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Dining out? 6 ways to avoid getting sick

Dining out 6 ways to avoid getting sick

When dining out or at home, foodborne illness can strike.

Consider the statistics: Every year, 48 million Americans -- or 1 in 6 -- get sick from eating contaminated food or beverages, and 3,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thirty-one pathogens cause 20 percent of foodborne illnesses, and unspecified pathogens cause the rest.

Restaurant chains have been in news headlines for causing foodborne illnesses. One example: Chipotle Mexican Grill, where in 2015 hundreds of people became sickened with a strain of E. coli or norovirus.

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For most people, a foodborne illness means lost time from work and physical pain followed by recovery. But for young people, pregnant women, elderly people and anyone with impaired immune systems, the consequences are more severe and can be life-threatening.

All of which raises the question: How can you dine and avoid getting sick? Here are six ways to reduce your risk.

1. Make sure meat, seafood are fully cooked.

Six of the 12 pathogens identified as the biggest causes of foodborne illness come from undercooked meat or seafood. So cook your food to the proper temperature, says Barry Parsons, a Lancaster, Pa.-based food safety expert. FoodSafety.gov offers a list of minimum cooking temperatures for various meats and seafood.

And if you're ordering steak at a restaurant, for instance, rather than asking for it to be cooked medium or medium-well, give a minimum temperature you want the steak to be cooked.

If you think your food is undercooked, don't eat it.

2. Go easy on the sprouts.

Sprouts grow in warm, moist environments and make an excellent breeding ground for bacteria, Parsons says.

Children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with a chronic illness or  compromised immune system should pass on this type of food.

3. Be careful around self-service areas.

Areas where you serve yourself -- such as salad bars -- are easily contaminated, says the National Restaurant Association. Best practices: Use single-serve dispensers, wrapped flatware and touch-free hand sanitizers.

Dine at places where an employee monitors customers, making sure no one refills a dirty plate or uses unclean utensils. Check for frequently cleaned and sanitized surfaces.

4. Take extra precautions for food allergies.

One in 13 children in the United States has a food allergy, according to Food Allergy Research and Education Inc. If you have food allergies, see your doctor and ask if you should carry an EpiPen, used to inject epinephrine during a severe allergic reaction.

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At restaurants, request the simplest recipe and ask the manager to guarantee your food is allergen-free, Parsons says. "If they cannot guarantee it 100 percent, don't eat it," he says. "It's not worth the risk."

5. Avoid a dirty table and surroundings. Ask for a clean one.

A clean table shows the restaurant's commitment to providing you with the basics of food safety, Parsons says. "If they can't provide a clean place for you to sit, you should leave," he says.

But not just the table, says Parsons. "Are utensils, condiments and holders visibly clean or sticky? Is the cleaning towel they used on your table used over?"

6. Ask to check out the latest health inspection report.

There’s nothing wrong with looking up the restaurant's last health department inspection online or asking the manager to see what the inspector found during the last visit.

"They should be proud to show it to you," says Parsons. "If they can't answer your question, be concerned."

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