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Restaurant ownership comes with a big responsibility: making sure that the food you provide is always fresh and the environment is clean in order to protect the health and safety of the people you serve. Though health inspections and the requirements of state and local health codes might seem like a nuisance, they exist to protect restaurant owners and customers alike.

It’s important to understand your city and state’s public health code as soon as you begin planning your restaurant. Researching the health codes should be part of the real estate search and lease negotiations for your new restaurant — making sure that the restaurant space is in compliance with local health regulations can save expensive surprises later on.

New restaurant owners are required to obtain public health licenses before opening for business, and your restaurant may be subject to health inspections once it’s operational, so you will come to know your health codes one way or another. This overview of the main areas of interest in restaurant health regulations will help get you started.

Laws and requirements vary from state to state, so the first step a new or prospective restaurateur should take toward ensuring that the restaurant will be in compliance is to find out about local laws. To keep in touch with changing restaurant health regulation in your community, join your state restaurant association. Other resources include your state health department and the National Restaurant Association. Many states offer more details online on state food-safety rules.

You can get an overview of the areas of concern that fall under the purview of health regulators by reading the Model Food Code. The Model Food Code is a set of guidelines created by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) intended to guide the development of state and local regulations. This document, which is updated every four years, provides a list of best practices for keeping restaurants, grocery stores, and institutions free from food-borne illnesses. State associations attempt to shape reasonable, science-based sanitation rules for restaurants, incorporating the FDA Code’s best practices into state rules. Look over the document to get a sense of the scope of food-safety concerns that apply to your operation. The document includes over two hundred pages of recommendations on topics such as:

  • how often restaurants should be inspected
  • the amount of training needed by restaurant health inspectors
  • standards for refrigeration equipment and commercial dishwashers
  • cooking temperatures for meat, poultry, pork, eggs, and fish
  • hot-holding temperatures for cooked foods
  • the need for consumer advisories for raw or undercooked foods

You can see the entire document on the FDA Web site.

The Model Food Code is not a law, but rather a set of suggestions that can be adopted as regulation by state or local agencies. Some adopt the entire code by reference, some use portions, and others do not incorporate any of it at all. Many states revise their regulations and codes after the FDA publishes a new Model Food Code.

Health inspections are a crucial part of restaurant operations, and it will be worth your while to think of your health inspector as a colleague, rather than an adversary. Your health inspector is there to help you avoid risking the health of your customers, and the more you develop a mutually respectful relationship with the people who work for the health department, the stronger your operation will be.

The health inspection process should not begin when the inspector arrives with a checklist, but with preventive measures put in place from day one. Researching your local health codes and understanding the aspects of your operation that the inspector will examine can help you preempt difficulties with the inspection. Typically, health inspectors check the following aspects of your operation:

  • Your ingredients: Ingredients must be received from approved sources, in good condition, and stored at proper temperatures.
  • Refrigeration and storage: Refrigeration and storage areas must meet standards of cleanliness and organization.
  • Cold storage: Refrigerators and freezers must maintain set temperature ranges.
  • Temperature monitoring: Thermometers must be present in refrigerators and freezers.
  • Storage methods: Stored food must be covered and wrapped to certain set standards.
  • Labeling: Stored food must be properly labeled (including date and time of prep).
  • Thawing methods: Frozen foods must be thawed by a set process.
  • Produce prep: Produce must be washed before preparation.
  • Cleaning: Hands and equipment must be washed before and during food preparation. Sinks for handwashing must also be easily accessible and the temperature and concentration of dishwashers, sanitizing rinses, and other cleaning supplies must meet standards. Chemicals and cleansers must be safely stored and kept separate from food items.
  • Kitchen cloths: Wiping cloths must be washed to set standards.
  • Handling prepared food: Hand contact with ready-to-eat foods should be minimized.
  • Cooking and heating: Temperatures and heating methods of prepared and reheated foods must follow set guidelines.
  • Staff: The number and certification levels of employees must meet set standards. Employee health, hygiene, and dress code (hair nets, etc.) is also regulated. Employees must also follow regulations regarding eating, drinking, and smoking in the kitchen.
  • Kitchen equipment: Inspectors check the cleaning methods of cooking equipment, as well as the cleanliness of floors, walls, and ceilings.
  • Outside the kitchen: You will be evaluated on the condition of restrooms and the garbage and dumpster areas, as well as the absence of insect and rodent infestation.

Once you’re in business, it’s your duty to keep the operation in compliance with the regulations set by your local health department. Health inspectors have a way of arriving at inconvenient moments (the phone is ringing off the hook, the chef has just run out of a crucial ingredient, and you’re in the middle of the dinner rush). However, no matter when your inspector arrives, it’s important to give them the attention that shows you take the process seriously. Greet the inspector and accompany them on their rounds for as long as you can. Be available to answer questions and address concerns in a helpful, nondefensive manner.

With planning and a conscientious eye on your operating standards, you can stay on top of your health codes and handle inspections with aplomb.