A Short Guide to Restaurant Health and Safety Codes


All commercial food service establishments are subject to local, state and federal food codes that are in place to protect the dining public from contracting a foodborne illness. The immediate authority for all restaurants is the county health department, and each county health department has specific regulations for all areas of a food service facility.

Know the Health Codes

When opening a new restaurant, it is important that you know your local health code and safety codes to assure that you can actually open your doors to the public. Though specific rules vary by county and state, each county’s food code will cover the same areas. Examples of regulated areas of the commercial kitchen include:

  • Employee Hygiene.

    Employees must be well groomed and in good health to handle food. If an employee is sick, you must send them home or assign them tasks that do not put them in contact with prepared foods.

  • Restaurant Inspections.

    Before a new restaurant opens, it must pass an initial health inspection. After they are open, restaurants are usually inspected twice a year. If a restaurant has a number of violations, it can be shut down to make corrections and get re-inspected. More on Health Inspection Basics »

  • Facilities and Surfaces Cleaning.

    Local health codes stipulate what cleaners and sanitizers are acceptable for restaurants to use. The codes also specify how frequently equipment and food contact surfaces should be cleaned. For example: a pan that is used to carry raw meat to the grill must be cleaned and sanitized before any prepared foods can be placed in it, to prevent raw meat juices from contaminating the prepared product.

  • Food Handling, Storage and Preparation.

    From the moment food supplies enter your establishment, you are responsible for them. There are specific health codes for handling, storage and preparation of food. For example: many health departments forbid employees from touching prepared, ready-to-eat foods with their hands. Employees must use disposable gloves instead.

  • Equipment and Supplies.

    County health departments often have very specific standards for three-compartment sinks. In general, most health departments require a specific slope to the drain boards. Slope means that the drainboards are pitched or tilted towards the bowls, so water will drain into the sink instead of pool on the drainboard. Local departments will also require the drainboards to be at least as wide and long as the sink bowls. If you are looking at a sink with 18” x 18” (L x W) bowls, the drainboards must be at least 18” square. Other pieces of equipment may have strict regulations as well.

If you’re looking to get your kitchen staff on the same page with understanding food safety, make sure to check out ServSafe food safety classes.

Health Department Permit Required

Before you can open the doors of your new restaurant, you must obtain a permit from your local health department. The permit verifies that your establishment is in compliance with local, state and federal health regulations.

In order to obtain a operator’s permit from your county health department, you must:

  1. Submit an application 30 days prior to opening.
  2. Submit floor plans showing where all food service equipment is to be located, along with the manufacturer and model number of those pieces of equipment.
  3. Include a copy of your proposed menu.
  4. Pass an initial health inspection, prior to opening.

In addition to a health department permit, you will be required to obtain other licenses, like a business license, before your restaurant can open.

Contact Your County Health Department

Health and safety codes vary from state to state and county to county. This is because there are four different Food Codes (as of January 2009). Though most states have adopted some version of the Food Code, not all use the most recent 2005 Food Code. Also, the Food Code is meant to be a guide and provides bear minimum requirements for food safety in commercial kitchens. Many local food codes employ stricter policies. Early in the planning stages of your new restaurant, you will want to have several conversations with your local health department to ensure that you are taking all of the correct steps to pass your initial health inspection and provide a safe dining experience for your customers.

HACCP Plans for Commercial Kitchens

HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points, and it is a proactive system for food safety. Proactive means, rather than fixing a food safety issue after the fact (reacting to the situation), food service establishments have plans in place to prevent food poisoning. Most restaurants already use HACCP-based procedures in their daily procedures. Checking and recording the temperatures of hot food items, like soups or stews, every two hours is an example of a HACCP practice. Many new restaurants or other food service facilities develop HACCP plans that are tailored to their specific establishments.

Americans with Disabilities

All commercial food service facilities, whether new or existing, must be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA has stipulations regarding handicapped accessibility to both the restaurant and the restaurant’s facilities. The Act also has provisions to protect against discrimination for customers, job applicants and employees.

Government and Non-Profit Health Organizations

There are several government and non-profit organizations that oversee the United States food supply and test and develop safety standards for commercial kitchen equipment.

  • Food and Drug Administration.

    The FDA ensures the safety of all food products (excluding meat and poultry) and the bottle water supply. The FDA also publishes the Food Code, which state and county health departments use to create their health policies. More on the FDA »

  • United States Department of Agriculture.

    The USDA oversees the safety of America’s meat, poultry and egg products. More on the USDA »

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Whenever there is a large food poisoning outbreak, the CDC works with local health agencies to trace the cause. More on the CDC »

  • National Sanitation Foundation.

    Food service equipment that bears the NSF mark has undergone rigorous testing and adheres to the National Sanitation Foundation’s standards for safety and cleanability. More on the NSF »

  • Underwriter’s Laboratories.

    The Underwriter’s Laboratories tests electrical equipment to assure that it meets current safety codes. More on the Underwriter’s Laboratories »

  • Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

    The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) also has specific standards in place to protect restaurant employees from physical harm. For example, restaurants must have Class K fire extinguishers near all cooking equipment, in case of fire. More on OSHA »

General Health and Safety Information

There is a lot more that goes into running a safe restaurant than knowing your local food codes. For example, you should know the specific germs that cause food poisoning and which foods they commonly contaminate. Also, there are several different methods for growing food that diners are becoming increasingly aware of and may want to avoid. You should take your customer’s food safety concerns into account when preparing meals.


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