It’s impossible to ignore the negative blow Chipotle’s reputation (and business) felt back in 2015 when patrons fell ill after eating E. coli-tainted food. More recently, another health code slip-up led to a $516 million dollar slide in Chipotle's stock price in one day’s time.
Yes, restaurant health code violations are bad for business, but more importantly, they can also kill people: In 1993, 100 people became ill, four of whom died, after eating burgers at Jack in the Box that were not cooked properly.
The numbers are staggering: The CDC (center for disease control) estimates that 128,000 Americans are hospitalized with food-borne illnesses each year with 3,000 ultimately dying as a result. In the Summer of 2018, for example, 10 states experienced a Hepatitis A outbreak likely related to poor food-handling protocol.
With the right systems in place, you’ll never sweat another health code inspection again, even the surprise ones. Let’s take a look at some of the common, and less common, health code violations and how to avoid making them.
WARNING: Every state and country has different rules regarding restaurant health code inspections and health code violations. This article is meant to highlight common health code violations in the food and beverage industry; for concrete answers and directions about the health code in your area, reach out to your local health inspection agency and ask for a copy of their inspection report. Review it in detail and follow up with your local health inspection agency with any questions you may have. The specifics in this article are design to serve as a general guide and may NOT be exactly correct in your jurisdiction.
10 Common Health Code Violations In Restaurants
1) Time and Temperature
How time and temperature affect the safety of a certain food will be unique to that food type; food kept at certain temperatures can be safe, but only for a limited amount of time.
Room temperature mayonnaise, for example, is totally safe, but only for a few hours. If kept at the proper temperature – usually achieved by using a fridge – mayonnaise can be safe for weeks or months.
The in-between is what we know as the Temperature Danger Zone, or TDZ. The general rule of thumb is that any foods warmer than 40° F and colder than 140° F are automatically in the TDZ.
Remember this: Every food item has a four hour clock – It can only spend four hours in the TDZ over the course of its lifetime. Anything more than that and it must be discarded.
Here's an example: If you are working on dicing tomatoes and they are at room temp (75° F) for one hour then go in the fridge overnight and then are placed on a buffet tomorrow, they only have three hours left in their life.
This is an over-simplified explanation, and seasoned professionals will know this does not include time it takes to reach a certain temperature.
Always keep cold foods below 40° F and hot foods above 140° F. When cooling hot food down or warming up foods, do this as quickly as possible.
2) Food Storage
Most food-borne illnesses occur by accident as a result of cross-contamination via poor inventory storage. One of the most common ways poor inventory storage can violate local health codes is when juices from one inventory item drip on other food items.
For example, if chicken drips on beef, there is a chance that it will never be cooked to a high enough temperature to kill the chicken bacteria. Raw chicken must be cooked to a 165° F internal temperature, but beef can be cooked much lower.
Do your best to keep similar items stored above and below each other. If you must store different items vertically, do it in this order from top to bottom:
- Raw Vegetables
- Cooked Vegetables
- Cooked Meats
- Cooked Seafood
- Raw Seafood
- Raw Beef
- Raw Pork
- Raw Chicken
Just like in storage, bacteria can be transferred from one product to another via mishandling after storage.
If a cook grabs a raw burger and places it on the grill and does not properly wash their hands before grabbing the accompanying bun to also place on the grill, there is a good chance that bacteria from the burger will be on that bun.
Most cooks and kitchen staff are good at the obvious techniques to avoid cross contamination – like switching out cutting boards and washing hands when going from handling raw chicken to lettuce – but it’s the less-obvious situations that you need to be most careful of.
Have hand wash stations on your cooking line and ensurethat cooks use the proper utensils for each item.
4) Personal Hygiene
Did you know your cell phone is 10x dirtier than a toilet seat? The amount of bacteria humans are exposed to daily is staggering. Your job is to keep as much of it as possible out of your your restaurant.
Be very mindful about what comes into your kitchen, and how you protect your guests from it once it's there.
Hepatitis is commonly spread from contact with bodily fluids; just quickly washing your hands may not do the job of completely eradicating it from your skin. It can live under the fingernails, higher up the arms, can be passed from hands to clothing, and then continue to live on clothing.
