How to Work with Health Inspectors
How you interact with health inspectors can go a long way to securing the health of your customers and the reliability of your license to do business. If, as a restaurant owner or caterer, you view your local health inspector as a nemesis, the time has come for you to rethink this position. Health inspectors are not your enemy; if anything, they are your partners, and the goal is to work together to prevent foodborne illness and ensure your customers’ wellbeing.
Why Restaurant Inspections Are Important
Health inspections are not designed to cause stress to restaurant owners and caterers; rather, their goal is to ensure safety for your customers. According to Food Services of America, more than half of all foodborne illnesses are acquired from eating at restaurants. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that half of all produce has chemical contamination. Faced with these challenges, it makes sense that the food in restaurants and catering facilities should be stored, thawed, and cooked according to strict regulations, and that the kitchen, freezers, and storage areas kept sanitary and sterile.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issues the FDA Food Code, which provides recommendations for food safety regulations. Although the FDA recommends that states, cities, and counties adopt their code, this is not a strict requirement, and many state and city health departments issue their own regulations. Although there is an overlap between the rules enforced by different health departments, there are also differences, so make sure to consult your local health department for food code regulations for your state.
Health Inspections: Before, During, and After
Restaurant owners and caterers should be aware of all the stages of the health inspection:
- Before – how to prepare for health department inspections through employee training and self-inspections;
- During – the health inspection process and what inspectors are looking for;
- After – the health inspection grading system and how to respond to a poor grade.
Most catering halls and restaurants are inspected about one to four times a year and violations found by a health inspector could result in fines, or being forced to close your doors until conditions are dealt with (resulting in loss of revenue). Therefore, health inspections should be taken very seriously.
Proper Food Storage
The food code was created to prevent bacteria and other contaminants from coming in contact with ready-to-eat foods that can enter our bodies and make us sick. The most direct and simple way to prevent foodborne illnesses is with proper food storage. This involves properly handling the flow of food, from storage to your patrons’ plates. Food must be stored in the correct place and at safe temperatures.
Some aspects of proper food storage are: always store food at least six inches off the ground; and never store raw meats or other uncooked food above ready-to-eat ingredients. In addition, perishable food should make it to the freezer or refrigerator before it reaches the temperature danger zone (between 41°F and 135°F). Check your refrigerators periodically with a thermometer to make sure the internal temperature is at the approved 40°F or below.
Food Preparation and Cooking
The first rule of safe food preparation is to prevent cross-contamination. Use separate cutting boards, utensils, and other surfaces to prepare raw or allergen-inducing foods. Wash them with hot soapy water after use, before using them on other ready-to-eat foods. It is also important that you only remove as much food from the fridge as you can reasonably prepare before food leaves the safe temperature zone.
When cooking food, particularly raw meats, poultry, and fish, ensure that all food is cooked to the safe minimum internal temperature. Always keep a food thermometer on hand for this purpose. Keep in mind that, whereas cooking does reduce harmful pathogens that may have formed before the cooking process begins, it does not destroy all the toxins that they may have produced; therefore, precautious food handling is still vital during the cooking process.
Serving Your Customers
When serving food, all tableware should be clean and sanitized. Serving staff should never hold dishes by the top or edges, and bare hands should never come in contact with food or surfaces where the food touches. And, of course, never re-serve food that was previously served to another customer – even if it looks untouched. When food is out on a buffet or in the kitchen waiting to be served, make sure it remains within safe temperatures at all times, and use chafing dishes, heat lamps, or ice to maintain these temperatures.
Maintain Personal Hygiene
Keeping hands clean is essential to preventing cross-contamination and foodborne illness. Hands should always be washed in a designated handwashing sink, not one that is used for food prep or dishwashing; wash hands for at least 20 seconds in water that is as hot as you can tolerate. In addition, make sure employees maintain suitable nail lengths and cover any cuts or wounds. Put on a new pair of single-use gloves at the start of every food-handling task and change immediately if they become dirty or torn. Aprons should be worn whenever prepping food, but should be removed whenever leaving the prep area (i.e., when taking out the garbage or using the restroom).
Cleaning and Sanitizing
In order to pass any health inspection, restaurants should follow daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly cleaning schedules. The list below provides an idea of how often you should be cleaning different areas and items.
Daily: Clean all counters and prep areas, under-counter shelving, and shelves inside the refrigerator. Clean small equipment, food prep tools, and dishwasher surfaces. Sweep and mop all floors and clean the floor drains.
