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Video: Fast food chains under scrutiny

Fast food: It’s served fast and you eat it fast, maybe too fast to notice the restaurant is a little dirty. The fact is that no one has ever done a national survey looking at the cleanliness of fast food chains — until now. Recently, we took our Dateline cameras undercover for the first-ever investigation of whether America’s top 10 fast food chains are clean and safe. How did your favorite restaurant do?

We're a nation fueled by fast food: burgers and fries, tacos, fried chicken. It’s hot, tasty and easy. And with millions and millions of meals sold every day, most of us just assume it’s all clean and safe. But when it’s not, it can be devastating.

After eating at this McDonalds in Erwin, Tenn., last March, one hundred people became violently ill. Some ended up in the hospital, dehydrated and even hallucinating. The Centers for Disease Control says sick restaurant employees very likely contaminated food with a virus, although McDonald’s disputes that.

Meanwhile, after eating at a KFC in Colorado, Gianni Velotta was infected with a dangerous salmonella bacteria. His mother says he almost died.

Natalie Velotta: “His kidneys weren’t working. I mean, there’s just no words to explain how bad it actually was.”  
 
How do your favorite restaurants rate?  
     
Was there any way to prevent it? Well, had Natalie Velotta checked, she’d have learned health inspectors had cited and fined that KFC just a few months earlier.

Velotta: “If I would have known that they had several health violations, I would not have eaten there.”

But who has time to check health inspection reports before they go to a fast food restaurant? Virtually no one, so Dateline decided to do it.

The biggest 10 chains have 75,000 restaurants. We couldn’t look at all of them, so we hired a survey company to choose a sample, 100 restaurants from each chain, 1,000 in all, spanning 38 states.

We then collected and examined local health inspection reports for the last year and a half on each of those 1,000 restaurants. Some were inspected just once, some more often during that period.

In a first of its kind national investigation, Dateline is going to use these health inspection reports to find out which fast food chains in our survey are the cleanest and the dirtiest. What we found may do more than surprise you. Some of the horror stories in Dateline’s dirty dining survey just might turn your stomach.  
   
In a Chicago, in a Wendy’s, inspectors found dead rodent decomposing on a rat trap. At a California Taco Bell, someone bit into a taco, only to find chewing gum. An inspector in Texas found a worm in a Wendy’s salad. At a Hardee’s in Florida, a customer was handed a cup of soda with blood dripping from it. There was blood on her change as well.

The list goes on. A cockroach in someone’s soda, a sharp metal object in a man’s sandwich. But as disgusting as those things are, they are rare. Experts say the things you can’t see can be even more hazardous.

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So what can be done about all this? Well, health inspectors tell us it’s not that easy to just close down a restaurant, and they say their power is limited when it comes to even imposing heavy fines. What they can do is cite restaurants for what is known as a hazardous or critical violation.  

Caroline Smith-Dewaal is with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food safety watchdog group.

Smith-Dewaal: “A critical violation is something that happens in a restaurant that may result in the food becoming contaminated.”

Lea Thompson: “By definition, is a critical violation something that could make you sick?”

Smith-Dewaal: “Yes.”

Critical violations are a benchmark for judging a restaurant’s cleanliness. Most food regulations mandate they be corrected immediately, and they are the only type of violations we counted in our survey. They include things like handling ready-to-eat food with bare hands or unwashed hands, undercooked meat, improper food holding temperatures, sick employees preparing food, and a host of other potentially hazardous problems.  
 
What may shock you is just how many restaurants had critical violations. More than sixty percent of all fast food restaurants in our sample had at least one critical violation in the last year and a half.

How many total violations did each chain have? Here comes Dateline’s dirty dining survey — it’s a top 10 list where no fast food restaurant wants to come in number one:
       
10: TACO BELL
The 100 Taco Bells we sampled had the fewest total critical violations, 91, making it the best performer in our survey. But it was not without problems. Recurring violations included dirty food preparation counters and rodent droppings.
      
9. MCDONALD’S
The golden arches, the 100 McDonald’s we looked at came in with a total of 136 critical violations. Some didn’t have a trained and certified food handler on the job, required by law in many states.

Thompson: “It’s that important?”

Smith-Dewaal: “Absolutely. We can’t have food prepared by people who don’t know that you can’t combine raw meat with cooked meat, with people who don’t understand the importance of proper temperatures in food preparation.”
      
8. KFC
The 100 KFCs we sampled tallied up 157 critical violations, and two thirds of the “finger lickin’ good” restaurants had at least one critical violation. Remember, it was at a KFC, the Health Department says, little Gianni Velotta picked up salmonella poisoning last year. We’ve now learned that another child was also sickened there, and the same restaurant has since been cited for three more critical violations.