Make sure hands are washed with proper anti-bacterial soap and hot water, scrubbing up to the elbows and under the nails with a nail brush for 20 seconds.
A common trick to make sure you’ve scrubbed for the right amount of time is to sing the happy birthday song twice.
Ensure that cooks are in clean clothing that has been washed daily. In a perfect world, they would change into a uniform at your facility and then leave it at your facility to cut down on bringing in external contaminants.
5) Chemical Usage and Storage
Restaurants must take a careful look at what they’re using to clean surfaces and how effective it they are. All too often, restaurant staff are not properly trained on what chemicals to use where, when, how often, and how.
Sure, you may end up with a clean surface, but clean is very different from being considered fully sanitized. Clean is free from visible dirt and debris. I can clean a table that had raw chicken on it with water. The table will be clean when I am done, but will not be sanitized.
Sanitized is free from 99.9% of bacteria. Only the right chemical in tandem with the right process with achieve sanitization.
Make sure operators and know how to properly sanitize their work space, not just clean it. Too often I see cooks doing things wrong, then I check with management and they don’t even know proper usage and procedures.
Have a meeting with your cleaning supplies supplier and conduct a mandatory staff-wide training. After training, provide detailed documentation, and test everybody on this information at least once per quarter.
Check out this list of well-rounded list of food safety processes restaurants should abide by created by Iowa State University. Use this list to inform the food safety systems in your restaurant; this will help you stay compliant to the health code in your area.
Less-Common Health Code Violations
Here are some pesky health inspection check items that will likely not cause you to fail, but can still deduct points from your score and harm your guests.
6) BOH Serviceware
If you are going to keep spoons and tongs on the line for use with multiple raw proteins (like chicken and beef) they must be kept in water above 165° F. The water must be changed anytime visible debris is found in the water.
Never – and I mean never – mix utensils designated for raw proteins with ready-to-eat food, like lettuce or tomatoes.
7) Silverware and Glass Storage & Handling
Stored silverware must be covered, and glasses and plates must be stored upside down. Do not handle any stored silverware in an area where the guest makes contact.
When loading silverware into a dishwasher, load it handle-up, so it can be removed by the handle. When bringing to a guest, only touch the handle.
When grabbing glasses, only touch the stem; with plates, only touch the rim. This should carry over to how your front of house staff deliver drinks: glasses are always to be held at the bottom, never anywhere near the top where a guest will place their mouth.
8) Red Buckets
Yes, you must use cleaning red buckets for each station, with mikro-quat in them.
Yes, they must have a clean towel in them, not on the side.
Yes, they must be changed every four hours, or when visibly dirty.
No, you cannot use these buckets for anything else.
Gloves are controversial. Some departments love them, some hate them.
Here’s the thing: They provide a false sense of security. Hands must be treated the same, with or without gloves on. This means you still must wash your hands before putting them on.
You cannot wash gloves between projects: You must remove them then re-wash your hands before putting on a new pair.
Just pretend you are not using gloves, and go through the proper protocol.
You can't use anything in your kitchen that is not NSF-approved. NSF is an organization that tests and certifies equipment for commercial use.
Unfortunately, you can't just go to the local store and buy mixing bowls or whisks to use in your restaurant's kitchen. Often, these are constructed with materials that can never be cleaned to the standards of restaurant safety.
Though NSF products can be more expensive, you won't want to get caught in an inspection using non-NSF products. The infraction can be costly and you are going to lose that battle no matter what.
Protecting Your Restaurant From Health Code Violations
There are a lot of great tips throughout this article that will help you protect your restaurant, staff, and guests from food-borne illnesses as a result of health code violations, but knowledge without action is useless.
If you were unfamiliar with any of the health code violations mentioned here, there are likely others you don’t know about.
A few final tips:
- Simple temperature logs that are checked off 2-3 times per day will ensure your product is stored at the right temperatures.
- Nightly inspections of the refrigerator will ensure product is stored properly.
- Line checks before service will ensure the correct utensils are in the correct places.