Restaurant Health Inspection Survival Guide

Restaurant Health Inspection Guide: How to Prepare, Pass, and Recover

It’s not uncommon for customers to research your restaurant prior to visiting — especially if it’s their first time visiting your location. In fact, as many as 94% of diners will check online reviews, look over the menu, location, prices, and overall restaurant rating. Chances are, if ratings are poor, diners may look for an alternative location to eat.

But what determines a restaurant’s ratings? In addition to customer reviews on public platforms, many diners consider a restaurant’s health inspection scores when evaluating dining options. In fact, some customer review sites are even incorporating health inspection scores onto their restaurant review pages.

Local laws determine many of the specifics of health inspections; however, these are generally based on a recent version of the FDA Food Code. Customers are also encouraged to research restaurant inspections in their area before dining out.

This article will provide information that is relevant to most health inspections and will provide guidelines that can lead restaurant owners down the right path towards passing their next health inspection.

When Can Health Inspectors Come to Your Restaurant?

Typically health inspections occur at random — usually once every six months or so— and inspectors can arrive at any time, any day of the week (on days the business is open), without warning. If a restaurant doesn’t open until 8 a.m., the inspector may show up at 7:30 a.m. to watch the opening routine. If they don’t close until 9 p.m., inspectors might show up at 8:30 p.m. to watch the closing procedure.

Do Health Inspectors Need a Warrant?

Because they are enforcing civil laws and not criminal laws, health inspectors generally do not require a warrant. Legal precedents including Marshall v. Barlow's, Inc. have established that “pervasively regulated businesses” and industries — including restaurants and other foodservice organizations — are exempt from normal Fourth Amendment protections requiring law enforcement to provide a warrant prior to inspection.

While the law that allows the FDA to conduct inspections of food service businesses requires, “…that the inspections be at reasonable times and within reasonable limits and in a reasonable manner,” Congress has delegated warrantless authority to the FDA for the purposes of conducting inspections.

What Do Health Inspectors Look For?

Obvious signs of uncleanliness, such as bad odors, dirty countertops, trash, and mold, should be addressed immediately with the proper restaurant cleaning tools. This is important because health inspectors look for multiple factors contributing to the restaurant’s cleanliness (or lack thereof) during an inspection. For example, they’ll monitor handwashing techniques, food-handling skills, storage techniques, and more.

Proper Handwashing

FDA guidelines state that proper handwashing techniques must follow any event that “contaminates the hands” as well as:

  • When entering a food preparation area;
  • Before putting on clean, single-use gloves for working with food and between glove changes;
  • Before engaging in food preparation;
  • Before handling clean equipment and serving utensils;
  • When changing tasks and switching between handling raw foods and working with ready to eat foods;
  • After handling soiled dishes, equipment, or utensils;
  • After touching bare human body parts, for example, parts other than clean hands and clean, exposed portions of arms;
  • After using the toilet;
  • After coughing, sneezing, blowing the nose, using tobacco, eating, or drinking;
  • After caring for or handling services animals or aquatic animals such as molluscan shellfish or crustacea in display tanks.

Use hand sanitizing wipes when soap and water are not readily available or as an extra layer of protection following handwashing.

Proper Handling of Cooked Foods

Just because food items may be cooked properly, doesn’t mean they’re clear from cross-contamination. In fact, cooked and ready to eat foods require proper handling techniques. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, cooked foods and leftover safety techniques include:

  • Cooking meats at the correct temperature;
  • Cool food rapidly;
  • Keeping food out of the danger zone;
  • Reheat leftovers without thawing;
  • Refreeze previously frozen leftovers;
  • Store leftovers safely;
  • Wrap leftovers well.

Good Practices for Cooking Meat

When it comes to cooking meat, the USDA recommends:

  • Cook all raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, chops, and roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145 °F as measured with a food thermometer before removing meat from the heat source;
  • Cook all raw ground beef, pork, lamb, and veal to an internal temperature of 160 °F as measured with a food thermometer;
  • Poultry: Cook all poultry to an internal temperature of 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer.

Food is Coming from an Approved Source

How restaurants determine which food source is approved to purchase from should depend on FDA guidance on approved sources. In addition, a restaurant can ensure their food is safe for customers by purchasing food that is:

  • From manufacturing plants;
  • From suppliers or distributors;
  • From local, regional or international growers.

Clearly Labeled Food Storage

Labeling food items in a restaurant or commercial kitchen will be different from how you label your food at home. All time- and temperature-controlled foods must be labeled with the following information:

  • Name and type of item;
  • Name of the employee responsible for preparation of the item;
  • Date and time food was prepared;
  • Date food expires.

Correct Dishwasher Sanitizer Concentration

Checking the sanitizing capabilities of an industrial dishwasher within a restaurant is an important step in the health inspection process.

  • Chemical Dishwasher: To check a chemical dishwasher, employees should run a “test” load of dishes through the machine. At the end of the cycle use a piece of sanitizer testing paper or a sanitizer testing strip to test the concentration of the final rinse water. The test parameters will depend on the type of sanitizing solution being used. See FDA guidelines for more information.
  • High-Temperature Dishwasher: To check a high-temperature dishwasher the employee should watch the temperature dials on the machine during an entire cycle. When the machine is in the rinse portion of the cycle make sure that the temperature dial reaches 171 °F. If a high-temperature probe thermometer is run through the machine with the dishes it should come out reading at least 160 °F.

