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Here's the question: (as of this writing)

Do restaurants regularly disinfect baskets and trays?

I certainly hope the answer to this question is yes, but do restaurants regularly disinfect baskets and trays? Even if they are covered with paper wrappers or placemats?

Are there fairly universal state laws requiring this? Any data on noncompliance rates?

This question has received a few downvotes and several upvotes, so I'm bringing the discussion to meta. Is this a good question? Why or why not?

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I think it's a perfectly good question, unless we're planning on simply declaring commercial food safety off topic. It seems fair to ask if food safety extends to cleaning objects like these, not just normal dishes and the food itself.

It asks about specific things. There could well be data about compliance (government food safety inspections do happen, I hope), or resulting sanitation (by third parties) - and these things would probably be publicly available. And while it's unfortunate that this is (in the US) regulated at the state level, the laws do exist - with enough work, someone could certainly say "X out of the 50 states require this". I see all this as a good thing - rather than asking simply "should/must you clean these things?" it's asking for actual data and authoritative rules, which is what we sometimes forget to aim for with food safety answers.

As long as someone's not asking "is it legal/illegal to only wash X every N uses using method Q", it's not really a thorny legal question. It's fairly analogous to "what does the FDA say about this safety issue" - there are regulatory authorities saying what's considered safe.

I think it's important to keep in mind that some quite reasonable questions are difficult to answer well - they'll require some research, which someone else may or may not have already done - but this doesn't make them bad questions. It makes them the kind of thing we should strive to be able to answer.

The real problem is people posting speculative, incomplete answers, and us endorsing those via our voting. janeylicious' answer is a pretty reasonable stab at the legal side - it's local to California, but that's a big state, and other states do have laws too! (I think the voting is artificially high on her answer because people are applauding her for what she does, rather than the answer itself.) The other two attempt to address compliance, but don't do so terribly usefully, saying essentially "they do" and "they should but don't always". That's why there's a downvote arrow - you can downvote things that don't usefully answer the question.

  • I'm OK with the commercial food safety aspect of the question. For example, "What's a fast, effective and safe method of sanitizing trays?" would be a good question. – KatieK Jun 21 '13 at 19:42
  • I think it asks two questions in one: the question about what regulatory authorities say about sanitisation is fine; but the question which gets more prominence (the one in the title) is off-topic. – Peter Taylor Jun 24 '13 at 9:33
  • @PeterTaylor As far as I know, we've never declared that sort of question off topic - it's roughly analogous to "what fraction of eggs are contaminated with salmonella". The only difference here is that it helps you assess risk eating out instead of eating in... is that what makes it off topic? – Cascabel Jun 24 '13 at 14:12
  • I see the difference as being more that it's a question about eating out rather than cooking. Information on the risks of pathogens in ingredients which you're going to use or prepare affects the way you cook them. The only choice you can make in response to statistics about restaurant practices is whether to eat or not eat their food. – Peter Taylor Jun 24 '13 at 14:26
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As currently written, this question will be difficult for the community to answer authoritatively. For "Do restaurants do this?", we've already got the survey of possible answers: "They should.", "We did at my restaurant." and "We didn't at my restaurant."

Considering the legal / statistical components of the question, we're left with "What are the laws on this?" and "What are the stats on this?", neither of which I think are good fits for SA.

To me, this question smells "ranty".

It also doesn't seem to lead to any actionable solutions.

  • The last point (no actionable solutions) is IMO the biggest problem. Even if it were on topic, that makes it a bad question. – Peter Taylor Jun 24 '13 at 10:14
  • @PeterTaylor It would perhaps be nice if things were that simple, but they aren't. We have a lot of pure curiosity questions - all the answer gets you is a greater understanding. – Cascabel Jun 24 '13 at 14:12
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    @Jefromi, I haven't noticed many, but if there are then they would seem to fall foul of the criterion that "You should only ask practical, answerable questions based on actual problems that you face." – Peter Taylor Jun 24 '13 at 14:30
  • @PeterTaylor It's definitely a good guideline, but like I said, that's not quite the real world. For example, we get food science questions that in all honesty are never going to help you cook, just let you understand why the particular thing you're already doing works. Everyone loves these, no one would dream of saying "not a real problem, goodbye". Head over to a science stackexchange and it'll be even more obvious. If there's a problem with this question, it's the fact that it's about restaurants not home cooking, not that. – Cascabel Jun 24 '13 at 14:40
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Its a well written, clear question that is definitely on topic.

That doesn't mean that the information necessary to answer it authoritatively exists easily, and I suspect it will never get answered (well) for that reason.

Is that a reason to not allow the question to be asked?

I have a question on Skeptics that got three upvotes, and about 5 edits from members to improve it, and still no answer. But it isn't closed. (This is one based on a question we had here...)

To me, this question feels the same way: its a well formed question to ask, but that doesn't guarantee an answer at all, or a good answer.

  • Most SO sites prefer "answerable" questions. – KatieK Jun 21 '13 at 19:39
  • @KatieK Difficult (requires research) to answer is not the same as not answerable. – Cascabel Jun 21 '13 at 19:43
  • I'm not sure about well-written. I was a little put off when I first read it, but left it alone because I thought the substance was on-topic. But it's written from the perspective of a consumer rather than a caterer or cook. Not really the appropriate tone for our site. It should have been worded as "Are restaurants required to disinfect trays?" and without that bit on "non-compliance rates". – Aaronut Jun 22 '13 at 15:10
  • My comment on Jefromi's answer is relevant here too. – Peter Taylor Jun 24 '13 at 9:34

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