Your restaurant must pass a health inspection before you open—and every three to 12 months afterward. Here’s what to expect.

Health departments conduct restaurant inspections for one simple reason—to protect the general public from the risk of foodborne illness. Most health departments and inspectors want restaurant owners, managers and employees to view them as partners, not adversaries. After all, a foodborne illness not only can sicken your customers, but also close your restaurant and cost you your livelihood.

In most places, health codes regulating restaurants are based on the FDA Food Code model, which is updated every few years. But your local health code could be administered by the city, county or state, depending on where you’re located. To find out, contact your local city government, or click here to find a list of state food codes.

Typically, your restaurant’s managers and employees must take a certified food safety course to get a food handler’s card before they can prep and serve food. These courses are often available through your local health department or online through approved programs like the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe.

Health Inspection Scores and Their Meanings

During public health inspections, inspectors from the health department review everything in the restaurant that keeps it compliant with local code, from the cleanliness of your receiving dock and garbage area to the temperature of your food. On their health inspection checklists, they’ll dock you points any time an area doesn’t meet code. Health code violations in restaurants are either critical, such as the temperature of your walk-in, or noncritical, such as the accuracy of the thermometers on your walk-in.

Critical health code violations cost you more points than noncritical violations, although you’ll have to fix all of them. Critical violations pose a greater risk to food safety and include safety issues like improper food holding temperatures (hot or cold) improper handwashing and storing raw meat above produce in a walk-in. Less critical offenses are things like a messy garbage area or sanitizing solution that’s not mixed correctly. Depending on your total score after an inspection, the health department will either assign your restaurant a letter grade or ratings like “Excellent,” “Good,” “Okay,” “Fair” and so forth, sometimes accompanied by emojis.

The public’s perception of your restaurant can be swayed easily by the sight of an unhappy emoji or an “Okay” rating in your window. And most health departments make ratings data available to the public online, so a restaurant’s record on food safety is no secret. Partnering with your health inspector to understand how to improve your food safety techniques can go a long way toward keeping a smiling emoji, an “A’ or an “Excellent” rating in your front window.

How to Prep for a Restaurant Health Inspection

A well-trained staff should make food safety and sanitation its top priority every day so you’re always prepared. A good way to ensure that you have adequate food safety policies and procedures in place is to develop a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plan. HACCP helps you identify and focus on the spots in your production process, from receiving to serving, where contamination poses the greatest risk to food safety. Once identified, the plan outlines steps to take to prevent possible contamination.

Here are some other ways you can prepare:

  • Ask your local health department for a copy of the health inspection checklist that its inspectors use, so you know what they’ll be looking for (here’s the health inspection form they use in King County, Seattle as an example).
  • Watch for food safety issues in key areas like personal hygiene, cross-contamination and maintaining proper internal food temperatures.
  • Conduct random self-inspections (use our printable self-inspection for restaurant health inspections checklist to help), and quiz employees on their food safety knowledge as you inspect.
  • Schedule follow-up meetings to review self-inspection results internally, and develop a plan to correct violations. Consider offering incentives to employees who were best prepared.
  • Review your HACCP plan quarterly to make sure new menu items have been included.
  • Regularly update managers and employees on changes in regulations or food safety procedures you want to implement.

What Health Inspectors Look For

The most common health code violations in restaurants include:

  • Improper food holding temperatures, both hot and cold
  • Incorrect food storage and labeling practices such as uncovered containers or storing raw meat above produce
  • Poor kitchen sanitation
  • Poor personal hygiene practices such as improper hand-washing and not wearing gloves or hair nets
  • Cross-contamination hazards in prep areas.

What to Expect During the Health Inspection

An outbreak of foodborne illness can potentially shut down your restaurant and ruin your business. Health inspectors are there to help make sure you prepare, cook and serve food safely, not to hassle you or disrupt service to your customers. That said, follow some general guidelines during the inspection.

Do:

  • Ask to see the inspector’s identification if it’s not immediately offered.
  • Give the inspector your full cooperation.
  • Plan to accompany the inspector for the entire time he or she is on site. That way you can see and understand first-hand any health code violations that are uncovered, and you can ask questions about how to improve your food safety practices.
  • Sign the completed report, and make a copy for your files.
  • Correct all violations as soon as you’re able, fixing critical violations first.

Don’t:

  • Offer an inspector any food or beverages, but be cordial and pleasant.
  • Impede the inspector or refuse access to any part of your restaurant.

Remember, try to view inspections as opportunities to partner with a food safety expert on improving your business.

Download our printable self-inspection checklist to get started.