This post was last updated on Feb 21, 2020.
DISCLAIMER: This content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal, accounting, tax, HR, or other professional advice. You are responsible for your own compliance with laws and regulations. You should contact your attorney or other relevant advisor for advice specific to your circumstances.
Restaurant inspections can be a dreaded interruption to daily operations. For restaurant owners or managers, a surprise health inspection can cause overwhelming anxiety — and nothing sets off a health inspector’s internal alarm more than arriving at your door and seeing you panic.
Keep in mind that restaurant inspections don’t exist to stress out business owners. The goal is to ensure your customers’ safety.
According to a report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, people are twice as likely to get food poisoning by eating at a restaurant than at home. Additionally, any food can become contaminated during processing or even in the kitchen, whether it's meat, dairy, or produce.
Due to the risk of food contamination and food poisoning, it’s crucial that food is stored, thawed, and cooked according to strict regulations, and that the restaurant's kitchens, freezers, and storage areas be kept sanitary.
Typically, most foodservice operations receive a restaurant inspection at a minimum of once per year and as many as four times per year.
Violations could result in fines, or, in more extreme cases where several violations occur, being forced to close your doors until conditions are improved, resulting in loss of revenue and a hit to your reputation.
However, if you consistently run your restaurant as if every day is inspection day — as any day very well could be — you will never be caught off-guard. In fact, your confidence and ease can make the process go much more smoothly.
Before we move on to the checklist, here are some restaurant safety best practices to keep in mind every single day.
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- Consult your local health department for food code regulations for your state. Though all codes are variations of the model proposed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there is no national standard code. Each state makes its own decisions as to what goes into their codes. By locating a copy of local standards, you’ll know exactly what inspectors are looking for. You can find your state’s food code here.
- Conduct your own surprise inspections in your restaurant based on the local regulations to see your restaurant from the inspector’s perspective. This will help you catch any violations before the real thing. Be meticulous in doing these checks.
- Implement and maintain an effective Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan. Here's the latest HACCP guide found on the FDA's website. Plan to hold occasional shift meetings to refresh your employees’ memories on proper hazard prevention procedures.
- Send sick staff home. Getting someone else to cover a shift last-minute or running a restaurant while short-staffed is never fun, but it’s not worth the risk of keeping a sick staff member working as they could easily contaminate food and endanger your guests.
- Set up a daily maintenance schedule, and make sure your employees understand what is needed of them so responsibilities aren’t passed around or avoided.
- Make sure all your cooks, kitchen workers, bartenders, and servers are properly trained on the required food-handling and alcohol handling certifications.
- Periodically ask employees safety and sanitation questions related to their tasks. This will prepare them for any questions they may get from the inspector. If there is a certain shift that doesn’t perform as well as others, consider running a training session for those staff members who could use a refresher course.
- Correct any food handling mistakes on the spot to prevent employees from forming bad or unsafe habits. Do this in a manner that is empowering rather than embarrassing. You want your staff to be confident that they’re doing things the right way, not scared they’re doing something wrong.
- Keep accurate and organized records about training, HACCP procedures, and employee illnesses to demonstrate your adherence to safety practices. Your inspector may ask to see these records, so it’s best to have them organized and ready to go.
Great employee communication keeps your restaurant running smoothly — and it can also help you fight employee turnover.
Health Inspection Checklist for Restaurants
Ultimately, the food code was created in order to prevent bacteria and other contaminants from coming into contact with ready-to-eat foods that can make us sick. Of course, the most direct and simple way to prevent food-borne illnesses is to handle all food properly, from storage to your guests’ plates. Here’s our checklist of 23 things to do to ensure you’re staying on top of your restaurant sanitation.
Note: This list is not exhaustive. Consult your local guidelines for the most accurate health code requirements and information.
Though cooking may seem like a more direct link to preparing meals, the storage step of the food handling process is incredibly important, too.
All food must be stored in the correct place and within safe temperatures.
Always store food at least six inches off the ground. Never store raw meats or other dripping, uncooked food above ready-to-eat ingredients.
Likewise, your foods should be properly wrapped or secured in containers to prevent contamination from drips.
Make sure your perishable food makes it into the freezer or refrigerator before it reaches the temperature danger zone between 40°F and 140°F.
