Safe Plates

An expert’s take on food poisoning, inspections, caution and trust

Jean Hertzman, assistant dean of the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at UNLV, got a first-hand taste of food poisoning years ago when she was an instructor at another school. She and most of her students in a food lab class got sick after tasting raw clams. ?I avoided raw shellfish for many years,? she says. We asked Hertzman, an expert in food safety and restaurant operations, about the recent outbreak of salmonella in Las Vegas.

Can you put the Firefly salmonella outbreak in context? Is it that unusual?

It is a little unusual to have so many cases tied to a single restaurant. Many of the most well-known foodborne illness outbreaks were spread over more restaurants or grocery stores where chain operations were buying from a common supplier or manufacturer. (About one in six people in the U.S. get sick from a foodborne disease each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with about 1 million illnesses due to salmonella.)

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about food poisoning from restaurants?

That most foodborne illness is caused by restaurants. More frequently, it?s caused by food eaten at home. Or it might not be from the restaurant that you ate at last. Many types of foodborne illness have long incubation times.

Firefly has had an A grade in inspections for several years. So what does that say about the grading system and diner safety?

Ratings are based on an inspection at a single point in time and only done approximately once per year. So much can happen in between. Many of the factors that cause lower grades are related to facility and equipment malfunctions, which don?t happen all the time.

Should diners be alarmed if their favorite restaurant suddenly gets a bad report?

I would look to see if the problems are corrected and the grade is back up to A for the follow-up inspections, which are done shortly after the bad report. If so, I wouldn?t be too worried.

Beyond just basic cleanliness, what should diners look for?

Server knowledge about the food, which shows that the restaurant cares about training. Employees handling plates, glassware, utensils correctly. For example, one of my pet peeves is when bussers stick their fingers in the glasses when clearing tables. The guests at that table may have already left, but will the busser wash his/her hands before putting clean glasses on the table for the next guests?

Do you personally avoid restaurants when you see they have demerits?

I normally avoid restaurants with lower than an A grade, because there are so many options in Las Vegas, why take chances? But I have never walked out of a restaurant based on food safety.