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 their 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 foodborne illness each year, with 3,000 ultimately dying as a result.
Don't just keep your restaurant clean and safe because an inspector might come in, do it because you have a responsibility to serve your guests food that won’t make them gravely ill, or kill them.
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.
10 Common Health Code Violations In Restaurants
Avoid restaurant health code violations by paying special attention to the 10 following areas.
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 certain amounts 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.
This is what we know as 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 it’s lifetime, anything more than that and it must be discarded.
If you are working on dicing tomatoes and they are at room temp, say 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 temperatures.
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 foodborne illness occurs by accident; one of the most common accidents is juices from one good item dripping on other food items.
Raw chicken must be cooked to a 165° F internal temperature, but raw beef can be cooked much lower.
Remember this: If chicken drips on beef, there is a chance that it will never be cooked hot enough to kill the chicken bacteria.
Do your best to keep similar items stored above and below each other, but 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
3) Cross Contamination
Similar to food storage, bacteria can be transferred from one product to another via mishandling after storage.
If a cook grabs a raw burger, then 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.
It’s the less-obvious situations that you need to be most careful of.
Have hand wash stations on your cooking line and that cooks use the proper utensils for each item.
4) Personal Sanitation
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 its 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 live on clothing even still.
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.
Also, watch out for stagnant water.
5) Chemical Usage and Storage
Restaurants must take a careful look at what they’re using to clean surfaces and how effective it is.
All to often, restaurant staff are not properly trained on what chemicals to use where, when, how often, and how. Sure, they 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 being considered sanitized.
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 get mandatory staff wide training. After training, provide detailed documentation, and test everybody on this information at least once per quarter.
Less-Common Health Code Violations
Here are some pesky health inspection check items that will likely not fail you, but can deduct points from your score and harm your guests, so be on the lookout.
6) BOH Service Ware
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 mix utensils designated for raw proteins with ready to eat food, like lettuce or tomatoes.
If you are creating a second storage for ready to eat food, utensils must be kept in a container of water that is below 40° F (ice water). Check with your department, some do not allow this at all, while some require the water be flowing, like it does in an ice-cream scoop well.
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.
8) Red Buckets
Yes, you must use cleaning red buckets for each station, with micro-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.
Are we clear?
Oh gloves…the battle continues. 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 will be fine.
You can't use anything in your kitchen that is not stamped NSF. NSF is an organization that tests and certifies equipment for commercial use.
No, you can't just go to the local store and buy mixing bowls or whisks. Often, these are constructed with materials in such a way that they can never be cleaned to the standards of restaurant safety.
Unfortunately, NSF products can be more expensive, but don’t get caught in an inspection using non-NSF products. You are going to lose that battle no matter what.
How to Avoid Health Code Violations
There are a lot of great tips throughout this article that will help you serve safe food, and avoid 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.
Hire a consultant to inspect your facility and help re-educate your on the topic of health code violations; adopt this new knowledge into your restaurant’s processes and procedures.
A few parting shots before I go:
- 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.
Remember: Nothing here is hard, the hard part is doing all the easy things right!
WARNING: Every state and country has different rules. Reach out to your local inspection agency and ask for a copy of their inspection report. Review it in detail and follow up 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.