6 steps for better health department inspections

Keeping an eye out for potential trouble spots will help your restaurant post better health inspections scores.

If a local health inspector walked through the door at this very moment, would your kitchen pass the test?

For most commercial kitchen owners and operators, a health department inspection may cause stress and anxiety, as it has the potential to damage both revenue and reputation and can even determine the fate of a business. But it’s important to remember that the sole purpose of these inspections is to guarantee the health and safety of both customers and staff. It may be tempting for commercial kitchen operators to delay repairs or ignore a few minor health violations in the name of being “too busy,” but a poor report can potentially lead to high repair costs and thousands of dollars in lost sales.

Here are six do’s and don’ts that can help restaurant operators achieve better health inspection scores.

First, the do’s: Although commercial kitchen regulations can vary by state, there are three simple steps that can help to ensure every commercial kitchen is grade-A ready for any health inspection:

  1. Review previous inspection results.The last three health inspection reports that a facility has received are excellent resources that will provide owners with an understanding of the owner and staff take safety precautions and health violations seriously.
  2. Perform surprise self-inspections weekly.By stepping into a health inspector’s shoes, a restaurant owner can prevent potential inspection violations before they happen. The most effective way to conduct weekly health inspections is by adhering to current health regulations and reviewing inspection forms, typically found on the local health department website. Similar to real health inspections, owners should perform self-inspections at random, unannounced times so that all staff members become accustomed to practicing proper food handling and cleaning regulations all day, every day.
  3. Educate employees on current food safety practices.Health inspectors are paying extra attention to food handling due to the rise in food allergies and food-borne illness outbreaks. Regular staff meetings will help keep employees informed of evolving food safety techniques, including food-handling practices related to allergies, the spread of bacteria and more.

Now, for the don’ts: When preparing for an inspection, it helps to be aware of common health inspection violations and how to avoid them. Some of the most recurring violations include:

  1. Failure to properly store food.According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the temperature in a refrigerator should be set to 40°F or below throughout the unit, so that any place is safe for storage of any food. Raw meat, poultry and seafood should be in a sealed container or wrapped securely to prevent raw juices from contaminating other foods. Employees should also immediately label food by name and delivery date as it arrives to avoid keeping food past its expiration date. The “First In, First Out” method of inventory can help to manage this process.
  2. Failure to follow sanitation regulations.Approximately 26 percent of food-borne illnesses are caused by food handlers’ poor personal hygiene. Frequent hand-washing is the easiest way to prevent these issues as it is important for employees to wash their hands whenever a different food type is being handled, or at least every two hours. Commercial kitchen owners should continually remind employees about the importance of adequate hand-washing and emphasize how failing to follow this basic requirement could result in major health violations.
  3. Failure to maintain kitchen exhaust hood systems.The exhaust hoods in commercial kitchens are designed to collect as much airborne grease as possible. Over time, all that grease becomes a major fire hazard. While kitchen staff can regularly clean visible areas of a kitchen hood themselves, a proper cleaning of a hood exhaust system can be intricate and difficult. To ensure the kitchen hood is thoroughly cleaned, including the exhaust duct(s) and roof exhaust fan(s), it is recommended that a commercial kitchen owner hire a specialist who is professionally trained and certified to clean kitchen exhaust systems, while adhering to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard.

With regular maintenance and routine cleaning, restaurants can dodge some of the most common health violations. Though it’s difficult to predict when a health inspector may be visiting your restaurant, following these simple anticipatory steps is a proactive plan to achieve a passing grade next time.