Restaurant health scores: preparing for a successful inspection

When customers are choosing where to eat, restaurant health scores are one of the metrics they use to gauge quality and safety. A high score is a vote of confidence that can give your restaurant a competitive advantage. It also helps you avoid fines and maintain positive relationships with local health officials.

What are restaurant health scores?

A restaurant health score is the rating the state or county health department gives your restaurant after an inspection. It tells the public how well you’re complying with local and state food safety laws. In many areas including New York City, restaurants are required by law to post their scores in a high-visibility location.

Health departments set their own grading scales; most use numerical scores or letter grades. Scoring can vary, but it’s always based on the state and local food codes. Usually, A is the highest score and C or D is the lowest.

In most states, county health inspectors visit every food service operation a few times per year and after every customer complaint. Inspections are usually unannounced to preserve the element of surprise.

During an inspection, the official looks for specific violations of state and local laws. For many violations, you’ll be given a short period of time to fix the issue. After that, the inspector makes a follow-up visit to verify you’re meeting compliance requirements.

Health departments don’t always publish a specific acceptable violation limit. Instead, they consider the overall risk to public or environmental health. If an inspector finds a restaurant poses an immediate health hazard, they’ll typically shut it down right away. This might happen due to multiple severe violations or a single large issue, such as a sewage backup. Before it can reopen, the restaurant owner must prove that they’ve corrected all issues. Inspectors may also shut down restaurants after repeated health-code violations.

How to prepare for a health inspection

The best way to prepare for a health inspection is to run a clean, compliant operation — after all, restaurant inspections can happen at any time. Keep in mind that officials determine your inspection score based on the number of violations, including common issues such as:

  • Improper hand-washing
  • Lack of hair restraints
  • Inappropriate food storage temperature
  • Cross-contamination
  • Inadequate sanitation
  • Expired foods
  • Infestation of rodents or insects
  • Lack of pest control
  • Disrepair of restaurant facilities

If it’s been a while since your last inspection date, now is a great time to prepare your restaurant. To avoid violations, run regular self-inspections using this basic health inspection checklist:

  • Train staff members in food safety standards.
  • Make sure refrigerated foods are stored below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Ensure freezers are at least zero degrees Fahrenheit or lower.
  • Choose hot-food holding systems that are 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
  • Mark expiration dates and throw out expired foods immediately.
  • Keep equipment and facilities in good repair.
  • Establish food handling, cleaning and storage practices that prevent cross-contamination.
  • Use thermometers to ensure meat is cooked to a safe temperature.
  • Set up hand-washing stations and train staff in proper technique.
  • Publish and enforce personal hygiene guidelines.
  • Install leakproof garbage bins and remove trash frequently.
  • Clean all surfaces and equipment thoroughly and regularly.
  • Hire a pest-control service for regular visits.

Remember that the laws governing restaurant health scores can vary considerably from state to state. Make sure to check with your local health department for a location-specific checklist.

What’s so important about your restaurant health score?

Your restaurant’s health score is public information; its purpose is to help customers understand your establishment’s food safety standards at a glance. A high score reassures diners that your facilities are safe and clean. A low score is a red flag that erodes public confidence and reduces your revenue.

The health scoring system encourages restaurants to comply with food safety regulations. When more businesses practice safe food handling and storage, it improves public health, reduces the burden on environmental health services and benefits the entire community.

If your score is lower than you’d like, you can take action to boost it. Start with the violations in your last inspection report — identify the root of the problem and implement a permanent solution. Then, use your local health department’s guidelines to improve your kitchen, food service and front-of-house operations. Even small changes, such as standardized hand-washing rules, can help staff members stay compliant and ready for a surprise inspection.

A high restaurant health score is a sure fire way to maintain a positive reputation and stay compliant with local laws. By implementing standard operating procedures for a clean kitchen and safe food handling, you can welcome health inspectors with confidence.

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