updated 12/11/2003 9:11:17 PM ET 2003-12-12T02:11:17

Well, it seemed a daunting challenge. Dateline wanted to find out which of America’s fast food restaurants are the cleanest, and also the dirtiest. We also wanted to find out how safe, overall, the food is in our nation’s fast food restaurants.

We knew every restaurant is visited regularly by local health inspectors, and we knew if we could analyze those reports we could get a good idea if one chain was doing a far better job than another.

But we also knew we couldn’t analyze health reports for every fast food restaurant in the country. McDonalds alone has 13,000 restaurants. So we hired a well respected sampling company to pick 100 restaurants from each of the top 10 chains, 1000 restaurants in all in 38 states.

Then we asked the local health inspectors in each of those markets to send us their 2002-2003 inspection reports for those particular restaurants.

As our Dateline office in Washington started to fill up with boxes and boxes of inspection reports, we started to meticulously go over them — more than 3,000 inspection reports in all.

Other than the overall numbers, which you can see in our report, we found other interesting things along the way. While there is a national Food and Drug Administration Food Code that gives guidelines for food safety, only some of the states use it. We discovered a patchwork quilt of regulation out there, with some states and some local communities much more lenient than others.

For instance the national Food Code suggests that no one handle ready-to-eat food with bare hands, but in some jurisdictions that is okay. When you look at our final numbers, know that if we had determined hazardous conditions based on the federal guidelines there would have been many more critical violations — those that are serious enough to make someone sick.

What stays with all of us on this story is the people we met who survived a bad bout of food poisoning. We met a little boy whose body just shut down, kidneys failed. He is lucky to be alive. We met others who were hospitalized — dehydrated and hallucinating — after eating at a fast food restaurant. All of them still can’t believe how devastated they were for days afterwards.

We also learned that some of these food borne illnesses are very infectious and very hard to put down once they start. The Norwalk Viruses are particularly evasive and the Centers for Disease Control is very concerned at how easily they spread, not only in restaurants but in nursing homes, cruise ships, and wherever people gather. There is no cure — you just have to live through it.

Most of us on this Dateline dirty restaurant team thought if we ate well-cooked food, it greatly reduced our chances of getting sick. What we know now is just one sick worker, who perhaps doesn’t wash his or her hands, can make hundreds of others sick by simply handling ready-to-eat food with bare hands or just by sneezing in the air.

If you want to know more, we have set up lots of links to various Web sites for you - including how to keep your food safe at home. And, you can also read what each chain had to say about our survey.
      
Safe eating!
      
Lea Thompson
NBC’s Chief Consumer Correspondent

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