Lea Thompson, Chief Consumer Correspondent for Dateline NBC, decided to take a look at food handling and cleanliness at family dining restaurants. She was expecting to turn up clean bills of health. Instead, she was stunned at what they found.

They pulled together restaurant inspection reports for a recent 15 month period — this time for Denny’s, IHOP, Applebees, Waffle House, Chili’s, Bob Evans,T.G.I. Friday’s, Ruby Tuesday, Outback and Red Lobster. Then, it took months to read and decipher those reports to pull out what inspectors call "critical violations." In English, those are health violations that can make you sick. Things that fall in that category are letting food sit out too long, not washing your hands after going to the bathroom and then serving food, rats and roaches in the kitchen.

The number of violations they had found per restaurant were:

  • Waffle House 594
  • Ruby Tuesday 514
  • IHOP 513
  • TGIF 490
  • Applebee’s 446
  • Outback 418
  • Chili’s 402
  • Red Lobster 350
  • Bob Evans 315
  • Denny’s 296

Dateline also used hidden cameras on the report. The inspection reports identified the restaurants with the most critical violations. Thompson says that it was an interesting experience ordering food in a restaurant that they knew had a bad food safety record. They saw and photographed some ugly things, including grease and grime in ice bins, filthy bathrooms, and waitresses who didn’t wash their hands after cleaning off dirty plates.

Thompson says that she would eat at any of these restaurants again. Most restaurant managers work hard to keep things clean, but she hopes that this story is a bit of a wake up call for the family chains. Some are starting to hire independent inspection companies to do unannounced going-overs. At least one chain has put its money where its mouth is by tying managers’ salaries to improvements in health safety inspections.

She also says that if she see a place with dirty glasses or utensils, kitchen workers not using gloves, or food sitting under the heat lamps for too long, she really does turn around and walk out. She feels that is a good way to force restaurants to clean up. If you don’t eat in a place because it isn’t clean pretty soon it will either clean up its act or it will be out of business, she says. Cleanliness and profit really do go hand in hand.