Can Dirty Restaurants Make the Grade?

Love to eat out? Listen up, because you might want to pack a lunch today. On average, Americans eat out at least five times a week. But a new investigation suggests they are taking a risk every time they do.

Most restaurants do a great job of keeping the dining room clean. But it's what happens in the kitchen that could make you sick. Seventy-six million Americans get food illnesses every year.

According to a new investigation from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit food-safety watchdog group, in addition to your appetizer, entrée and dessert, you might be served salmonella, hepatitis or e. coli.

"It is shocking to see how poorly some restaurants are doing," Sarah Klein of the CSPI told "Good Morning America."

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Sarah Klein reviewed hundreds of restaurant inspections from 20 cities coast to coast.

From drive-thrus to fine dining, two-thirds of the restaurants had at least one major food safety violation, including rodents and roaches. They also found contaminated food surfaces and plenty of employees who failed to wash their hands.

CSPI wants the country to take a cue from Hollywood. Los Angeles County requires that restaurants post a letter grade in the window. In ten years, they've seen a 20 percent drop in hospitalizations due to food-borne illnesses.

Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Public Health Department, described the psychology behind the decrease in illnesses: "Before, the only thing a restaurant cared about was not getting closed. If they were open, people didn't know how it had scored. Now people see the grade and the inspections are all unannounced."

The industry argues consumers already have all the information they need.

"If they're uncomfortable in a restaurant, walk out," said Mary Adolph of the National Restaurant Association. "You vote with your pocketbook."

But CSPI says people shouldn't have to guess.

"We are taking a risk when we eat out, and that's why we think it's important that consumers have access to the same information that the health department has," said Klein.

Tips for a clean and healthy meal:

Go to your local health departments' Web site. They often post restaurant inspections online.
Make sure the food you order is the right temperature. If it's supposed to cold or hot and it isn't, it may have been improperly stored.
Check the bathrooms. If they're not cleaning them, chances are the kitchen isn't clean either.

For more information on the CSPI's restaurant grading system, click here.

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