Choosing Safe Fast Food When Traveling by Automobile

If your traveling by automobile with a family, it is tempting to pack a cooler with foods. With three kids, now adults, we always did.


One challenge, however, is keeping that cooler cold. Open the lid, leave it open for a while, don’t secure it adequately and you have problems with time temperature abuse. Anything that needs refrigeration runs the risk of becoming a bacterial breeding ground.

Stop at a drive through, pick up some fast food and there are actions you need to consider minimizing the risks of food-borne illness.

I recently watched the movie “Founder”. It is an intriguing story of the development of the McDonald’s franchise. One of the early challenges was quality control and consistency across the brand. For many quick service food establishments quality control, still is a challenge. Consumers want to believe that there is chain wide quality control, universal training, and consistent application of food safety practices. But that is not always the case. After reviewing hundreds of thousands of Health department inspections, and based upon my personal experience I have seen a large variability in enforcement of food safety practices. So you cannot universally rely on the chain name.

You can, however, rely on the rating system. We provide health department scores converted to a universal grade. Check out the fast food establishment before you decide where to stop. They aren’t all equal in food safety practices.

Let’s take a look at the risks of eating fast food (quick service).

  • It’s not the restaurant’s fault if the disease is on your hands so start with washing your hands. You loaded the car with luggage, put the little ones in a car seat, put the dog in the back and traveled for a few hours. Use hand sanitizer if eating your own food. But, if stopping at a drive through fast food facility get out and wash your hands.
  • Watch the food preparer and handler. Insist they use gloves and don’t touch ready to eat food with their bare hands. They should know good food safety and your gentle reminder may keep you and others healthy as well as keep the chain from serving and epidemic. Consider your insistence public service.
  • If it is not cooked appropriately, don’t eat it. Check it out before you drive away.
  • Dispose of left overs. If you haven’t eaten it in 4 hours and it has been at room temperature, throw it away. You can’t blame the restaurant for your time temperature abuse.

We loved those family trips. You should too. Just consider sound food safety practices. It will be a lot more fun if no one gets sick.


Author: Dr. Harlan Stueven, MD

Harlan Stueven M.D. is a Board-Certified Emergency physician with sub-specialization in Environmental Toxicology and Board Certification in Medical Toxicology. Starting his career in the USAF, he served as a Flight Surgeon and Environmental Health Consultant Physician where one of his duties was monitoring food safety. In his nearly 40-year practice, he treated a range of medical, surgical and poisoning emergencies. He has been a Medical Director and/or Chairman of several hospital-based Emergency Medicine Departments, served as the President of Emergency and Environmental Medicine consulting group, a physician group Chief Financial Officer and sat on many national, state and local committees. Dr. Stueven founded Dining Grades and the Dining Safety Alliance to improve food safety by increasing awareness of food borne illness and the formation of partnerships within the food industry. He is a consultant to the Wisconsin Retail Food Establishment Grading Work Group; a Co-investigator in a CDC funded “Evaluation of Health Department Restaurant Inspection Programs” project. He has presented at several National, State and Regional conferences on restaurant grading and food safety. He is an accomplished leader, medical researcher, a champion of process improvement, author, and national and international speaker.

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