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Trusting Restaurants

We love the whole restaurant thing. We choose from a list of deliciously described items and magically, only minutes later, it arrives in front of us. We eat, we pay and we go home. But what did we eat? What risks did we take? Nothing I'm going to discuss will be any great revelation to anyone, but we conveniently push all ideas about any possible health risks to the back of our mind in the same way that we treat global warming and the demise of the Euro. So far, so good, but sure as eggs is eggs, it will all end in tears. Call it paranoia, but I'm beginning to get nervous - and especially abroad.

The dangers from eating food we can't see being prepared are:
  1. Contaminated ingredients 'past sell-by dates' (if the country you're in has them), improperly stored or cheaply sourced
  2. Incomplete cooking to kill bacterial pathogens
  3. Dirty hands, cooking implements and preparation surfaces
  4. Deliberate contamination by kitchen staff
A country's economic health affects all of these factors - and of course much of the world's economic health is currently in free fall... especially where we like to holiday. So how does economic health affect each of these threats?
  1. Restaurants suffer more than most when the going gets tough since eating out is a luxury at the top of most people's belt-tightening list. Consequently the pressure to cut costs simply to survive, is enormous. Keeping food well past its sell-by date and buying in bulk to reduce portion costs, not maintaining fridges or buying storage bags (or re-using old ones), and being less fussy about the source of cheaper ingredients, all quickly lead to lurking dangers.
  2. Incomplete cooking is a less obvious factor affected by tough times. One might imagine very cautious restaurants could cut back on fuel and electricity costs. This is unlikely. The bigger danger is in employing cheap, low skilled, inexperienced kitchen staff - or simply too few staff to properly monitor cooking times.
  3. Contamination by poorly trained staff, rationed cleaning products, or a lack of management pride from increasingly depressed owners or under-paid head chefs will be the main problems. Pay peanuts, get monkeys (not known for their sanitation).
  4. Deliberate contamination by kitchen staff. I'm not talking about Al Qaeda style poisoning - although this can't be ruled out (take note Olympic Organisers). I'm talking about people who either find it amusing to see what they can get away with in the knowledge that a diner might actually enjoy eating whatever it is they have included on the plate - and which their kitchen mates might also get 'a laugh' from - but maybe more sinisterly, the growing encouragement of the poor to get back at the rich.
First the hoodie effect: "I don't care what happens to other people as long as I'm having fun". I have spoken to several people who have worked in kitchens. Without exception they talk of disgusting things they have witnessed or even perpetrated. These range from picking up and dusting off food that's been dropped on the floor, to passing a pan around for everyone to spit into (TB is making a dramatic come-back). What fun. Are we witnessing increasing anarchy amongst the young? Are behaviour standards on the decline (think violent films and games, widespread 'anything-goes' pornography, unrestricted swearing)? Are we more likely than ever before to be eating stuff we'd rather not know about?

And what about the poor exacting revenge, egged on by a media rabid for banker-bashing headlines, driven by jealousy and ignorance, 'getting their own back' on the rich? When I visit impoverished countries with my family, we pick a restaurant because it looks clean and tidy from the front, and there's something about the menu which appeals. But what social issues fester round the back? How much do the people working in these hot hell-holes resent rich tourists? How angry are these people about the contrast between their fate and the healthy, clean, rich and increasingly fat tourists who patronise their countries? It's probably not a big deal, since staff at these restaurants will compare their individual lots with their neighbours', not with foreigners' who arrive with their own domestic issues awaiting them at home. We did, after all, go to their country to experience something better than staying at home. Restaurant staff know that good business is good for them, and a happy customer is more likely to return than one made sick. Even more importantly these days, TripAdvisor and the likes are increasingly effective promotional tools for the world's restaurants. Bad experiences no longer affect only the people experiencing them, they affect the owners of the businesses providing them.

So despite the natural desire of all restaurant owners to please their clients and, hopefully, their staff, economic pressures will inevitably make eating out increasingly dangerous. And if we all begin to fear eating out and therefore do it less, the economic issues accelerate - further justifying our fears. A vicious circle.

My advice, therefore, is to eradicate this post from your memory. Don't share it with anyone, eat out at your favourite hostelries as often as possible, and hope the rich flora and fauna accumulated in your gut from innumerable assaults by previous culinary adventures will prove sufficient protection from the range and volume of nasties you unwittingly subject it to.

Bon appetit

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