Check your appliances periodically with a thermometer to make sure the internal temperature is at the approved 40°F or below.
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Preparation and Cooking
The first rule of safe food prep 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 and before using them on ready-to-eat foods. This is where an HACCP program can come in handy. Try color coordinating your prep tools so you never cross-contaminate. Use a sanitizing solution when applicable.
Remove only as much food from the refrigerator or freezer 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 heated to the safe minimum internal temperature. Always keep a food thermometer on hand for this purpose. Keep in mind that, while cooking does reduce harmful pathogens, it does not destroy all of the toxins that may be present. You still need to handle food correctly before and after cooking it.
Serving Your Customers
When serving food, all tableware should be clean and sanitized. Make sure your serving staff never hold dishes by the top or edge. Bare hands should never come in contact with food or the surfaces food touches. This goes for flatware and glassware as well.
Though it may sound like a no-brainer, never re-serve food that was previously served to another customer — even if it looks untouched. Always assume it is contaminated.
When holding food on a buffet or in the kitchen waiting to be served, make sure it remains within safe temperatures at all times. Hot food should be held at 140°F or higher and cold food should be held at 40°F or lower. Use chafing dishes or heat lamps for hot foods or ice for cold foods to maintain these temperatures. Check temperatures periodically with a thermometer — your restaurant's inspector will be sure to do so.
Maintain Personal Hygiene
It's important to have a personal hygiene program in place to prevent food handlers from contaminating ready-to-eat food.
Hands should always be washed in a designated handwashing sink, not one that is used for food prep or dishwashing.
Wash hands for no less than 20 seconds in water that is at least 100°F, or as hot as you can stand. Make sure to wash hands and arms and clean under fingernails and between fingers. Never use hand sanitizers in place of washing, but only as an option after you’ve washed with hot water and soap.
Make sure employees maintain trimmed fingernails and properly 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. Make sure to wear the proper size gloves, and never blow into them or roll them to make them easier to put on as this will contaminate the clean gloves.
Food handlers should not wear any jewelry on their hands or arms, except for plain ring bands.
Aprons should be worn whenever preparing food but should be removed whenever leaving the prep area (such as when taking out the garbage or using the restroom).
Certain states require hats, hairnets, and even beard restraints to be worn when working with or near exposed food.
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Keep the Pests Out
Unfortunately, it's very likely that rodents and insects will be drawn to the smell of your restaurant's food. Not only do rodents and other pests eat up your food supply, but they can also bring with them a wealth of health concerns and other dangers. Plus, they're a major turnoff for customers and can result in a restaurant inspection failure.
Here are a few pointers for keeping pests 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. Doors leading outside should also have self-closing hinges, and you should not have them propped open unsupervised. Walls should be checked as well — both inside and outside — for holes or cracks, and any that you find should be filled or covered. Keep an eye out for any telltale signs of unwanted visitors, such as droppings or evidence of chewed wood or furnishings.
Prevent easy access for pests. Don’t give these visitors anything to find in the first place. Keep the floors and food preparation surfaces clear of crumbs or spillage, especially overnight, and store food in containers that seal tightly.
Bring trash outside regularly so that it doesn’t pile up inside and create a strong odor attractant for rodents and insects.
Reduce outdoor clutter. The outside of your restaurant needs to be kept clean as well. Use trash cans that have tight-fitting lids, and make sure any dumpsters are not near the rear entrances. Provide an open path near any doorway to discourage rodents, who prefer to sneak amid clutter and structures that offer cover. If there's any vegetation nearby, trim it back so it can’t be used as a hidden approach to your door.
Implement rodent control methods. Set traps in case any rodents or insects manage to get inside. Poisons and chemicals should not be used near areas where food is prepared, so look for glue traps that do not use poison. There are also traps that the glue boards can fit inside, which can then be reused again with a fresh board after the old one is discarded.
Time to Ace Your Restaurant Inspection
Follow these tips and you should be prepared and at ease when the inspector arrives. Remember to consult your local guidelines for the most accurate information. There may not be any prize or reward for passing your inspection with flying colors, but the high grade you receive will keep guests happily returning to your restaurant — and encourage new ones to visit.