Analyzing the Health Department Inspection

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The health department inspection is one of the ways to get an insight into the kitchens of the restaurants, hotels and grocery stores you visit.

Child eating ice cream

You’re having a mini family reunion, and you want to take the group to that trendy restaurant you’ve heard people talk about all year. Most of what you’ve heard about it has been good, although a couple of your friends had bad experiences. You want to make sure it’s a good restaurant before you take everybody – from your one-year-old nephew to your spouse’s great-grandmother – to eat there. What do you do?

Being a practical, intelligent person (who reads this website), you check out the restaurant’s health department inspections!Your local Health Department is run by your state, city or county. It’s responsible for checking the food safety of every retail food service location – restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, snack bars, gas stations, and any other place serving food to the general public. These inspections can be made from two to 12 times a year, although most average about two to three times a year.

An inspection report can be valuable to you by giving you an insider’s look into both the kitchen and the handling of the food you and your family will eat. But, of course, you need to know how to read it correctly.

Here are some general things to consider when looking at the Health Department report:

  • Look at the frequency of the visits. Does the Health Inspector visit this facility more than other facilities in the area? It might be a sign that the Department is concerned. There may be a number of reasons, good or bad. Perhaps this facility is serving a high-risk population (consumers who are more susceptible than average to getting sick from something they ate). Perhaps the location has a number of repeat violations – problems that have not been fixed after one visit (which is a warning right away). Perhaps there is no reason at all! But looking at the number of times that the location has been inspected may give you insight as to whether there may be a problem.
  • Health inspections are done by human beings. Each person sees things a little bit differently. While the basics of food safety should be consistent, at least within the state or city, different inspectors have expertise in different areas and tend to gravitate toward certain kinds of violations. One inspector may be more focused on proper hand washing and employee practices; another may look more for cleaning aspects and building issues. Unless every single location is visited by the same inspector (possible for smaller communities, rare for larger ones), there may be some things that an Inspector does not catch or focus on, and other that he or she does.
  • Health Departments can adjust the food regulations for their area. (In our “Who Makes The Regulations” page), we explain how any health department can change a rule. For instance, the Denver County Health Department, which services the City and County of Denver, Colorado, adds to the Colorado regulations when they see a need. So if you look at a health department report for Denver County and compare it to other areas, you’re going to think you see inconsistencies. They’re not inconsistent; they’re just different.
  • Health inspections happen at “one moment in time.” Everyone can have a bad day. (Unfortunately, in food service, a “bad day” can actually send a customer to the hospital!) The Health Inspector may visit on that bad day. So you may see a number of serious violations indicated in a particular report. To evaluate this, see if the Health Department did a revisit and found the problems corrected, or review some previous reports. If the other inspection reports indicate the same problems, there might indeed be a problem with the facility. On the other hand, if the other inspection reports look better, then it may have been a bad day.
  • To decide how to respond to food safety issues you witness, or to decide when to call the health department, please click here.

    To review “Who Makes The Regulations,” click here.

    To discover what to look out for when visiting restaurants, click here.

    To check out's home page, click here.

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