Floors, Walls, and Ceilings Must Be Clean

Cleaning floors can be easy. However, walls and ceilings can be a little more difficult — especially when it comes to cleaning grease. Luckily, there are ways to make the task a little easier. Using a convenient degreasing wipe throughout the day can simplify end-of-shift deep cleaning. Ensure all surfaces are cleaned prior to sanitizing to ensure that you are sanitizing properly.

It’s important that a restaurant maintains the cleanliness of floors to prevent injury to both customers and employees. It’s also important to keep up the cleanliness of the interior overall so that it meets the industry’s codes and helps to ensure you pass your health inspections.

What Happens if You Fail a Health Inspection?

If your restaurant experiences a health inspection failure, you’ll likely be given a chance to fix the issue either on the spot or in the near future if the issue is minor. However, you may face a follow-up inspection, fines, and even a venue closure if the issue is more serious.

It’s important to keep in mind that once your facility is rated, it is listed on an online database, where the history of your health code violations is public to the community. Some of these databases are integrated with restaurant review sites, so a negative score can impact your ability to attract new diners.

Once you’re given your grade, you’re typically given an allotted amount of time in which any issues may need to be fixed. Here are some steps to take when fixing your health violations:

  • You can schedule a re-inspection in 5 – 45 days;
  • Figure out how each violation occurred and how you can prevent it from happening again;
  • Review any violations and their proper corrective action with your staff;
  • Appeal a violation if you have reason to disagree with it. Call your local health department, so you can speak with the inspector's supervisor.

Practices to Ace Your Next Inspection

Restaurant owners can bring their A-game just in time for their next health inspection by following these few tips:

  • Be sure employees are trained in basic food safety;
  • Hold food at the proper temperature;
  • Control conditions that promote pests;
  • Protect food from contamination;
  • Maintain cleanliness and sanitization of all food contact surfaces;
  • Maintain all non-food surfaces;
  • Maintain all plumbing and inspect it frequently.

Pre-Inspection Checklist

The following food-service manager self-inspection checklist should be followed by all restaurant owners to help ensure they ace their next health inspection.

  • Cleaning and Sanitizing: Three-compartment sinks are used to clean and sanitize appropriate kitchen wares. Sanitizers are used >properly on food contact surfaces, including storing sanitizing cloths submerged in sanitizer chemicals or using a single-use sanitizing wipe.
  • Food Handling: Frozen food is thawed under refrigeration or in cold running water. Food is not allowed to be in the “temperature danger zone” for more than 4 hours. Reusable towels are used only for sanitizing equipment surfaces and not for drying hands, utensils, floors, etc.
  • Food Storage and Dry Storage: Temperature is between 50º F and 70º F. The FIFO (First In, First Out) method of inventory is being practiced. There are no bulging or leaking canned goods in storage. All surfaces and floors are clean.
  • Garbage Storage and Disposal: Kitchen garbage cans are clean. Boxes and containers are removed from the site. Loading dock and area around the dumpsters are clean.
  • Hot Holding: The unit is clean. Food is heated to 165 ºF before placing it in hot holding. The temperature of the food being held is above 140 ºF. The food is protected from contamination.
  • Large Equipment: Food slicer is clean to sight and touch. The food slicer is sanitized between uses when used with potentially hazardous foods. All other pieces of equipment are clean to sight and touch — this includes equipment on serving lines, storage shelves, cabinets, ovens, ranges, fryers, and steam equipment. Exhaust hoods and filters are clean.
  • Personal Dress and Hygiene: Employees wear proper uniforms including proper shoes. Hair restraint is worn. Fingernails are short, unpolished, and clean. Hands are washed thoroughly using proper hand-washing procedures at critical points. Open sores, cuts, or splints and bandages on hands are completely covered while handling food. Disposable tissues are used and disposed of when coughing/blowing nose. Alcohol-based hand sanitizing products can be used in addition to handwashing as an extra layer of protection.
  • Pest Control: Screens are on open windows and doors are in good repair. No evidence of pests is present.
  • Refrigerator, Freezer, and Milk Cooler: Thermometer is conspicuous and accurate. Food is stored 6 inches off the floor in walk-ins. All food is properly wrapped, labeled, and dated.
  • Utensils and Equipment: All small food-handling equipment and utensils, including cutting boards, are sanitized between uses. Small equipment and utensils are air-dried. Thermometers are cleaned and sanitized between each use. Small equipment is inverted and covered between uses or otherwise protected from dust or contamination when stored.

Staff Training

Here are 10 methods to help you train your restaurant staff on good sanitation and hygiene practices that will help them retain the information and put it to practice:

  1. Start all employees with a food safety orientation;
  2. Create and upgrade your training plan;
  3. Provide guidance and observation;
  4. Provide external training;
  5. Implement upskilling;
  6. Train your staff to use the latest technology;
  7. Recognize your top employees;
  8. Perform employee evaluation;
  9. Implement team-building exercises;
  10.  Keep employee records.

Acing a health inspection may take a lot of time and teamwork, but the outcome can be rewarding. By following the guide above and implementing these steps into your daily business routine, it can help to ensure you pass your next health inspection and improve the overall quality of your restaurant.