How to Pass a Health Inspection With Flying Colors

A veteran health inspector shares tips to help your restaurant ace its audit.
Make sure your inspection goes smoothly so that you can keep business flowing. (Photo: Kichigin/Shutterstock)

Passing a health inspection requires more than a clean kitchen on the day of the audit. It pays to make sure your establishment and your restaurant staff adhere to local and state health codes every day of the year.

Jim Chan, a retired manager of healthy environments in Toronto, who spent 36 years inspecting restaurants and investigating foodborne illnesses, wants to make sure you pass your health inspection with flying colors.

The following advice applies to restaurants in most areas, but check with your local department of health for specific inspection requirements in your town or city.

“Anyone operating a food service business, such as a restaurant, should know the general food safety requirements, codes and regulations from the local health department,” said Chan, who noted that these rules don’t vary much between the United States and Canada.

Conduct daily inspections

Conducting a daily health audit of your restaurant will make your next official inspection a breeze.

“The owner should do their own health inspection daily and correct all infractions instead of waiting for health inspector to walk in unannounced and end up with a failed inspection,” said Chan.

Create a checklist of the basic regulations, such as pest control, personal hygiene and food storage, and make sure these rules are being followed daily. Chan has a checklist to help restaurant owners get started. Personalize it by adding your town’s specific regulations.

Be vigilant against pests

In his decades of conducting health inspections, Chan noticed that pest infestation was one of the biggest problems at restaurants.

“Roaches can get into a food business from boxes used for food delivery and the infestation can spread throughout the establishment within weeks,” said Chan. “Mice and rats can get in through cracks or holes in walls and can cause infestations. Many operators leave doors open, especially in the kitchen, allowing flies to get in.”

To avoid an infestation, dispose of all food scraps in your kitchen and dining area promptly. Even a crumb can be a feast for a mouse. Seal openings to the outdoors, such as holes in window screens and cracks under doors, to prevent vermin from entering in the first place.

Always be on the lookout for signs of unwanted guests.

“Regularly check for evidence of infestation, such as live or dead pests, droppings and nesting sites,” said Chan. “The best [thing to do] is obtain a contract with a licensed pest control operator to provide regular pest control services.”

Mind the mercury

Thermometers aren’t put on commercial refrigerators for decoration — they’re crucial tools to avoid bacteria growth and food spoilage. Improper temperature control is another common issue inspectors penalize restaurants for during their health audits.

Chan said disease-causing microorganisms thrive in mid-range temperatures (41 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit). That means hot food should be piping hot and chilled food should be cold, never lukewarm.

Restaurant owners should inspect their refrigeration equipment every day to make sure it is running below 40 F. Freezers should not exceed 0 F. And cooked food should be heated to 140 F. This will satisfy the food inspector and reduce the risk of making a customer sick.

Develop proper hand washing habits

Hand washing violations are common during health inspections. Improper technique can lead to food contaminated with E. coli, salmonella and viruses.

However, preventing this health concern requires more effort than posting a sign by the sink.

“The owner should provide hot and cold running water, soap in a dispenser and a supply of paper towels at all hand wash sinks,” said Chan.

“Make sure these sinks are only for hand washing and not for other purposes, such as food preparation or dish washing.”

Train your staff to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s hand washing tips to minimize the risk of contamination. Scrub your hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds, or sing the “Happy Birthday” song to yourself from start to finish two times through.

Health inspectors will be looking for employees to wash their hands whenever they might be contaminated.

“The owner should ensure the food handlers wash [their] hands before, during and after handling hazardous or raw food; after sneezing or coughing, touching soiled or contaminated objects, smoking, or using the washroom; before starting work or handling any food; and especially whenever hands are visibly dirty,” said Chan.

Tidy your workstation

A messy, dirty workstation indicates other serious issues with a restaurant. A tidy workstation will make a great first impression with the inspector.

“Keep all food contact surfaces, such as cutting boards and kitchen counters, clean and in good condition. Discard cracked [tools], such as cutting boards or deeply grooved food contact surfaces,” said Chan. “Wash and sanitize all utensils, dishes and equipment either by hand or in a mechanical dishwasher.”

Other areas need to be cleaned regularly as well.

“To avoid a failed inspection, restaurant owners should [instruct] staff to clean and sanitize floors, walls, washrooms [and other areas] with soap and water, followed by a solution of approved sanitizer,” said Chan.

Pay particular attention to surfaces that come in regular contact with food.

Develop a good rapport with the inspector

A cooperative attitude can make the difference between losing points on an inspection and failing altogether.

“I always liked to deal with an owner or manager [who has] good food safety knowledge and can apply [it] to running a clean and safe business for the customers,” said Chan.

Don’t make the same mistake twice. Demonstrate your willingness to cooperate by correcting previous infractions before your next health inspection.

“I always ask the owner or manager to discuss the reports with staff during meetings to ensure [employees] know how to avoid creating an infraction during their daily work,” said Chan.

Avoid getting frustrated with health inspectors as they point out infractions and prescribe corrective actions. What might seem like nitpicking is actually part of an important procedure for protecting the health of the public.

“Their position requires them to find and point out food safety infractions to the owner, so to avoid conflict or disagreement, I suggest [developing] good communication between the owner and the health inspector, which can play a key role in a smooth inspection,” said Chan.

A warm smile and a healthy dose of friendliness won’t hurt, either.

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