According to a report in the Pittsburgh Business Times, at least 5 people who ate or worked at The Porch restaurant in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA fell ill with E. coli O157:H7 infections on or before October 1 of this year, with 4 of the 5 requiring hospitalization. The Porch reportedly closed its doors this week, with plans to reopen on Halloween.

Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who has represented hundreds of Pittsburgh-area residents in lawsuits against food companies[1], offered up his top 10 tips for consumers who are dining out:

1.    Before ordering anything, WASH YOUR HANDS. If a restaurant’s wash rooms are not clean and/or readily available with hot water and liquid soap, don’t eat there.

2.    Research the restaurant before you go. Check with the local health department to see if the restaurant you are interested in has a good safety record, avoiding restaurants with multiple critical health violations or closures for failure to correct them.

3.    Ask the restaurant about its own food safety policies. Quality restaurants will gladly provide you with their food safety policies and plan, especially if you call the manager during non-peak hours.

4.    Do not accept menu or service mistakes. These can be signs there is that food is being improperly handled or prepared. Marler says if restaurants succeeded in keeping “hot things hot” and “cold things cold,” there would be far fewer incidents of food-borne illness.

5.    Ask questions, especially about the restaurant’s food suppliers. As consumers, you have the right to know if a restaurant is getting items such as meat and poultry from vendors that test for bacterial contaminants.

6.    Leave small children at home and be extremely careful when dining out with the elderly or immune-compromised individuals. Small children are especially susceptible to the deadly effects of foodborne pathogens. Next to small children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable to foodborne illness.

7.    Avoid restaurants that invite “cross contamination.” Marler says some restaurants are “designed” to spread disease. Self-serve cafeteria-style outlets where customers may not have washed their hands before touching common serving utensils should be avoided.

8.    Be especially careful during “unsolved” outbreaks. Until health officials have the facts, do not assume anything about the source of an ongoing outbreak.

9.    Finally, educate yourself about foodborne illness. Resources about E. coli and other foodborne pathogens are widely available online.

10.    If you become ill – especially if you suffer bloody diarrhea – seek immediate medical attention.

[1.] See, Diamond, et al. v. Chi-Chi’s, Inc. U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware, Case No. 03-13063 (CGC) and Anslinger v. Coronet Foods and Sheetz, Inc., Blair County Court of Common Pleas, Case No. 2004 GN 5396