While the Velotta’s have settled a lawsuit against the restaurant, a lawyer for the owner of the franchise contends the salmonella cases did not originate there.
      
7. SUBWAY
The 100 Subways we looked at totaled 160 critical violations. A recurring problem at the sandwich chain was improper food holding temperatures.

Thompson: “What does that mean?”

Smith-Dewaal: “That means that bacteria in the food that’s already cooked can start to grow, and it can reach levels that can cause serious illness for someone who consumes it.”
      
6. JACK IN THE BOX
The 100 Jack in the Box restaurants had a total of 164 critical violations. A Ventura, Calif., Jack in the Box was a trouble spot. It had several customer complaints of food borne illness.
      
5. DAIRY QUEEN
The 100 Dairy Queens we examined totaled 184 total critical violations. One Dairy Queen in Hampton, Va., rang up a number of critical violations last summer for grime, debris, and a inaccurate thermometer.

When Dateline went back recently to take a look, the restaurant invited us in, and showed it had fixed the problem.
      
4. HARDEES
The 100 Hardee’s tallied 206 critical violations. Again and again inspectors cited the presence of insects and rodents.

Smith-Dewaal: “Rodents and roaches are gross. But more importantly, they can also spread germs from food to food, and carry germs into a restaurant.”

Last May, one restaurant was cited for not having soap in the employee’s sink. Yet, inspectors found employees handling ready-to-eat food with their bare hands.
      
3. WENDY’S
100 Wendy’s had 206 critical violations. That’s the same as Hardees, but more Wendy’s restaurants had violations. So Wendy’s is number three in our Dateline dirty dining survey.

At a Wendy’s in Mesa, Ariz., inspectors noted repeated problems with food holding temperatures, mice droppings on the shelves, bare hand food contact, and one food borne illness complaint.
      
2. ARBY’S
The 100 Arby’s had 210 critical violations. The roast beef specialists had recurring violations for improper hand-washing and employees handling ready-to-eat foods with their bare hands.

Smith-Dewaal: And clearly, if the person isn’t washing their hands or using other sanitation practices, they can really make people very sick.
      
1. BURGER KING
So which fast food chain finished number one on Dateline’s dirty dining list? It’s Burger King. The 100 Burger Kings we sampled rang up a whopping 241 total critical violations. Health inspectors cited a Virginia Burger King for 14 separate critical violations: employees not washing their hands, uncovered food in the fridge, grime and debris found on this ice chute, and on the drink machine at the drive-thru widow. We observed one employee scooping ice into a cup with his bare hands, an apparent critical violation. 
      

SO WHAT’S THE BIG PICTURE?
The 1,000 restaurants we sampled totaled 1,755 critical violations, and 613 restaurants were cited at least once. That’s more than 60 percent with problems inspectors consider potentially hazardous to your health.

Still, in an industry where millions of meals are served...

Thompson: “Is it unrealistic to expect a fast food restaurant to come up with a clean bill of health every single time an inspector walks in the door.”

Smith-Dewaal: “The government inspector is the last checkpoint. The restaurant itself should be doing inspections and checking for critical violations every day. They shouldn’t wait for a government inspector to tell them they’re doing it wrong.”

Steve Grover of the National Restaurant Association represents fast food restaurants. He’s a former health inspector himself.

Thompson: “Does Dateline’s survey concern you?”

Steve Grover: “It concerns me. I do not find critical violations acceptable.”

Thompson: “Why are they there in the first place?”

Grover: “Because no one’s perfect. I tell the executives every day, 99.9 percent is not good enough, when it comes to food safety.”

Thompson: “What about 60 percent?”

Grover: “Sixty percent is not good enough when it comes to food safety.”

Grover argues as long as critical violations are being corrected promptly, then the system is working. Inspectors are doing their job, and the restaurants are following the advice of the inspectors as they come through.

Most fast food restaurants are owned by individuals, but most chains say they inspect every restaurant that has their name on it.
      
In a letter to Dateline, Burger King says it is “Extremely disappointed” by (the) findings... We want to assure our guests we will quickly investigate... and take immediate and appropriate actions...” The president of Wendy’s writes, “one critical violation on a health inspection report is one too many.” And Hardees says, “We must always do better. Any critical deficiency is unacceptable - which is why we address them immediately.” McDonald’s says “No one cares more about operating clean, safe restaurants than McDonald’s.”

All are unanimous in agreeing with KFC that “Food safety is our number one priority.” The Velottas, whose little boy became almost died, hope that’s true.

Velotta: “Every single time I go to a fast food restaurant, there’s that doubt in the back of my mind that they could get sick. Every single time.”

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