Weekly: Clean vents above the grills to prevent fires caused by grease buildup. Clean all gaskets on the refrigerator and oven. Clean underneath the fryer wells, inside the ice machines, and all the walls around equipment. Clean trash bins.
Monthly: Deep clean ceiling vents, floor drains, floor mats, and rolling carts.
Quarterly: Clean all dumpsters inside and outside of your establishment. Clean staircases, storage areas, and external ventilation filters.
Keep the Pests Out
Not only do rodents and other pests eat up your food supplies, but they also bring with them a wealth of health concerns and other dangers. Here are a few pointers on keeping them out of your food and away from your restaurant:
Eliminate Entry Points. Make sure there are no holes in window screens or broken areas of door sweeps, through which an animal may enter. Walls should be checked – both inside and outside – for holes or cracks, and if you find any, they should be filled or covered.
Keep Clean. Keep the floors and food preparation surfaces clear of crumbs or spillage, and store food in seal-tight containers. Bring trash outside regularly so that it doesn’t pile up inside and create a strong attractant for rodents and insects.
Reduce Outdoor Clutter. Use trash cans that have tight-fitting lids, and make sure any dumpsters out back are not near any rear entrances. If there is any vegetation nearby, trim it so it can’t be used as a hidden approach to your door.
Implement Rodent Control Methods. Poisons and chemicals are not appropriate for areas where food is prepared, so use glue traps instead.
Train Your Staff to be Conscious About Food Safety
The key to preparing for your health inspection is a) to ensure that your staff is educated; and b) to hold frequent self-inspections. Most restaurant employees handle food in some way, and therefore need to have some type of food handlers training. These include bartenders, bussers, all wait staff, hosts (who may also help deliver food, clear dirty tables, and reset clean tables), chefs and cooks, and dishwashers.
HACCP Plans and Training Options
Hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) is an approach to food safety that prevents hazards in the production process that can cause the finished product to be unsafe. By strictly monitoring and controlling each step of the process, there is less chance for hazards to occur. Therefore, all restaurants and catering businesses should implement and maintain an effective HACCP plan for their business.
Sending your staff for food safety training will help to provide accurate, up-to-date information on all aspects of food handling from receiving and storing to preparing and serving. The ServSafe course for food handlers, for instance, offers training on topics like basic food safety, personal hygiene, cross contamination, and allergens. In addition, many states require employees who handle food to have a food handler’s card, which is a certificate that is issued after at least three hours of training and a written test.
Set up a cleanliness and maintenance schedule for daily use, and make sure that your employees understand what is needed from them. Hold occasional meetings to refresh your employees on proper procedures, and periodically ask employees safety and sanitation questions about the tasks they are required to perform. This will help ensure their ongoing knowledge and prepare them for any questions they may get from a health inspector. Correct any mistakes on the spot to prevent employees from forming bad or unsafe habits. Keep accurate, organized records about training, HACCP procedures, employee illnesses, and any other relevant information that demonstrates your proper safety practices.
Self-Inspections are Vital
Food-safety training can be put into practice through ongoing self-inspections. Most health departments have self-inspection forms on their website. The most common mistakes people in the food industry make when it comes to self-inspections are not performing them often enough and not fixing problems found during these inspections (an error that is probably financially driven).
Front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house self-inspections should be performed twice a day, before the morning and evening shifts. Weekly and monthly self-inspection reports are critical for keeping managers and owners aware of areas of concern — especially those that require follow-up and capital expenditures. Keeping these reports on site comes in handy when the health department arrives, if only to demonstrate that food safety is a priority in your establishment.
Keep all documents related to the health department in one food safety file. This folder should hold your last three health department inspection reports, self-inspection reports, maintenance and temperature logs, fire extinguisher repair reports, exterminator’s reports, etc. Keeping such information in one place is handy when the health inspector is on site.
Good Preparation: The Key to Acing a Health Inspection
If both staff and management are consistently focused on food safety and sanitation, you will be well prepared for a visit from the health department. We will expand on the “during and after” of these inspections, but from the start, nothing is more important than readiness when it comes to your customers’ health and the future of your business. Training your staff and holding self-inspections will keep your guests healthy and your business thriving. If you keep your business running as if every day is the day of your restaurant inspection, you will never have to be surprised. As a result, your confidence and preparedness will make everything go more smoothly.