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Foodservice Food Safety Resource

Pointers for the Almost Perfect Health Inspection

April 06, 2007

If you have been in the food business long enough, you have said to your health inspector – “Does anyone ever have a perfect health inspection?” In a busy commercial kitchen, perfect does not exist—clean and safe does.   The goal for both, the manager or chef and the inspector / auditor is perfection.  Reality and human nature say for both sides, that might be the impossible dream for a number of reasons: 1) we are busy humans; 2) Murphy’s Law; 3)those people doing inspections see a snapshot of your facility and do not have eyes in the back of their head (or bionic temperature probes built into sterile fingers)—they do look for trends and patterns of good practices or unsafe practices: 4) levels of training vary for both; 5) again, we are humans.   So it’s better to plan ahead, have a food safety system in place, and do routine self-inspections for your facility with your team.  

Online Inspection Reports – For your information, many states now post their inspection reports online.  That means your facility reports are easily open to anyone with a computer to review (open public records law), including rechecks for the critical violations, complaints, closures, and the good reports too.  Most health departments have websites that are a little hard to find, but there are companies out there that have website just for searching the various state or county databases of public inspection records.  Go to: www.healthinspections.com   If you have internal food safety audits done by a third party company, they are not public record, but in some large chains, manager bonuses have a percent structure based on good audit/inspection reports.

What should we expect during an inspection?  When a health inspector from a governmental regulatory agency visits a food service facility, they need to learn about your operation.  The regulator will ask lots of questions to identify what types of food processes are at your facility and what potential food safety hazards might exist.  They will observe your food handlers and may ask them questions. The best advice is to know the processes in your facility, cooperate, answer questions honestly, keep your staff well trained in food safety, and utilize the inspection as an opportunity to learn even more. Some reports are scored or have an ABCD grade, but the newer inspection reports are based on the level of risk and the critical or “red” items that represent the highest hazards in food safety.

Responsibilities of Health Agencies --Food safety measures are so important to public health, that nearly every facet of the food chain is regulated by federal and state agencies.  The basis of these regulations is to make sure that food offered to consumers is safe, unadulterated and honestly presented.  Inspection frequency varies based on your level of risk, but usually it’s 2-4 times a year.  State and local health departments usually have the most control over food safety inspections in food service facilities and are responsible for:

§         Issuing permits to operate;

§         Providing advice on all aspects of food safety;

§         Conducting regular food safety & sanitation inspections;

§         Enforcing the state or local food code.

Health inspection agencies have “policing” powers to conduct routine inspections at any time during normal business hours or by prior arrangement.  They are entitled to observe and inspect all practices and records relating to food safety, so you should anticipate that they will look at such things as personal hygiene standards, time & temperature control, measures to prevent contamination, the effectiveness of cleaning, sanitizing, and pest control, and conformance with your HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) plan, if you have one.  As the food safety professional, you will be expected to demonstrate knowledge of safe practices and legal requirements.

What to Do Before an Inspection – According to the National Restaurant Association, here’s some pointers.  The strategy for a successful health inspection is to be ready for an inspection at any time. This means that you and your managers should become inspectors and conduct weekly, in-house examinations before health inspectors arrive.

• When conducting a self-assessment, you should use the same form-or a similar form-that your health department uses and put yourself in the health inspector's place.
• Your self-inspection should include walking into your establishment from the outside to get an outsider's impression.
• After you inspect your operation, hold a 10-minute briefing with kitchen staff to review any problems. This step will help convey the importance of food safety to staff members.
• If your staff includes employees for whom English is a second language, ask a bilingual employee to translate the findings to them so they also understand how important cleanliness is to the success of your restaurant.
• Your self-inspection priorities for kitchen employees should include: food temperature, awareness of food types and hand washing.
• Temperature guidelines include checking the temperature of products when delivered and received, when they are stored and when they are served.  Doing this will reduce foodborne-illness outbreaks by 70 percent.
• Cross-contamination prevention guidelines can be divided into categories and segregated: raw beef and beef blood & other red protein meats, raw poultry, raw seafood, unwashed raw fresh produce vs. all other types of ready-to-eat food. These categories can never touch each other during storage or preparation.
• The importance of hand washing should be re-enforced by posting signs at all kitchen sinks and in employee restrooms.
• Train your managers to ensure that they are up-to-date on the latest food-safety techniques. Managers should be certified by completing a food-safety training program if your organization or the state does not already require it.
• Review your local health code for any special, local requirements.
• Another way to influence the outcome of your health inspection is to get involved politically. Join your state's health-code-revision committee to give a restaurateur's perspective.  Involve senior staff on such committees as well.

What to DO When a Health Inspector Visits --Now that you have prepared for the examination, you need to know what to do when a health inspector arrives. Be warned that examiners usually arrive unannounced, so you'll want to be ready on any occasion, even during a rush.  Don't panic when an inspector arrives. Think of this as a learning opportunity that will benefit your operation by making it as safe as possible.  To make an inspection as pain-free as possible, you should:
• Ask to see the inspector's credentials first. In some cases, people have tried to pass themselves off as health officials. If you're unsure of the person's credentials, call the local health department or the inspector's supervisor for verification.
• Do not refuse an inspection. The examiner will likely get an inspection warrant that you can't refuse and the examination will be even more thorough.
• Tag along with the inspector and take notes of any violations he or she finds. This gives you the chance to correct simple problems on the spot and the examiner will note your willingness to fix problems.
• Refrain from offering any food or any other item that can be misconstrued as an attempt to influence the inspector's findings.
• After the exam, be sure to sign the inspector's report. Signing it doesn't mean that you agree to the findings; it only means that you received a copy of the report.
• Ask the inspector to explain his findings to your staff and offer suggestions on areas that need improvement. Even the cleanest restaurants sometimes contain health-code violations.

What You Can Do if You Are Cited --Here's what you can do to limit the damage of an adverse health inspection:
• Fix small problems during the inspection or ASAP to let the examiner know you are willing to work with him or her.  Contact them when the corrections are completed.
• If you don't understand the violation, ask the health official to explain. Don't be confrontational.
• If you disagree with the inspector's findings, keep quiet for the time being and appeal the decision later. Your health inspector should be your ally.  He or she can improve the quality of your cuisine and save you from the devastation of a foodborne illness incident.

Bottom Line:  Self-inspect your facility, work in cooperation with the inspector or auditor, and have your team follow the old adage of “be prepared”.

The foregoing is offered only to assist you in becoming informed and is not intended to nor does it constitute comprehensive foodsafety advice. Each operator is encouraged to develop a comprehensive food safety program.

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