Clean plate club Restaurants: Food safety expert loves a good meal out. Be smart, he says, but fear not. Unsafe cooking is the exception.

February 26, 1997|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

There's a certain comfort in eating lunch with a guy who's passionate about safe food. It's sort of like sitting on an airplane next to a pilot. You figure if something goes wrong, you're going to be the first to know.

So yesterday, when Ed Sherwin chewed a forkful of beef tenderloin dripping in red wine sauce, swallowed and beamed, we had to relax. So what if the establishment -- Tio Pepe Restaurante -- had been temporarily closed earlier this month when 16 people got sick after eating there? Our food safety expert didn't seem to mind. He not only enthusiastically downed a plateful of brocheta matadora and rice, he did it while discussing botulism, shigellosis, staphylococcus, trichinosis, bacillus cereus and other revolting foodborne illnesses.

In fact, when Sherwin exclaimed, "Isn't this great?" halfway through the meal, it was hard to be sure if he was talking about his food or his fascination with the variety of ways he could be poisoned by it.

"I'm probably a fanatic when it comes to serving safe food in licensed food service establishments," said Sherwin, senior vice president of MRR Associates, an affiliate of Martin's Inc. caterers. "I do know what can go wrong, and I absolutely avoid establishments that I feel could possibly make me sick."

About a third of Sherwin's job is devoted to training food service workers how to serve safe food, which gives him a unique perspective when he sits down to eat. Where we see chicken, he sees the fact that most uncooked poultry is contaminated by bacteria. Where we see chefs and cooks, he sees the potential for unwashed hands and uncovered hair. Where we see pesky flies, he sees carriers of disease.

Sherwin knows that most people don't wash their hands after using the restroom and that most foodborne illnesses are caused by food left too long at the wrong temperature. He knows that ready-to-serve food should never touch bare hands and that people handling your money shouldn't be touching what you eat. He knows that the listeriosis bacteria can grow at 32 degrees and that chicken needs to be cooked to 165.

"When we're out, my wife and I are always looking around at stuff," he says. "You can almost smell a place where there's a problem."

He also spots the dirty rags used to wipe table after table. He notices the waiters with drippy noses and filthy uniforms. The other day, he saw a member of the kitchen staff at a popular city restaurant leave the bathroom without washing his hands. Sherwin says he'll never eat at that place again. "It was like, oh my God, that's the worst thing you can do."

You'd think a guy who knows so much would have sworn off eating out long ago. But as passionate as Sherwin is about food safety, he's equally passionate about the restaurant industry. He's run a hotel and restaurant management program at Essex Community College. He's worked for the Restaurant Association of Maryland and conducts training classes for the National Restaurant Association. According to his resume, the latter group has named him "one of the seven most knowledgeable food safety and sanitation instructors in the United States."

And what he wants diners to know is this: In his opinion, the overwhelming majority of restaurants are safe places to eat. In fact, he says, most foodborne illnesses come from food prepared in homes or by volunteer groups, such as churches and fire stations.

Which isn't to say we should eat out in ignorance.

"Be observant," he said. "If you see that the place is filthy and the restroom is filthy and you can see that the staff is dirty and the place smells bad, that's a sign that bacteria is everywhere."

Other tricks of the trade: Sherwin avoids eating out on Mondays, which he says are days when restaurants clean out their refrigerators to make room for new shipments. He doesn't order chicken salad, tuna salad or barbecued beef sandwiches, because they're often made from leftovers. Same goes for food made in large batches that might sit around for a while. If he sees a lot of flies in a place, he won't order food. And last summer, he stopped eating from snowball stands because of workers who touch ice with their bare hands.

"Ice, water and syrup are not usually thought of as sources of foodborne illness, but that's not the point," he said. "I just don't want to eat food that people are touching directly."

Sherwin doesn't want to give the impression that he lives paralyzed by thoughts of germs and dirt; he doesn't. He knows from his own experiences with food poisoning -- he once got sick at a Texas restaurant where he was conducting a training seminar -- that sometimes, despite the best intentions, it happens.

"It's a very fragile barrier between what's safe and what isn't, there's no question," he said. "It can come down to one food handler not washing his hands after using the restroom."

As for Tio Pepe? Just an unfortunate incident, says Sherwin, who says the upscale spot is among his favorite places to eat. "Tio Pepe's has a reputation for excellence and reliable, high-quality food. If they had a negative track record, that might be different."

He finished the last bit of beef tenderloin and smiled as the waiter cleared his plate.

"Besides, we've passed the time limit for chemical poisoning and staphylococcus -- if we were going to get those, we'd be sick already. Next would be salmonella, but we didn't eat poultry or eggs. I think everything is going to be fine.

"And, if there's something wrong with these green beans and you get perfringens, you're not going to know until tonight."

Pub Date: 2/26/97

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