According to Ronald Schmidt, food science extension specialist and professor at the University of Florida, "food sanitation" may be defined as "protection from contamination." The CDC estimates that there are approximately 76 million cases of food-borne diseases each year in the United States; however, most of these cases are mild and pass within a couple of days. In the end, it is restaurants that are responsible for following safety standards set in place at both the local and federal level.
The passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 ushered in an era of food inspection and safety. Its goal was "preventing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein, and for other purposes." At the top of the regulatory ladder is the Food and Drug Administration, whose origins date to 1848 but has been known by its current name since 1930.
Federal & Local Regulation
The Food and Drug Administration is the highest standard for food sanitation and safety. About every two years, the FDA releases the "Food Code," which gives local agencies the "scientifically sound technical and legal basis for regulating the retail and food service." It is the responsibility of local government agencies to enforce these rules through routine health inspections. After a restaurant is inspected by one of these organizations, it's typically given a "grade." Restaurants are required to display their sanitation scores in plain view of customers.
Restaurant employees can improve their understanding of food safety and sanitation and even help their restaurant's sanitation score by attending ServSafe classes. ServSafe is a nationally recognized program that teaches employees about food sanitation, pest management, FDA regulations and other important information about how to keep a restaurant safe. Courses are available online or in a classroom setting. Some universities and technical colleges also offer courses in food sanitation as a part of an ongoing academic program.
At the most basic level, food sanitation is about three things: temperature, personal hygiene and housekeeping. Temperature involves keeping food from the danger zone of 40 to 140 degrees F (temperatures at which bacteria easily grow) and ensuring cooked meat has reached an acceptable internal temperature (e.g. chicken must hit 165 degrees F). Personal hygiene includes regular and proper hand washing, keeping hair up and away from food, proper handling of raw meats and thorough employee training. Housekeeping refers to general store cleanliness. This involves sweeping, washing and thoroughly drying dishes, keeping equipment clean and running, and maintaining the building's exterior.
Despite all the regulations the United States has in place, restaurants are still able to get away with a lot. When eating at a restaurant, take the time to notice the sanitation score and look around for general store cleanliness. These are both good ways to judge a restaurant's likelihood to serve you contaminated food. But remember, it takes only one employee to give a customer food poisoning. Sanitation scores are a good place to start, but there is always risk involved when you accept food from a restaurant.