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OPINION: Sniffing Out Hawaii’s Food Safety

July 21, 2012, 12:38 PM HST (Updated July 21, 2012, 12:46 PM)
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On June 25th of this year, after 80 years in operation, Kanemitsu’s Bakery on Molokai had its permit revoked by the Hawaii state department of health, closing down an iconic part of its operation.

A complaint alleging insects in bread rolls had prompted a visit on June 20th by health officials, where they reportedly found “visual sighting of rodents during the inspection…and general unsanitary conditions.” Inspectors had earlier fined the bakery $90,000 for unsafe food prep conditions during routine checks earlier this year.

These kinds of closures are rare, but not for a lack of violations. There are simply far too few inspectors to frequently canvass the hundreds of restaurants across the state, and the current system relies heavily on public complaints in a culture where residents grow up learning to keep their gripes to themselves.

To help navigate your way to an enjoyable digestive experience when eating out, here are a few visual cues to watch for when judging whether a food establishment is going to cause you gastrointestinal grief.

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Are Their Lips Sealed?

Staphylococcus Aureus is carried in the throat and nasal passages of 50% of the population, and has been responsible for some of the more spectacular cases of food borne illness (occasionally turning entire airplanes into high altitude vomitoriums).

Even if many cooks live “hand to mouth,” their lips and fingers should never meet in the kitchen. If you see the person preparing your meals using their pinky to taste-test, or scratching their eyes before handling food, you may want to think twice about that Tuna Tartare.

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Wiping Wisdom

We all love to see a friendly employee cleaning the surfaces we eat on. But keep an eye on that damp cloth! If it looks like it was used to clean a war wound, then that bubbly busgirl is wiping everyone else’s lunch (and possibly breakfast) all over your tabletop.

Dirty Money

Image file from Wikimedia Commons.

Tiny operations often have the same person handling the register and preparing food. When you see a sandwich-maker swapping out plastic gloves or washing up after cashing someone out, you’re in good hands (so to speak).

But no matter how busy the establishment is, if the same person making your salad was fumbling around with five dollar bills and never scrubbed down, just walk away. Consuming it would be like licking the fingers of several dozen strangers.

The Bathroom Barometer

No soap? Big problems. Image courtesy Kansas State University.

This one’s easy. Is there soap? No? Then someone’s heading back to the cutting board bearing gifts. And if the manager tells you “Don’t worry! We’ve got a hand sink in the kitchen,” feel free to let loose an expletive.

What happens in the men’s room should stay in the men’s room.

Judge Books by Their Cover

In the food business, what you see is often what you get. If a restaurant’s employees are sloppily dressed and unkempt, then you can count on a lack of standards behind the counter.

McDonald’s workers often get teased for their uniforms, but amid all that polyester and processed food is one of the cleanest, most organized operations on the planet. Business travelers that want to avoid intestinal turmoil often head straight for the golden arches.

Unexpected Guests

It’s an unavoidable fact. All restaurants have critters that work the night shift, roaming the halls for bits of grub our human eyes sometimes can’t even see.

In the best case scenario, a kitchen’s rodent population is limited to one or two lonely roaches finding love under a moonlit meat grinder. Ideally they’ll sleep it off during the day, never crossing paths with us during business hours.

But if your lunch is interrupted by a few extra diners crawling across your table, it means things are getting crowded at home, and they’ve got dozens of grandkids to feed.

Is it Worth It?

Is it worth it? Image courtesy University of Southern California.

Let’s say while off-island, you walk into a burger joint everyone has told you is amazing. But the floor is greasy, and the grill looks like it has been “self-cleaning” for the last 30 years. The owner, a frizzy haired man with a cigar hanging out of his mouth, hand-forms giant patties of freshly ground chuck, then throws them onto the fire and sips a beer.

While your meat cooks, he scratches his scraggly beard, knocks off some ash near the cutting board, and dunks a pile of house-cut French fries into the oil pit. As he slices a perfectly ripe tomato, you swear you see something run under a box in the corner. You have only moments to decide your fate.

Once in a while we’re confronted with the opportunity for a sudden, risky encounter. It could be dangerous, but if you take it? You’re guaranteed to remember the experience, good or bad, for the rest of your life.

Choose carefully.

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