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Guests expect that the food they eat when they come to your establishment will be, at the very least, safe to eat. Having a customer send back food because they didn't like it can cause an extra expense and add extra cooking time in an already busy kitchen. However, when a customer or a number of customers get sick due to food poisoning, it can be your eatery's worst nightmare. You may be tempted to take shortcuts, such as not hitting every step on your cleaning checklist or buying less than ideal food storage. However, this could result in your guests getting sick or large fines from the health department upon a surprise visit, which is why a plan of action is vital.

There are a few key ways that you can avoid a health code violation and fine, including:

  1. Ensuring your staff is educated on health codes to follow
  2. Understanding how to avoid violating common health codes
  3. Preparing for an unexpected visit from the health department

Keep Your Guests Safe & Health Inspectors Happy

Routine Maintenance

Avoiding health code violations can seem like a lot of work, especially when the list of cleaning and code requirements is so long. These requirements must not be taken lightly, as they exist to keep your restaurant operating safely and your guests safe while eating. The policies and guidelines set by the FDA have only gotten stricter since the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring health inspectors to increase their standards and even make changes to health codes.

Keeping yourself and your staff up-to-date with any changes that are made to FDA and state guidelines is imperative to avoiding these common mistakes. Because the departments that regulate health codes typically operate with some element of surprise, maintaining the highest level of cleanliness is key. If you and your staff is always prepared, you are less likely to be negatively surprised or fined.

Specific Health Code Violations & How They Occur

Routine Maintenance

Many eateries make the mistake of assuming that health code violations will not result in illness or they won't get caught. However, restaurants both small and large — take Chipotle as a prime example, have proven that these types of food health code violations can impact your establishment's reputation and your bottom line. You could even lose your business if the fines are large enough or you aren't able to take care of the violations quickly enough to reopen your doors.

Here's a few common violations:

  1. Improper food storage: One of the most frequent ways that people get sick is when food is not stored properly. This can mean you aren't using the right type of containers, not storing the food at the right temperature, or not labeling food properly. All food should be labeled right away to indicate what's inside the container, when it was put inside or when it expires, and stored separately to avoid cross-contamination. Cross-contamination is also responsible for a significant portion of foodborne illness.
  2. Cross-contamination: Although cross-contamination can occur at many different stages of food processing and preparation, the side effects can be severe. Food-to-food, equipment-to-food, and person-to-food are three of the most common ways that food can be contaminated during the process of preparing and serving food. Food that stays in the fridge for too long, when uncontaminated food mixes with contaminated food, and even using equipment that has unknowingly been contaminated with bacteria can all lead to cross-contamination. Food that has not been cooked or washed properly can contain significant amounts of bacteria, and not just eggs or meat—other foods such as milk, certain cheeses, and greens qualify, too.
  3. Poor hygiene or lack of PPE: If you went to a restaurant and saw someone preparing food without gloves, or even if you see them sneeze and go back to their work without washing their hands, it would be a cause for concern. Although it may seem like common sense, putting up signs like this regarding hygiene within the kitchen, sending employees home when they are ill, and ensuring your staff understands the importance of gloves and cleanliness is essential. Contamination from coughing, sneezing, and other types of human contact is responsible for a significant number of violations. While COVID-19 has increased the need for PPE such as face masks, items like aprons, face shields, and gloves also help to prevent contamination in your kitchen and prep areas.
  4. Poor sanitization of your kitchen: According to health code standards, your kitchen and the tools you use must be cleaned frequently. This includes everything from sanitizing tools, cutting boards, kitchen surfaces, and more. Ensure that you have plenty of chemicals and cleaning solutions stocked and that your staff knows which items should be used on what areas of your kitchen to avoid improper sanitization. We have a collection of maintenance supplies to get you started.
  5. Improper utensil and tool storage: When storing kitchen utensils and tools, there are just as many rules that apply as there are with food. Utensils and tools should be stored in a clean place to avoid cross-contamination. The chosen storage space should have proper air ventilation that won't hold moisture or stagnant water.
  6. Improper chemical storage and use: Many cleaning supplies stored in your kitchen or facility contain harsh chemicals. It's important to know that certain chemicals cannot be mixed and specific rules you must follow when sanitizing your facility. Each label should provide information regarding regulations such as temperature control, dilution rate, and hazards to be aware of. For example, cleaners containing vinegar or ammonia should never be stored or used with any cleaners containing bleach. Chemicals must be stored safely and away from food to avoid any type of cross-contamination.
  7. Incorrect temperature/time control: Nobody likes ordering a hot meal that comes out cold. While this can certainly be inconvenient, it should also spark concern that the meal might not be safe to eat. It's important to keep hot food at the proper temperature, which can be done with a variety of equipment like steam tables, chafing dishes, and warming trays. The same is true of cold food — ice and refrigeration must be used to keep food cold at all times. Your establishment should use temperature logs and thermometers and avoid reheating food numerous times.

Prepare for an Upcoming Health Inspection

Routine Maintenance

Keeping your guests safe by avoiding common health code violations like food contamination should be your top priority. A health inspection checklist should be present in every restaurant or food establishment. Being prepared for an unexpected health inspection or one that you believe may be upcoming is the best way to avoid violations. To ensure you're up to code, find the maintenance supplies you need for a spotless facility.

What to Do About Health Code Violations

Routine Maintenance

When violations do occur, it is important that you take thorough notes and ask for a detailed report so you can quickly remedy them and not add any extra confusion or steps. In some cases, you might be able to correct a violation during the inspection if you are present and able to do so. Being polite, non-argumentative, and asking for as much information as possible will help you take effective action after the inspection is over. Make a list of action items, such as buying new food storage or PPE, and create a plan of how you will get these code violations taken care of in a timely manner.

Depending on the type of code violations, you may be fined, asked to remedy them within a period of time—or if the violations are severe enough—temporarily shut down until you can create a safer environment for your guests. Keeping customers happy and coming into your establishment is a top priority, so correcting these violations and creating a plan to prevent them from occurring again is essential. The last thing you want is word getting out that you have received a low grade from the health department or that guests have gotten sick in your establishment.

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