Dateline hidden camera investigation targets fast food chain cleanliness
Love it or hate it, fast food is a part of our lives. Tens of millions of fast food meals are served safely every day. But with 200,000 fast food restaurants, keeping them clean and the food safe can be an enormous task -- and, on occasion, mistakes can be made and customers do get sick.
In a groundbreaking report in late 2003, Dateline ranked the top ten fast food chains, and revealed which ones ran up the highest number of critical health code violations. Critical violations are the ones that can make you sick.
Back then, we looked closely at thousands of health inspection reports, and discovered some dirty dining -- a worm in a salad, a cockroach in a soda, chewing gum in a taco. Horror stories like these are rare, but about two thirds of the restaurants we reported had at least one critical health code violation in the previous year.
Mary Adolph: “Any time there's a critical violation in a food service operation, it's of concern to us at the National Restaurant Association, but also of concern to the industry, because food safety is paramount. “
Mary Adolf is a vice president of the National Restaurant Association. She says the fast food chains are working to eliminate critical violations.
Adolph: “Food safety is non-negotiable to every single operator in the food service universe.”
After our original Dirty Dining survey, the big fast food chains promised to do better. Well, are they doing better?
The only way to find out was to "super-size" our first fast food survey. So we gathered and analyzed a year's worth of inspection reports 1,000 fast food restaurants from all across the country. Based on our new survey, we’ll give you the fresh rankings of the ten biggest fast food chains. We'll tell you which operations are doing the best and the worst job of keeping things safe and clean.
If you eat fast food, you'll want to know what we found. While it is not common for people to get sick, some of the people we spoke with discovered that when fast food restaurants make food-handling mistakes, it can be devastating.
1. Jack in the Box: For every 100 routine health inspections, Jack in the Box averaged 45 critical violations. That's less than one critical violation for every two inspections. The chain's performance was strong enough to make it one of the two restaurants that stood above the rest in our survey. the other?
2. Taco Bell: For every 100 inspections, the chain averaged 62 critical violations. Indeed, Taco Bell does things differently than most of the other chains. Its meat products are prepared at off-site, commercial kitchens, and not at the actual restaurant. The workers at a Taco Bell just heat and serve.
3. Wendy’s: Wendy's averaged 84 critical violations and is the most improved chain compared to last year's survey. It's most common problem was improper holding temperatures. It's the same violation we saw most often in all of the surveyed restaurants.
Statistically, Wendy's, Taco Bell and Jack in the Box turned in performances that separated them from the rest of the fast food pack. The seven other chains did not perform as well in our survey and are bunched pretty closely together.
4. SUBWAY: The 'think fresh' sandwich chain averaged 98 critical violations per 100 inspections. SUBWAYs serve a variety of cold-cut sandwiches, so keeping meat at the proper holding temperature is key. But improper temperature holding was the most frequently cited violation at the SUBWAYs in our survey.
4. (Tie) Dairy Queen: DQ also averaged 98 critical violations for every 100 inspections. At a DQ in Virginia, we saw a worker touching and then cooking meat, then switch to preparing ice cream without washing her hands. That's potential cross contamination of food. In fact, our survey revealed the highest percentage of violations at DQ were cross contamination.
Half way through our list now, and the first five restaurants all averaged fewer than one critical violation per inspection. But as we move through the bottom half of our list, the average critical violations are rising.
6. KFC: The colonel's crew rang up an average of 102 critical violations. A recurring problem was cross contamination. KFC has to be careful so raw chicken does not contaminate other food items. And there were other violations as well. A KFC in Chandler, Ariz. had eight critical in just one inspection last March. It was cited for a buildup of grime and mold on the soda nozzles and that, inspectors say, can cause bacterial growth. They were also cited for selling out of date chicken pot pies.
7. Burger King: The flame-broiled burger chain averaged 111 critical violations per 100 inspections, more than one per inspection. The Burger Kings in our survey ran up high numbers of improper holding temps and cross contamination violations. At one Burger King we saw an employee drying his wet hands on his shirt, then waiting on a customer. There was a puddle on the floor and soda nozzles caked with syrup.
8. Arby’s: For every 100 inspections, Arby's averaged 115 critical violations. The roast beef sandwich is Arby's signature item, but our survey indicates that too often, the roast beef is left sitting out too long. More than half the Arby's we surveyed had holding temp violations, and that can be dangerous.
9. Hardee’s: The chain averaged 118 critical violations per 100 inspections. It had one of the highest number of critical violations in Dateline's original survey as well. This year, Hardee’s racked up the highest number of violations for mold and grime of all the chains. One location in Virginia had seven criticals in one inspection alone, including grime and debris stuck to the soda nozzles.
10. McDonald’s: The chain averaged 126 critical violations for every 100 inspections, the highest average in our survey. McDonald's was the only chain where hand washing was the most commonly cited violation. Either inspectors witnessed employees not washing their hands or the restaurants had inadequate handwashing facilities.
So there's our 2005 fast food Dirty Dining list. Jack in the Box and Taco Bell had the fewest average violations in our survey, Hardee’s and McDonald's the highest violation rate. The good news? Seven of the 10 chains did a little better than they did in last, averaging fewer critical violations per inspection. But keep in mind, just like last year, about two thirds of the restaurants we surveyed had at least one critical violation.
Makes me so glad I listened to my doctor when he suggested I give up eating fast food several years ago. Did anyone watch Dateline? I bet it was enough to make you never eat at McDonalds again.