Local health departments are responsible for inspecting restaurants, which they typically do before a restaurant even opens and then at least once a year or on some type of regular basis. The regular inspections are generally unannounced and can occur any time a restaurant is open for business. This surprise attack, so to speak, gives inspectors a chance to see how the restaurant really runs, rather than how it runs when restaurant folks know an inspector is coming.
In addition to routine inspections just to make sure the restaurant is operating in a clean and healthy manner, the health department may perform additional inspections on an as-needed basis. These may occur if the health department receives numerous complaints or otherwise has concerns that a particular restaurant is not operating up to state restaurant standards.
What do inspections look for?
Inspectors usually visit the restaurant with a lengthy checklist and look for activities and practices that are a violation of the state health code. Each state has its own set of health codes and what would constitute a violation, but general guidelines are similar for restaurants everywhere.
Inspectors assess the overall cleanliness and safety of the restaurant. An example from the New York City Health Department notes that the department checks for food handling safety and food temperature, hygiene of the employees, and vermin control. It’s a violation, for example, to have live roaches in the food.
Restaurants receive points for each violation, and the total points are assessed at the end of the inspection. The lower the restaurant’s score, the better off it is. This is one test on which it’s better to score as low as possible.
States may then assign a letter grade to the score, with New York City using grades of A, B, and C. If a restaurant receives an A, it is required to post the grade immediately and can continue its business as usual. If the restaurant receives a grade of B or C, they may hold off posting the grade until they are given a chance to correct it.
Who are these inspector people?
The health department doesn’t typically take anyone off the street and hand them a clipboard and a checklist. Health inspectors are often required to have a bachelor’s degree with a focus on science.
Before they head off with a clipboard and a checklist, they may be required to undergo intensive training. In New York City, training includes several months of instruction in the public health and communications field so they can not only properly identify a violation, but also properly explain how restaurant employees can correct it. They are also qualified to give mini lessons on food-borne illnesses, which they can pass along to restaurant employees to reduce potential risk.
Contrary to what some may believe, inspectors are not out for restaurants to fail. They would most likely prefer if restaurants succeed, especially since that means they wouldn’t have to return to check if all the previous violations were corrected. They are out to protect public health and safety, which doubles as the overall goal of the department.
Are all violations created equal?
As one may guess, live roaches in the food may carry a bit more weight than a refrigerator that doesn’t have a working thermometer. So no, all violations are not created equal. Violations may fall into categories, with each category having different point values assigned to them.
New York City’s categories include General and Critical, with the latter being more, well, critical to the health and well-being of the patrons. An example of a critical violation might be food not cooked to a safe temperature while a general violation may be the lack of a thermometer in a refrigeration unit.
Then there’s the granddaddy of violations, also called “Public Health Hazards.” These violations are critical ones that put the patrons at an immediate risk of getting sick. In fact, The Big Apple requires that a public health hazard be corrected by the end of the inspection or the inspector can close down the restaurant until the violation is corrected.
Another critical violation is one called “pre-permit serious items,” which is reserved for critical issues that require correction before a restaurant can receive an official permit to operate. Operating without a permit is a big violation that will just get the restaurant shut down when the inspector finds out.
What happens when a restaurant is shut down by the health department?
Shame, a ruined reputation, and loss of business may be on the list of things that happen when the health department shuts down a restaurant. The restaurant may also be forced to put very obvious signs in its window that explain how it was shut down for violating the health code.
The restaurant can generally open its door once again only after the health department has assessed that all violations have been corrected. The restaurant doesn’t get a free ride after a closure, however. It is likely to remain on some type of probation with regular, frequent visits from the health department to ensure that it continues to meet the health code.