Like Superman to Metropolis or Batman to Gotham, health inspections are designed to protect the dining public from food-related illnesses resulting from improperly handled food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the main governing body for America’s food handling processes, and their food code outlines specific rules on which state and county health departments model their retail food regulations. But who actually enforces these rules? Ladies and gents, the health inspector:
The Health Inspector
Health inspections are conducted by government officials at either the federal, state or local level. The typical health inspector has a college science degree and is a specialist trained in proper food quality, maintenance and preparation practices.
An Inspector’s Primary Tasks
- Educate restaurateurs and staff on safe food handling and preparation.
- Conduct inspections of food service establishments to assure local, state and federal health codes are being followed.
- Issue citations or fines in cases of egregious violation.
- Collect samples, if necessary, to trace the possible sources of a food poisoning outbreak.
- Prepare inspection reports that are available online or on public record at a local office.
Types of Health Inspections
Though health regulations and inspection processes can vary from county to county, there are at least three types of health inspections that can occur at any establishment.
Surprise! Your eatery is about to be evaluated. Are you scared? You shouldn’t be. During this unannounced visit, the inspector looks at all aspects of an establishment to assure compliance with the local food regulations. Everything from employee handwashing practices to dumpster lids are looked at during routine inspections.
Whoops, someone ratted on you. Usually a customer got sick or filed a complaint about possible unsafe practices. Just because a complaint has been filed does not mean the condition exists, but you can be assured the inspector will give your facility the white glove treatment and can take samples of questionable material.
If you fail a health inspection, you can be put on probation, so to speak. The follow-up inspection will occur after an establishment has been given a certain amount of time to correct critical violations. If the inspector says, “I will be back in two weeks to check on your progress”, take them seriously.
General Health Inspection Grading
If it feels like grade school all over again, you are not far from the truth. Health inspection grading systems follow time honored methods that communicate to managers and the public how good a job your establishment is doing.
Yes, you will be graded after the inspection. If you pass, you get a neat sticker (or stamp). If you fail, you get a slip of paper. It’s not a happy slip of paper, either. It is a sad slip of paper.
Each violation on the inspector’s checklist is attributed with a certain number of points. Critical violations are worth more points than non-critical, as they represent areas of the restaurant that are potentially more hazardous to the customers. At the end of the inspection, violation points are tallied and used to assign a specific grade to the restaurant.
The actual grading display system can vary greatly between counties and states, but each method is designed to easily inform the owner and public of a restaurant’s most recent inspection results. Listed are some of the most common inspection grade systems:
These are just like grade school. Violation points are subtracted from the total possible, and a percentage is given that falls into an ABC (sometimes D and F) grading scale. Grades A and B signify few or no violations, and C, D or F grades represent restaurants that have enough violations to cause worry and might be shut down.
Green, yellow, red and white tags are used to show most recent inspection results. Green shows very few or no violations. Yellow means a restaurant had some critical violations. A red tag means there have been several critical violations and the restaurant is probably closed until further notice. The white tag signifies that a restaurant is on probation after previously being closed for critical violations.
This type of system is similar to the ABC method and rates restaurants on a scale of potential risk for causing foodborne illness. Violation points are tallied and the restaurant will fall into categories ranging from Excellent (little risk) to Inadequate (high risk).
With recent food recalls there is a growing anxiety over food safety. In response to this concern, many health departments are requiring restaurants to post their most recent inspection on the front door. Counties and dedicated Web sites are also compiling results for easy online access.
Receiving a high grade is important from both a business and public health standpoint. Lower grades can drive customers away to the point that a business has to shut down due to lack of sales. If too many violations are found, the inspector can order a restaurant to close as it poses a public health threat.