- Every restaurant operator, manager, and member of kitchen staff should be familiar with their state’s health code.
- Following proper procedures and taking precautions when handling food can help prevent most health code violations.
- In the event you do have a health code violation, cooperate with inspectors as much as possible.
Food safety should be a top priority for any restaurant. Making sure your food is safe isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s a legal requirement. Each state’s health department serves an important role in protecting the community from foodborne illnesses. Anyone who’s had a foodborne illness will likely tell you they wouldn’t wish it on their worst enemy.
Health code violations occur when a health inspector discovers that a restaurant isn’t following state guidelines. These violations can be minor or major — some can result in a slap on the wrist or a write-up in an inspection report, while others can lead to a full shutdown of a restaurant.
Follow along as we discuss what the laws are, what the most common health code violations are, and how to avoid making them.
What’s the Law?
Restaurateurs should be proactive in preventing any health code violations and making sure their employees are up to speed with local laws and requirements. Realistically, restaurant operators, managers, and anyone involved in food preparation should know the laws backwards and forwards. Ideally, everybody in the restaurant will be educated.
Many states also require a food manager’s license or certification for those who prepare food or manage a restaurant. Be sure to get licensed if you’re in one of those states — licensing should come long before running a restaurant.
Common Health Code Violations
Health inspections are often quite thorough, and inspectors may find things you haven’t considered or weren’t aware of. However, many violations are common and can be avoided with a bit of foresight.
One of the most common health code violations relates to the storage of hot food. Between temperatures of 40-140°F — the “danger zone” — bacteria can grow rapidly in food, leading to contamination and potential illness.
States have specific requirements for how long hot food can be stored at those temperatures — usually around 4 hours. After the specified length of time, the food can no longer be served or sold and must be discarded.
Some states also have requirements for how to correctly cool food. California, for example, requires special cooling techniques for “potentially hazardous” food like meat, seafood, and many others.
When refrigerated or frozen, food needs to be stored at the correct temperature as well. Generally, this is below 40° for refrigerated food and below 0° for frozen food. However, verify the specific temperatures for food storage with your state’s health code to make sure.
Restaurant operators can avoid temperature violations by insisting their chefs and other kitchen staff make fastidious checks and records of food preparation and storage. This means, for example, if you have a hot soup in the kitchen ready to serve, someone should consistently check it for temperature.
If you have a buffet or other service in which prepared food is served hot, each item’s time of preparation should be recorded. Going over the time limit can land you in hot water with the health inspector.
Cross-contamination occurs when foods that shouldn’t touch come into contact. It can happen in a number of ways, all of which should be avoided at all costs.
Fortunately, most chefs and kitchen staff have a good understanding of how to prevent cross-contamination. Regardless, restaurant operators should be well-educated on this topic to prevent any possible contamination.
One good way to avoid cross-contamination is to have kitchen supplies dedicated to specific foods. For example, a cutting board that is used for raw chicken or raw seafood should never be used for anything else until it’s been thoroughly sanitized. To avoid confusion about which cutting board is for what, you can use a labeling or color-coding system.
You can adopt a similar system with your knives and other kitchen utensils. Plating food with the same utensils you touched raw meat with is a no-no. If you want to re-use utensils for cooking, make sure they’re stored in hot water (above 165 degrees) and the water is changed regularly.
Another way to avoid cross-contamination is to make sure all of your kitchen equipment, plates, and everything else that touches your food is properly sanitized. Sanitizing is different from cleaning: While cleaning makes something look free of debris, sanitizing means an item is free of any dangerous bacteria. This can be accomplished with high-temperature cleaning and sanitizing chemicals.
Properly storing food in a walk-in refrigerator or any other type of refrigerator is another way to prevent cross-contamination and ensure food doesn’t go to waste, costing the restaurant money.
A good guideline to follow is this: Your more dangerous items should be toward the bottom, and more delicate products should be toward the top. This way, your dangerous items won’t risk dripping on other products and contaminating them. The two extremes are raw meat and fresh produce: Raw meat goes on the bottom, produce on top.
The “dangerous down” system works for everything. Raw chicken is more dangerous than raw beef, so it should go below the beef. Similarly, cooked products should go above raw meat but below fresh produce.
Chefs should be very familiar with this practice. If you’re hiring a chef, checking their knowledge of proper food storage is an important step in the interview process. Restaurant owners will still regularly need to inspect their walk-in fridge to make sure proper standards are being maintained.
A further step to avoid health inspection violations — and costly waste — is to implement a FIFO (first in, first out) system. This system means that food should be prepared in the order it was purchased. The onions you bought on Tuesday need to be used before the ones from Wednesday.
This prevents rot, neglect, and waste — something all too familiar to fridge owners of any variety. Most people have found something long forgotten in the back of their fridge. Don’t let this happen at your restaurant.
Proper personal hygiene is a must for any kitchen staff — or anyone working in the restaurant, really. The FDA has solid guidelines regarding hygiene, but be sure to check with your state’s laws as well.
Hand washing is one of the most crucial aspects of food preparation. Hands and gloves can easily contribute to cross-contamination, so kitchen staff should be well trained in hand washing procedures. Each kitchen should have a sink dedicated to hand washing. Additionally, while gloves can be a contentious issue, anyone with cuts or other open wounds on their hands must wear gloves while preparing food.
Other aspects of personal hygiene are equally important. Chefs and cooks are sometimes required to wear hair protection to make sure their hair doesn’t fall in food — which, as well as being unhygienic, is a bad look for a restaurant.
Any employee in a restaurant that suspects they have a communicable disease should stay home. Employees who work while displaying signs of illness are likely in violation of your state’s health code, though the buck stops with the business — not the employee.
It should come as no surprise that infestation of vermin — rats, mice, cockroaches, and other undesirables — can quickly lead to a major health violation. Regularly cleaning floors, properly storing food, and not skipping the nooks and crannies on a deep scrub can help you avoid infestations. Rats and their ilk aren’t just a public health hazard in the food service world — they’re also terrible for business. In the worst case scenario, you’ll have to call an exterminator.
What to Do If You Have a Violation
It’s easy for restaurateurs to see the health inspector as their enemy, especially if they write you up with violations. Just recall, though, that they perform a valuable public service and they’re on the side of everyone in the community, yourself included.
If you do indeed have a violation — and it can happen to anyone — listen openly to what the inspector says, and avoid getting defensive at all costs. They’ll often be open to discuss ways to rectify the situation, especially if they feel respected.
Once you’ve learned what the problem is and how it can be fixed, immediately implement steps to prevent it from happening again — and discuss what happened with your staff. When all your staff are on the same page and aware of the problem, they’ll know how to make sure it’s taken care of.
Pull Your Team Together
It’s a beautiful thing when a restaurant’s staff are all pulling in the same direction. One of the best ways to avoid problems of any kind in the food service industry is to have well-trained staff that knows how to communicate and work together.
Finding and keeping staff like that, however, is no small task. Having holes in your lineup or unexpected staff changes can be frustrating and draining, and lead to poor performance and lost revenue.
Pared’s goal is to make finding trustworthy staff seamless. Whatever role you need filled in your food service business — from chefs to servers to bartenders and everything in between — Pared can help.
When you use the Pared app, you can connect with a vetted Pro in as little as two hours. See what it’s like to never be short-staffed again.