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How safe are your favorite restaurants?

Dateline correspondent shares story behind ranking of popular chains' food safety

Lea Thompson, Chief Consumer Correspondent

Dateline NBC

I don't know about you, but, I love going out for a big pancake breakfast with my family on a weekend morning. And it's fun to drop in for a bite at a place like Chili's, Outback or Applebee's for some steak or ribs. In the Thompson house, we all love to eat!

So when we decided to take a look at food handling and cleanliness at family dining restaurants, I was expecting we'd turn up a pretty clean bill of health. Instead, I was stunned at what we found.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. Let me tell you how we got started. We are always trying to think of stories that will give our viewers information they can really use. That is why we did our survey of fast food places last year. People really responded to it and wanted more. So we "re-invented the wheel", as they say, and did the same story on family dining. Once again, we pulled together restaurant inspection reports for a recent 15 month period -- this time for Denny's, IHOP, Applebees, Waffle House, Chili's, Bob Evans,T.G.I. Friday's, Ruby Tuesday, Outback and Red Lobster. It was a massive job for our Dateline staff, writing and calling all these health departments. Then, it took months to read and decipher those reports to pull out what inspectors call "critical violations." In English, those are health violations that can make you sick. Things that fall in that category are letting food sit out too long, not washing your hands after going to the bathroom and then serving food, rats and roaches in the kitchen. You get the idea.

Total critical violations

Waffle House 594

Ruby Tuesday 514

IHOP 513

TGIF 490

Applebee’s 446

Outback 418

Chili’s 402

Red Lobster 350

Bob Evans 315

Denny’s 296

Note: Based on a survey of 1,000 restaurants, 100 from each of the 10 largest casual restaurant chains in the nation, from Jan. 1, 2003 to March 1, 2004. Source: Dateline NBC

As we were researching, we came across this horrible salmonella poisoning case that occurred at a Chili's in the Chicago suburbs in the summer of 2003. So producer Jack Cloherty and I went out to Vernon Hills, Ill., to talk to some of the people who got sick. We met Jen Lussow, a spunky 27-year-old who said she got so sick she thought she was going to die. She told us how she just curled up in a ball in bed with nausea and diarrhea. She suffered for days before going to the emergency room because she had just started a new job and didn't have any health insurance. She was sick for months, and it never would have happened if she had not had lunch with some new co-workers at the Chili's. Angela Bond is a bright, young medical student who got so sick after eating at Chili's she had to drop out of school. She lost a whole semester of tuition -- because she stopped for dinner with friends.

What Jen and Angela didn't know is that the water heater had broken down at that Chili's and there was no hot water to wash the dishes, clean the tables or even wash hands. The manager knew this, but he kept the place open and kept serving meals. Later, the local health department said an employee passed the salmonella on because he or she did not wash his/her hands after a bowel movement. Then that person touched all kinds of food. The result was that 300 people were sickened, 150 of them with serious salmonella poisoning. One of the victims I met, Kim Fields, said the salmonella even attacked her gall bladder and shut it down for a time. Another victim was a tough cop named Joe Favia. He and his wife and little boy all got sick. And he is no ordinary Joe. This Joe is a real hero -- literally. He ran in front of a train to tackle a teenager who was attempting suicide. He saved that boy's life, and received a medal from his department. But this tough guy was laid low for weeks with salmonella. It is really nasty stuff.

When we left Chicago, I knew we had an important story. Why should anyone get this sick just because they went out to eat. I had a lot of questions: Why did Chili's stay open with no hot water? What measures do family dining chains take to make sure people donn't get sick? Why didn't the local health department protect these folks? On the plane ride home, Jack and I talked about how to tackle this story.

Back at the office, Maria Afsharian and Yolanda McCutchen were almost through over 3,000 inspection reports, some easy to read, some almost impossible. Then we had our computer guru, Andy Lehren, load all the data in and crunch the numbers. We found a whopping 82 percent of the 1,000 restaurants we looked at had at least one critical violation. I was really surprised. We had reported a 60 percent critical violation rate for fast food. Casual and family dining chains come out worse. We also found more than 100 claims of food borne illness, customers who got sick and thought it was as a result of food they ate at a certain restaurant.

But back to shooting. We needed a health inspector who knew his stuff to explain the ins and outs of food safety to us and to you. We found Dave Jefferson, a very likable guy from the Dallas suburbs. Dave was kind enough to let us go along as he inspected several restaurants and we enjoyed following his keen eye. We sat down in a Red Lobster and he filled us in on a few things. First, he said, there is no way any restaurant should serve food if it has no hot water. He told us how critical handwashing is, saying "handwashing is important because toilet paper isn't foolproof." You can't make it much clearer than that.

Critical violations per inspection

TGIF 1.6

Applebee’s 1.6

IHOP 1.6

Waffle House 1.6

Outback 1.6

Ruby Tuesday 1.5

Chili’s 1.4

Bob Evans 1.2

Red Lobster 1.2

Denny’s 0.9

Note: Based on a survey of 1,000 restaurants, 100 from each of the 10 largest casual restaurant chains in the nation, from Jan. 1, 2003 to March 1, 2004.

Source: Dateline NBC

Dave also told us it is almost impossible to determine where a food borne illness comes from unless there are multiple victims from different families. There were enough people who got sick at the Vernon Hills Chili's and that helped track down the source of the problem. Dave told us that in most cases, people become ill from something like undercooked chicken. But at Chili's, it was a group of workers who could not wash their hands. So, they just passed the bacteria to whatever they touched.

We also used our hidden cameras on this report. The inspection reports identified the restaurants with the most critical violations. We then went there to eat. It was an interesting experience ordering food in a restaurant that we knew had a bad food safety record. And we saw and photographed some ugly things. We saw grease and grime in ice bins, filthy bathrooms, waitresses who didn't wash their hands after cleaning off dirty plates. I could go on and on.

Finally, we drove over to the National Restaurant Association, which represents all the big chains. Steve Grover, a former health inspector himself, told me he believed, in most cases, critical violations are cleaned up on the spot. But we were able to inform him otherwise. Dateline found almost half of the critical violations in our survey were repeat violations. Grover admitted that was a problem, and he told us the Restaurant Association would continue to push more training for restaurant managers and employees.

Of course we also talked to all of the chains in our survey, and to make a long story short, they promised to do better. Chili's said that Vernon Hills outbreak was an isolated case but it has since implemented new procedures to try to make sure nothing like that happens again.

So you probably are wondering if I would eat at any of these restaurants again. Sure. Most restaurant managers work hard to keep things clean, but I do think this story is a bit of a wake up call for the family chains. Some tell us they are starting to hire independent inspection companies to do unannounced going-overs. At least one chain has put its money where its mouth is by tying managers' salaries to improvements in health safety inspections.

As I always do, I learned a lot on this story. Now if I see a place with dirty glasses or utensils, kitchen workers not using gloves, or food sitting under the heat lamps for too long, I really do turn around and walk out.

That is a good way to force restaurants to clean up. If you don't eat in a place because it isn't clean pretty soon it will either clean up its act or it will be out of business. Cleanliness and profit really do go hand in hand.

And, all of us who worked on this story over the last six months hope that if you work in a restaurant you will remember just how important your job is, and how important it is to all of us that you do the job right.

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