We all have our favorite restaurants, and we’re quite assured that the food we eat there is handled well before it is served. We know that, for sure, because we are aware that restaurants in our city do get inspected. And they did pass inspection, didn’t they? But do we really understand what a restaurant inspector actually does when they conduct evaluations? And why do we need to know?
For one, it is not enough to know that the food we eat is safe – it is best to learn how restaurants keep them so. Is the kitchen staff in restaurant uniforms who are handling our food free from illnesses? How do they store our food? Second, it is best to see what the inspectors see so we can decide if it is really safe to eat there. How can we make our own assessment is we ourselves do not know? And third, if we love the establishment, we would like to help it exist. Restaurant managers are always busy with other operational matters and we would be helping them look out for the stuff that he can’t really observe at all times.
The scoring processes (of each state’s Health Department vary in certain details, but the general rules are basically the same. To be able to know how often a restaurant needs to be inspected, an establishment is categorized according to risk-factors– low, medium or high risk category. No, there’s no need to be alarmed when we hear the word “risk”– a high risk restaurant simply means that it needs to be inspected at least three times a year. Such food establishments are hospitals, schools, daycare centers and nursing homes. Fast food and fast-casual restaurants fall into the medium category, while snack bars, nightclubs, bars and convenience stores are considered low risk and are inspected once a year.
Routine inspections are unarranged and normally happen during the food establishment’s actual food preparation. If a restaurant operates only in the evening, or only during special events, then that’s when food inspectors are expected to show up. The first question an inspector asks is “who is in charge for the day?” The Food Code puts great emphasis on the importance of always having someone in charge of the restaurant’s food handling routines. Once the inspector meets the person in restaurant uniform who is in charge, he considers what is currently taking place – which items are being cooked, which food items are cooling, being prepared for service, or being reheated.
He goes on to review the menu and check if there had been changes done since the previous inspection. He also checks the food’s temperature during the entire stages of production. He holds on to his roughly 44-item checklist (the number could vary depending which state they are in) and continuously asks questions and ticks the list. The person in charge needs to know the appropriate reply to the questions; otherwise the business could be cited for possible violation or for “lack of knowledge.” The checklist contains around 13 items that are regarded as “critical”, and the remaining as “non-critical.” Most of the critical items are about food, food handling and storage; personnel with communicable illnesses or infections; sanitation of utensils and food equipments; sources of water and proper waste disposal; proper plumbing installation and storage of toxic items; and the availability of well-maintained toilets and hand-wash
All checklist items total to a perfect mark of 100. To pass the evaluation, restaurants must gain a score of 70 and above and must have no violations on the critical items list. If the establishment fails to meet these conditions, they are asked to voluntarily close and resume operations once they have complied with the requirements. From these scores, the Health Department assign a sanitation grade, which could be A (excellent), B (acceptable), or C (marginal). Most states use green, yellow or red stickers instead of letter grades.
No, we don’t really have to go and check our favorite restaurants’ kitchens and interview their employees – it’s enough that we know how the process works so we will know, one way or the other, that the food we eat is safe. We look at the stickers and the grades and we can say, yes, we know what that means.