By a large margin, diners fear roaches more than houseflies.
HEALTH Whether at picnics, food trucks, or posh restaurant patios and cafés, people love to eat outdoors — despite the occasional airborne intruder. Glance away from a plate for moment and when you turn back, one of those winged multi-facet eyed creatures is making is making his escape. A wave of the hand and you assume the best — “He probably landed on the rim of the plate and not the food.”
A coworker once wanted to treat me to her favorite soup. As she described the aromatic flavors, my eyes focused on a cockroach that was making its way around the rim towards the broth. When I pointed it out, she was visibly and audibly horrified. The sympathetic owner rushed to the table, grabbing the bowl while confessing, “We spray, they go next door. They [other restaurants] spray and they [the roaches] come back.” Patrons with the health department on speed dial would have been begging for the restaurant shutdown at that point. Neither my host or I got to taste the soup. And I conveniently forgot directions to the location.
Do Restaurants Bug You?
It has been said that all restaurants have roaches; they just need to keep them out of the view of guests. Contrary to this popular opinion, there is no acceptable amount of vermin in a food facility. Vermin are strictly illegal in all areas of the establishment, which includes the kitchen, food or equipment storage rooms, restrooms, employee locker and break rooms, customer service and seating areas, trash storage areas and exterior premises. If a food establishment or facility cannot fully eliminate the vermin, the inspector is duty-bound to either suspend their permit and order them closed or take legal action and have the local district or city attorney file a criminal misdemeanor complaint against the business and its owner(s). Only about 3 percent of restaurants in Shawnee County had a roach problem during 2012, according to inspections by the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
Pest control services have an arsenal of treatments for vermin, ranging from growth inhibitors, which block roaches from reaching maturity, to sticky traps and bug bombs. Despite being common in some damp/humid geographical areas, there are proactive steps that can be taken to curb infestation. Compacting and storing food waste in a separate walk-in freezer until trash collection, keeps outdoor trash bins from being so malodorous and attracting vermin. Here are some more tips:
- Properly store food
- Maintain a cleaning schedule
- Dispose of garbage
- Fix water leaks
Pest control specialist Orkin (no conflict of interest there) was curious about perceptions people have towards two common restaurant intruders. In a survey of 1,015 people, nearly two-thirds of the respondents said they would finish their meal if a housefly (Musca domestica) landed on their food, while only 3 percent of people said they would continue dining if a roach crawled over it. Apparently the majority in either scenario would trash the plate. Are you one who favors the housefly over the larger creepy crawly creature?
Interestingly, cockroaches, though typically considered to be a sign of poor sanitation, are a regularly consumed source of protein and other essential vitamins in many cultures outside the United States and Europe. So if one was discovered in your soup, you might theoretically be inclined to stir it in and gulp it down. (I am not advising it though. At least one competitive eater died after consuming live cockroaches among other insects.)
Cockroaches are omnivorous scavengers that consume any organic food source available to them. Although they prefer sweets, meats and starches, roaches are also known to consume other items such as hair, books and decaying matter. The odorous ammonia-like secretions produced by American cockroaches can alter the flavor of food, particularly as they expel droppings. Cockroaches can pick up disease-causing bacteria, such as Salmonella, on their legs and later deposit them on foods.
Flies pose even more health threats. Their indiscriminate ingestion of fresh or decaying food, carcasses, and fecal waste along with the tendency to transmit eggs of parasite worms (maggots) can cause eye infections, skin infections and gastrointestinal infections. So both cockroaches and flies pose health threats. Saying one is preferred over the other is like choosing between syphilis and gonorrhea among STIs.
Insects intentionally served in restaurants  are grown on farms  where their food source is controlled. The ones that wander from fecal mater to dinner plate are not as hygienic. To keep them out of your cooking and dining areas, patch screens, fix leaks, and plug holes in your home. An unwashed gift bag of lemons once came with cricket stowaways; thoroughly wash fresh fruits brought into the home. Keep yard clean, particularly if there are animals.
Upscale restaurants install wind barriers in kitchen doorways to keep flies and insects from entering. Of course this is little protection for open-air spectator cooking areas. At backyard barbecues and picnics, make good use of covered chafing dishes, plastic wrap, tubs with lids, and mesh food tents.
Remember that the sneeze guard on salad bars and buffets does not ward off flies. You’re not the only one who enjoys precooked pizza by the slice; you just might be eating a fly’s leftovers. If you have a sweet tooth, give a second thought to donut bins with or without doors, especially when an animated visitor is trapped inside — she may have contaminated your baker’s dozen, especially if you didn’t feel a gush of air from the wind barrier when you entered.
The FDA allows for certain foods, notably peanut butter and ketchup, to have "Food defect action levels," meaning that it's unavoidable to keep some stuff (insects) out. —Dr. Beverly Burden
Thoroughly wash fruits and vegetables before consumption and don’t hesitate to call the waiter if you discover a fly (or cockroach) in your soup (that you didn’t order as a meal). There may be some latitude for outdoor dining areas but the establishment could be at risk for fines and/or closure by the health department. Most restaurants will try to get by with offering free desert or discounting your bill. However, you are neither obligated to continue dining or pay for infected food.
Now, here’s the real test. After spending hours preparing and plating a meal for your family or friends, if you notice a fly lands on it will you scrape it in the trash and make a new plate or will you fan it away and serve anyway? Afraid to answer publicly? OK, turn it around; what would you want someone else to do if it was your dinner plate?
- If A Fly Landed On Your Food, Would You Still Eat It? Amanda L. Chan, huffingtonpost.com
- Explorers Club Tests Adventurous Palates With Fried Cockroaches, Goat Penis And More. huffingtonpost.com
- See it: Chefs from famous Danish restaurant cook giant cockroach. nydailynews.com
- List of Edible Insects. edibug.wordpress.com
- Cockroach Food. orkin.com
- Expert explains why roaches and restaurants don't mix. wtsp.com
- Cockroaches: A plague for restaurants. cjonline.com
- In a room with a million cockroaches. cnn.com video
- Scientist: Some snacks contain bugs. cnn.com video
- Eating bugs to save the planet. cnn.com video
- Waiter Jokes, Butler Jokes. indianchild.com
- Photo credits: Compound Eyes of a Robber Fly - (Holcocephala fusca) and American Cockroach, Wikimedia Commons. Green Bottle Fly, John Talbo.