Expired Condiments, Dirty Lettuce, and Other Fast-Food Red Flags

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AI-generated image of restaurant red flags
Cheapism / DALL-E 3

Beware the Burgers

While fast-food restaurants are hardly known for their customer service, one would at least expect them to maintain basic standards of cleanliness and food safety. After all, isn't reliability and consistency what draws people to fast-food joints? But amid the myriad of fast-food establishments vying for our business, not all hold themselves to the same standard. 

From expired condiments to moldy soda machines, here are 12 red flags that fast-food workers and customers say you should look out for.

Harvest of Fresh organic vegetables

1. Visible Dirt in Produce

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing or scrubbing fruits and vegetables under running water — "even if you do not plan to eat the peel" — not all fast-food restaurants adhere to this suggestion. Eating produce that has not been properly cleaned or stored can lead to foodborne illness, advises the CDC. "Germs on the peel or skin can get inside fruits and vegetables when you cut them." If you see dirt on your burger's lettuce, that's a definite red flag.

Image of battered sausages, fishcakes, fish and chip shop display

2. Food That Tastes Stale and Unevenly Heated

According to one Redditor, if your food tastes stale, that's likely because it's been reheated in a microwave. "It's sometimes difficult to tell until you try the food," writes the user, adding, "There’s a restaurant in my town that is consistently crowded. Fairly expensive. [It was] dirty, food tasted stale, and my wife happened to walk by the kitchen and see like 6 microwaves on a table heating stuff up." Yikes! 

Kitchen sink with dirty dishes in the fast food restaurant
miodrag ignjatovic/istockphoto

3. Dirty Surroundings

Most customers agree that if you notice dirty floors, chairs, and bathrooms in a fast-food joint, you should run for the hills. "A dirty bathroom means a dirty kitchen," writes one Reddit user, while another notes, "Dirty corners on the floor, food remnants or splashes on the walls/booth/shakers, and a dirty restroom. If you can’t be diligent sweeping and mopping, or just cleaning in general, I don’t expect you to be clean with my food." 

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man pours a fizzy drink.sparkling water.cool ice soft drink cola
Nutthaseth Vanchaichana/istockphoto

4. Mold in the Soda Machine

According to multiple Reddit users, another commonly neglected item in fast-food restaurants is the soda or ice machine. "I have a buddy who fixes [ice machines] and he says they will have mold in them and some restaurants still refuse to clean them," writes one user. Another shares how they once saw a "GIANT hunk of mold" plop out of the soda machine and into their cup. "I was appalled," adds the user. No kidding!

Related: Kick Your Diet Coke Habit With These 10 Healthy Alternatives to Soda

American cockroach. Insect on dirty stove, concept of lack of hygiene and need for pest control

5. Bugs Running Around

This one should go without saying, but if you notice pests or insect droppings while eating in a fast-food joint, that's a tell-tale sign that the place is in shambles. "I was having lunch with some co-workers at a Chinese buffet and we all saw a cockroach run across the table," writes one Reddit user as they joke, "At least we know the food isn't going to contain pesticides." Yeah, we'll be running away as fast as we can. 

Related: 8 Things You Should Never Eat at a Buffet

Condiment packets

6. Expired Condiments

Another way to gauge whether a restaurant is paying attention to quality-control is checking the condiments, advises a nutritionist. "Once a bottle is opened, the shelf life can be significantly reduced due to increased exposure to bacteria,” says Mary Sabat, MS, RDN, LD. Meanwhile, expired sauces, spreads, and dressings are likely to lose flavor and texture over time, or worse, can make you sick, adds Sabat. 

Representing bad smell and disgust.

7. Foul Smells

If you notice any suspicious smells upon entering a restaurant, that's a sign that the staff isn't on top of cleaning and sanitizing, Reddit users advise. "I don't know how many restaurants I’ve walked into that smelled like sewage/toilet or old fish," writes one user, while another adds, "If there's a funky smell that's even slightly (or stronger) [than] urine, the restaurant probably has a rodent problem. Best to leave." 

Related: Restaurant Horror Stories That Will Ruin Your Appetite

throwing the garbage to the trash can

8. Sticky Tables or Trays

If a restaurant has sticky tables, menus, and trays, that's a huge red flag. If the "table is sticky and it gets stickier after they wipe it," that's a sign that the kitchen is probably in even rougher shape, writes one user. "I’ll add sticky/dirty menus to that list," another user notes. We have to agree — if the staff can't be trusted to properly clean tables that are in the public eye, just imagine how horrific the kitchen might be. 

Shot of an unrecognisable man washing his hands in the kitchen sink at home

9. The Bathrooms Don't Have Hot Water

Since hot water is essential for killing germs on hands and kitchenware, the absence of it can mean the restaurant does not have proper hygiene practices in place. "No hot water was considered an imminent health hazard where I was," writes a former sanitation inspector, while another adds, "Where I inspect, [having no hot water] is always a closure, no questions asked." 

Wash Your Hands Working Sign
Eva Gattuso/istockphoto

10. Improper Hand-Washing Etiquette

Similarly, if a restaurant's hand-washing station is dirty, that means the employees likely aren't paying much attention to personal hygiene and cleanliness. "If your hand wash sinks are dirty, your hands can’t be that clean," writes one Redditor, who works as a chef. In fact, the entire washing station, including, the "sink basin, rim, taps, faucet," should be clean, notes another user. "If your taps are dirty, it’s really hard to wash your hands properly." 

Bags of trash on street outside restaurant in Chinatown, London, UK

11. Overflowing Trash Cans

Overflowing garbage isn't just an eye-sore; it means the restaurant doesn't care about upholding proper sanitation standards. And you'd be surprised to learn how many restaurants just leave trash piling up in the back. "Most places leave the full-tooverflowing garbage cans at the back door," writes one Redditor, while another adds, "After busy days, there was a literal mountain of garbage bags piled at the door." 

Asian Kitchen crew dripping dry fried french fries from appliance
Edwin Tan /istockphoto

12. The Cooks Don't Wear Hair Nets and Gloves

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends the use of hair nets and gloves to prevent cross-contamination and ensure basic hygiene, workers are not required by law to wear them. But you might be wise to opt for restaurants that require them, users say. "Gloves aren’t a guarantee, but if you don’t see them at all ... that’s an even bigger red flag," writes one user, adding, "All health codes cover very carefully when you should change your gloves."