drooled" in the officer's cup before serving it to him.  The teenager was charged with violating the state's food contamination laws.
bulletIn Wisconsin, a judge threw out a case against an employee who urinated in a fellow employee's soda, ruling the incident was "reprehensible" and "disgusting," but not against the law because no bodily harm resulted.  State Representative Frank Lasee has tried to get the Wisconsin legislature to close the loophole, but his proposal to make such incidents a misdemeanor has been shelved.

At least one survey shows consumers aren't all that happy about the safety of food they get at restaurants.  An annual survey of consumer confidence conducted earlier this year by CMF&Z Marketing in Des Moines, Iowa, found only 39% would give restaurants an "excellent" grade on food safety issues, down from 50% in 1996.

"We could not disagree more with those findings," said Kristin Nolt, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association.  People are voting with their pocketbooks - $1.1 billion a day - on their confidence in the safety of restaurant food, she said, and the industry expects to serve a record 54 billion meals this year.

Source: Nando Times July 2001 from Scripps Howard News Service Nando Media and Scripps Howard

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