Keeping Your Health Inspector Happy

Health inspections: The time of year when restaurants prepare to be examined top to bottom and receive grades that determine whether they can stay open or whether they need to make some serious changes, fast. Although the frequency of an evaluation, the infractions they’re looking for, and the rules you have to follow all vary from place to place, a health inspector’s job broadly involves ensuring that restaurants are safe and in compliance with health and safety guidelines laid out by state and local officials as well as by federal regulations set forth by departments like the FDA. Cross-contamination, contamination from other pieces of the supply chain and contamination from inside the restaurant itself (via customers or staff, for example) are all dangers to be wary of before an inspector comes to check in.

So, it’s almost health inspection time again. What steps can you, as the restaurant owner or manager, take to make sure you’re in compliance and ready to face another year?

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Maintaining a Clean Space

Naturally, the restaurant itself has to be clean in order to pass an inspection. Surface level changes like these are the easiest to implement and maintain; it’s all a matter of getting into the rhythm of it and doing proper upkeep.

Food

Food safety should be your first priority, and not just when a health inspection is coming up; it should be your foremost concern all year round. Your dishes are the lifeblood of your business and your quality of care should reflect that.

  • Surfaces that touch raw meat should never come in contact with other, ready-to-eat foods unless they’ve first been cleaned with warm, soapy water. Likewise, utensils used to handle raw meat should be washed first before reuse.
  • Avoid cross-contamination. Don’t let foods share surfaces, even seemingly innocuous foods because that could later cause a guest to have an unexpected allergic reaction from otherwise non-dangerous ingredients.
  • Remove employees’ food and drink from the kitchens, especially if the inspector is coming. Their germs and their food could easily lead to cross-contamination as well.
  • Monitor food temperatures rigorously. Depending on how out-of-balance the temperature is, you might be able to remedy the problem easily by cooling the food down with ice or heating it up. Use your best judgment to decide if items are too far outside of the intended temperature range, in which case you should toss them out instead.

When it comes to food, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

General health and safety

It’s not just the food that needs to be carefully monitored and regularly cleaned. The physical restaurant and all your employees also need to be pristine, or else all the hard work that went into preserving the integrity of your ingredients won’t save you in an inspection.

  • Mandate that all employees wash their hands regularly with warm water and soap. Equip your sinks with disinfectant soap and paper towels to make it easy for them to do so between tasks.
  • When appropriate, staff members should wear gloves. Line cooks, for example, should wash their hands before putting on gloves and getting started on a new dish.
  • Fill all the towel buckets with sanitizer.
  • Dishwashers and dishwashing stations should be equipped with sanitization abilities too.

It’s not as easy to control human behavior as it is to manage food safety. However, there are definitive ways to enforce employee health and sanitation standards such as incentive and punishment systems, or simply by adding it to their daily tasks until the behavior is ingrained as routine.

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Enforcing Safety Standards

It’s important to help your staff understand why enforcing these health and safety standards on a day to day basis is so crucial. If they know what your expectations are and also understand the reasons behind them, critical thinking skills will allow them to circumvent other potential hazards that occur before they even reach management’s radar. As usual in business, honesty and transparency goes a long way.

From a health inspector’s perspective, knowledgeable staff demonstrates the manager’s understanding of the rules and dedication to enforcing them. It implies that you’re following these set standards even when an official isn’t around, thus illustrating your level of respect for compliance standards. A workplace that actively prioritizes safety earns more respect and a better reputation in an inspector’s mind.

Encouraging compliance from your staff starts with the smallest, most seemingly insignificant aspects of business operations. Don’t overlook anything; there’s no detail too minor when it comes to health, and especially when it comes to your health inspector. If you remind employees enough times about handling these minor, day-to-day tasks, it will become an ingrained part of their work routine and you won’t have to worry about it again. Never, ever encourage employees to skip any of these duties or treat them as if they’re less important than any other item on their to-do list, or that attitude will be reflected in the restaurant itself.

Consider incorporating these reminders into your regular staff meetings, as that will keep the information fresh on their minds and push the importance of following regulations without seeming overbearing, too repetitive or like you’re singling out any one employee in particular.

ServSafe is one surefire way to get all of your employees on the same page. Administered by the U.S. National Restaurant Association (“the other NRA,” as its known colloquially in the industry), this training course will teach them everything they need to know about food and beverage safety procedures. ServSafe is so widely used that someone with this certification needs to be onsite at all times, thus it’s a reputable learning mechanism as well as being genuinely advantageous. With one of these certifications, employees will even be prepared to move up in their restaurant career later.

To ensure employees’ compliance and the health official’s satisfaction, it helps to do self-inspections on a regular basis. These will help you familiarize yourself with the restaurants’ weak points and track its progress over time. The better you know your business inside and out, the easier it is to identify problems as they arise and solve them early, thus preventing them from worsening into a catastrophe. Additionally, you’ll be prepared to stay level-headed when something goes wrong during the inspection because you’re well-versed on what to do; it will be reflexive.

You can even get a form similar to the one inspectors use to make sure you’re checking all the boxes. Inspections aren’t a test or a trick; they’re merely a measure to enforce compliance with federally-mandated standards. Use notes and study beforehand if it helps!

Proactivity matters. Even if an inspection isn’t coming up anytime soon, food safety should remain a priority at all times because that’s what keeps restaurants a safe and pleasant experience. Knowledge and practice is power.

The State of Food Safety

The above tips and suggestions apply broadly across every restaurant, though there more be more rules to consider depending on your specific jurisdiction. In any other time or place, those would be the only regulations you have to consider. However since COVID-19 has completely changed the landscape of the food service industry, restaurants now need to take additional considerations into account about how to protect their employees and customers from the virus, on top of traditional health and safety measures.

Despite the state of the world, health inspections are still just as, if not more, necessary than ever. Health inspectors will be looking for COVID-19 violations on top of their usual considerations, because it’s more necessary than ever to ensure the safety of our food supply and essential workers. Hand washing should be done at more frequent intervals, and restaurants need to take social distance, sanitization and masks seriously. Restaurants who didn’t follow all these safety guidelines, or at least didn’t follow them very stringently, quickly fell victim to outbreaks. Now more than half of all restaurants will never reopen post-pandemic.

The FDA and CDC are working on new surveillance and inspection systems in line with experts’ COVID-19 recommendations, which will grow and change as scientific data continues to come out about the evolving nature of this pandemic.

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Before your next health inspection comes, make sure you know your restaurant’s health and safety procedures inside and out. Safety and quality assurances are the two most important aspects of any food service business; find success by ensuring your employees are knowledgeable and alert to any potential violations so that those can be solved swiftly and without fuss.

Health inspections don’t have to be strenuous. Just stay diligent and follow the rules, and your restaurant will live to fight another healthy, delicious, hardworking year.

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